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Commercial 3D printers will one day undersell the Makerbot. But does it matter?

3D Printing & Imaging
Commercial 3D printers will one day undersell the Makerbot. But does it matter?

The MakerBot CupCake is a thing of beauty, an open-source 3D printer whose $750 price undersells the commercial alternatives by a ton. Plus, you get a fanatical group of users who’ll help you debug any problem. Yes, the Dimension uPrint can make tighter models and outputs them quicker, but $20,000 excludes most amateurs. Then there’s the new UP! PP3DP, which costs a mere $1,500 and features a quality that seems on par with the MakerBot — still not a threat. But if 3D printers go mainstream and the price drops to an inkjet price point (say, $99) how can MakerBot compete? Anything made out of electronics can be made more efficiently and cheaply in a sweatshop than a Brooklyn warehouse. At some point, a commercial 3D printer will undersell the MakerBot. What then?

In my previous post about the UP!, MakerBot user Dominic Muren weighed in with this excellent comment:

As one of the big boosters of Makerbot (Full disclosure: I’m the skull guy, and a friend of Bre’s), I’m not conflicted at all about this printer: I think it’s a Hummer H2. Let me ‘splain.

The truck world is divided into two types of truck. The Ford F150 (or similar model), a consumer-sized truck that does a great job of hauling small-job type stuff. They are affordable, serviceable, and relatively unpretentious. But, they have glitches every once in a while, and so a disributed service network (mostly user-performed) takes care of them. They have massive community support for “how to fix it”.

Then, there is the truck that absolutely must perform, for example, during war. This is a Hum-vee. It is ridiculously over-engineered, can drive 800 miles per hour, and you can bolt a howitzer to the roof. It can only be serviced by qualified personnel, and costs a gazillion dollars.

Some time in the early 1990s, some smart marketer thought that there ought the be a third type of truck, with all the bluster of the Hum-vee, but with the mass market appeal if the Ford. This is the Hummer H2. It looks really rad, and actually is bigger, flashier, and cooler in some respects, than the Ford. But it really doesn’t carry that much more, handle that much better, or drive that much more safely. When it breaks, it’s not designed to be servicable by it’s users, which sucks, because while it may not cost a gazillion dollars, it might cost half a bazillion, which is still pretty bad.

Worst of all, in order to get a truck that is only maybe slightly better in some respects, you pay twice as much money for it (which is literally what you’re doing here).

My advice, with the printer, as with the truck: If you can afford a Hum-vee (or in the printer case, a Stratasys, or printing through Shapeways, which uses higher end printers) absolutely do it. You’ll get much better performance, and the howitzer thing is kind of cool (the Stratasys’s howitzer add-on takes the form of a support material which is dissolved in a HOT LYE BATH!!!)

However, if you don’t have the cash, or you want to own a printer on the cheap, I think you get a much better deal when you buy into a product backed up by a community. I’ve used lots of finicky CNC machines over the years, from mills, to laser cutters, to regular inkjet printers. I’ve never had any product with such a supportive, motivated, and excited crew of support staff on call all the time, as the makerbot user group. On top of that, I’ve absolutely never bought a product that actually published upgrades for itself. I don’t see that happening with the UP – especially since the manufacturer has been so adamant about it’s non-open-source lineage.

Long story short, the coolest thing about Open Hardware isn’t that it’s cheap. It’s the fact that opening the source causes a community to form around it. And that community gives resilience, adaptability, and value to a design that isn’t possible (or is really freaking hard and expensive) for companies with a finite number of employees to provide.

For me, I’ll stick with my makerbot, glitchy prints and all :)

What do you think, readers? Do you agree that commercial options will soon surpass the MakerBot in price — and does it matter? Will we see a second revolution in 3D printing where users channel their memories of “Little Brother” and “Makers” and hack these $99 printers for their own end? And will there be a place for an open source company run by hackers and nerds? Leave a comment.

24 thoughts on “Commercial 3D printers will one day undersell the Makerbot. But does it matter?

  1. JohnW says:

    The “$99 Inkjet Printer” is only possible because the ink cartridges are designed to not be refillable and have a HUGE mark-up. For example a set of HP type 02 inks will set you back about $70 ($20 for black and $10 for each of the 5 colors). I expect a $99 3D printer would only be possible if the plastic feed stock was sold in a cartridge that could not be refilled and cost SUBSTANTIALLY more than the raw feedstock. Makers would then be needed to find ways to re-fill the cartridges.

    1. says:

      The high end printers like the dimension and such use such a proprietary material cartridge and still cost $20K.
      Also, I can’t imagine spending any amount of money that prints well, cheaply, and is easy to set up. Good thing Makerbot is coming out with a printer.

  2. Sam Ley says:

    I think $99 3D printers that are comparable quality to a MakerBot would be a great thing for the maker community. No one expects to design a piece of hardware, and then have that hardware sit there, unchanged, for 10 years – they expect it to evolve.

    MakerBots are on the cutting edge now (for the hobbyist market), but by the time the mainstream catches up to the cutting edge, the cutting edge will have moved on as well. Maybe in 5-10 years we’ll be buying $99 3D deposition printers, but the kind of people who develop the MakerBot today will be designing $750 laser sintering printers making ceramics and printing powdered titanium.

    Someone has to drive the market forward, but you can never surf the same wave twice. There will always be a place for commercial equipment (both “consumer” and “pro”), and there will always be a place for open hardware, constantly forcing the other two markets to stay honest. ;)

    1. Simon says:

      I agreee with Sam’s comments and to tell the truth I was surprised by the question in the first place. It gives the impression that the Makerbot isn’t moving forwards and so it will be superceeded which I am sure isn’t the case! I say don’t worry about ‘what if’s’ and just keep pushing ahead with making it better. Hopefully there will always be people doing that.

      I think it would be a more valid concern if this was for a fully commercial product.

  3. Colecoman1982 says:

    No offense (I’m, actually, a fan of the Makebot and don’t, really, have an opinion on the UP!) but your comparison of the Cupcake to the UP! isn’t really fair. The UP! is a fully constructed 3d printer ready to print out of the box while the Cupcake is a DIY kit. You didn’t even compare it to the version of the Cupcake closest to being pre-built (the $950 Deluxe model). When you factor in the labor for construction, a strong argument can be made that the UP! is already close to parity with the Cupcake, price-wise.

    1. linkreincarnate says:

      I have one of these printers and wrote the first review of them. I have to agree with the people who say that isn’t a fair comparison. The makerbot while really cool, never appealed to me because I just want to print. Not constantly fiddle with the machine. Also the prints are VASTLY superior to the makerbot. In an apples to apples comparisons (I printed the rocket model on the makerbot first and then on the up using the same settings for both) the up printer has the advantage. When you factor in the fact that I had to use the thickest layer setting just to match the makerbot you begin to see a clearer picture of the true divide between these printers. (In the case of the rocket I could have printed it with a layer thickness half that of the makerbot) The up can print better than a makerbot and I believe part of the reason is because the user doesn’t have to build it. To use the truck metaphor in a more objective manner would be to compare a dirt cheap kit car to an average mass manufactured car. Sure the kit car may be more customizable and even have more people who know how to work on it, but in the end the purpose of a car is to drive it. A person who builds nothing but 3d printers all day will always be better at it than a person doing it for the first time. Open source is fine and dandy but don’t let it cause you to lose objectivity. Everyone benefits from having more users in this space. Even if they don’t know how to trick out their printer they will eventually start to create things from scratch. The real goal of the makerbot is wealth without money. Open source is simply a means to an end and does not have a monopoly on community.

      1. linkreincarnate says:

        Also the 950$ kit is the only fair choice as the up! has a heated build platform and power supply included.

      2. linkreincarnate says:

        Also the snarky sweatshop comment was a cheap (and slightly racist) shot…

      3. Luke says:

        I agree overall. I plan on building a RepRap (RepStrap for now) just so I can learn about electronics. But if I did really get into 3d printing I think the UP! would be the next upgrade.

        I do not want to get flamed or tick anyone off. But I do see a lot of people who hold these devices as ideals. One is for freedom and open source and about sticking it to the man in a way (I saw that on the CupCake CNC clip). The other is seen as a way to keep people down and make them buy things and not learn things.

        My take on technology has always been what I can learn. And the Open Source give you that. But so does closed. The things I could make using this tech is what gets me all pumped up and excited.

      4. Lenbok says:

        Can you post side by side photos of your Up! vs makerbot rocket ship prints, along with what settings you used on the makerbot?

  4. Alan Blue says:

    The heated bed and the power supply aren’t game-changing advances.

    The key element is the software. We don’t hear of “open source -2D- printers” because the software edged over into mind-bendingly complex while the “makers” were focused on the actual computer’s hardware and software as interesting realms for hacking.

    3-D printing is already in a much better position than 2D printing has been since we left the dot-matrix printer behind. The crucial difference is that one can have someone who is fundamentally a “software guy” manage to wedge together the current hardware. While the “hardware guy” can mostly ignore designing new software while improving the mechanics.

  5. Dustbuster7000 says:

    I agree with some of the points made. I better comparison would be a kit car to a production car, since for both kit car and MakerBot you’ve got to put your own labour in, use commercial parts to complete the job and have online resources to help you build (or modify) your device.

    I’m not sure that the ultimate volume of users is equivalent to ink jet printers either, since the number of potential home users of a desktop replicator is somewhat smaller than that for a printers, but certainly the price will keep falling.

    The other thing is endurance. The MakerBot folks are enthused now, their toy is new and their user base is keen. But as with other hobbys (and devices) of similar ilk, an enduring success will depend on continued contributions of energy and time from both. I certainly don’t think the MakerBot is currently ‘better’ than the UP printer, based on output quality and consistency, but it has the potential to exceed the UP (and other devices that will no doubt follow) over time, provided that the designers and user base are willing to continue to put in the effort (and dollars) to make it so.

    MakerBot users are like Unix users, they are willing to tinker to get what they want out of their tools. But just like Linux has developed into something that normal PC users can operate, eventually the MakerBot could be likewise. But think about how long and how much effort was needed to get from the original Linux to Ubuntu

  6. rocketship says:

    This is actually a conversation that has been bouncing around the FOSS software movement for a while – does “open source” mean that it’s not made by a big corporation (with sweatshops!) using large-scale industrial techniques?

    Absolutely not! I think you are conflating the production model of the MakerBot and open-source hardware. You could produce a $99 3D printer and keep it open-source: encourage a development community, encourage hacking, encourage reconfiguration. The cheaper the better! Just like a lot of open-source software is written by giants like IBM,(and Microsoft, even), you could produce the MakerBot kits in China for a fraction of what they cost to produce now.

    The difference, I think, is a business model that trusts the end-user rather than one that sees you only as a consumer.

    1. Simon says:

      “The difference, I think, is a business model that trusts the end-user rather than one that sees you only as a consumer.”

      Consumer – luxury! These days we’re lucky if the business doesn’t think of the end user as a criminal (cough-Sony-cough) :)

  7. Superpants says:

    It seems there is some interesting debate going on here. I work for a small company designing and manufacturing electronic and electrical components for vehicles. We regularly put parts out for rapid prototyping (usually SLS) to confirm designs before we commit to tooling, however as the cost of these SLS parts is not insignificant we tend to only use them when we are very sure that we have a finished design. What would be great to be able to do is to cheaply manufacture parts during our design process to explore ideas, and for this we would like to have the ability to do this in house, but cannot justify the investment required for a full professional machine for the amount of use it would get.

    We therefore got fairly excited about the UP! When we found it here yesterday as it fulfils most of our needs very effectively- a desktop unit that doesn’t require assembly (if you look at the cost to assemble the makerbot at professional rates the UP! Starts looking very attractive), the resolution and output quality seems better than the current makerbot offering, and certainly isn’t something you’d be embarrassed to show a customer, and the running cost is attractive. My boss was almost ready to place an order!

    This unit certainly fulfils a niche for the professional user. Whilst it may not compete on price, it is at a level that a business can afford to invest in (particularly as it is at a level that is less than the cost of 10 models put out to an rapid prototyping house), works out of the box and is cheap to run. I think this will go a long way to getting the market widened.

  8. pakkerman says:

    Do you build the 3D printer to marvel in it’s ability to make things or are you marveling in the idea that you can make things with a 3D printer?

    An analogy: I work on cars. I love a car that runs smoothly and reliably. I do this for people that also love those cars. They love that car because it gets them to their job, the store or across the country. They need that car to do the things they love.

    I like that the open source comm. can design and build a good 3D printer. I love the idea that I am only bound by my imagination (and physics) in the things I can make with it.

    Reference “Makers” by Cory Doctrow. The business plan was innovation. Once the commercial operations start to make it cheaper and faster, move on to the next level of innovation.

    Make something – innovate.

    Open source and open hardware is obviously not about having an idea and holding onto it. When somebody copies your idea, tell them “Thanks for the compliment… and now for my next trick…”

  9. Joel says:

    Again, there have been literally dozens of such products.

    Real entrepreneurs don’t compete – they innovate.

    For under $1500 I would simply buy a real CNC Sherline platform, and stick a $20 extruder tool on it.

  10. Dan says:

    I would like to point out one of the triumphs of the open source concept, and that is how it fostered innovation. In the case of the makerbot, what we have now is a nice, easily provable history of “prior art” which ought to be able to head off any attempt to patent this technology.

    Price has nothing to do with it, in my opinion. And what’s all the talk about sweat shops knocking these out cheaply? The device is supposed to be able to reproduce itself, this capability only needs to advance a little further and then we should have a “tree” whose fruit is a CNC bot which can then grow more such trees. We only feed it the raw materials.

    1. Stephen says:

      I think you’ll find that people like Statasys already hold any useable pattents in this area! They been at this for over 20 years.

      1. Dan says:

        Nice. If their patents they hold are pushing the 20 year mark then they’ll expire soon. Patents aren’t forever. When they expire, then they too become prior art. BTW the expired patent archives are lots of fun to browse for ideas.

  11. ccyclone says:

    Its $2999. Kinda not in the ballpark anymore.

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