Ultimaker: There’s a New 3D Printer in Town

3D Printing & Imaging
Ultimaker: There’s a New 3D Printer in Town

The new Ultimaker 3D printer made in the Netherlands has arrived in the US. The machine, which prints bigger and faster than MakerBot printers, was created by three Dutch makers who met at the Fab Lab in Utrecht, Holland two years ago. The Lab is one of dozens of digital fabrication centers around the world affiliated with MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms. Fab Lab/Utrecht’s manager, Siert Wijnia, collaborated with web designer Martijn Elserman and grad student Erik De Bruijn on the speedy new machine.

“We wanted to have a better 3D printer, not necessarily to start a business,” says De Bruijn, who had built several open source RepRap 3D printers before tackling the project. “If Fab Lab wasn’t there, this whole thing wouldn’t have happened,” insists Elserman.

Ultimaker creators, Erik De Bruijn (left) and Martijn Elserman (right), with product ready to ship.

A prototype of the Ultimaker was demonstrated last December at Botacon in Brooklyn, which is described as a get-together of “robots and the people who are creative near them.” The reaction, according to Elserman, was, “Wow, this is a whole new step forward [in affordable 3D printing]. I was sure that we could start a working business.”

And they did. The three partners all live in different cities in the Netherlands (De Bruijn is in Tilburg, Elserman in Geldermalsen, and Wijnia in Haarlem). Ultimaker started shipping its open source 3D printer in April. The machine costs about US$1700, and with next day shipping, the price approaches $1900. According to De Bruijn and Elserman, more than 120 printers have been sold and close to 70 have been shipped so far. It takes between four and six weeks between order and delivery. Half of the new printers have been sold in the Netherlands, thanks to exposure on a national TV program. Customers include a disabled Dutch woman whose Ultimaker has printed gripper hands for robotic arms that she uses to grasp small candies, something her previous gripper could not do.

Like MakerBot, Ultimaker can print with either ABS or PLA plastic, though the company says printing with the plant-based PLA makes for a faster and more stable build. The Ultimaker is getting high grades for its design. Unlike the MakerBot, which has a moving build platform, the Ultimaker has a print head that moves. It is compact and weighs considerably less than MakerBot’s print head, and the Ultimaker’s motors are mounted on the printer’s frame, not on a moving part like MakerBot. This allows for bigger objects to be made (8.25″ cube for Ultimaker vs. 5″ cube for MakerBot) at higher speeds.

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Ultimaker boasts that its low speeds are easily twice as fast as RepRap’s and MakerBot’s. In a blog post in late January titled “Insane Speeds With PLA on Ultimaker” the company boasted its machine “reached printing speeds of 350 mm/s during travel and 300mm/s during extrusion.”

Father and son, Aljosa and Bozidar Kemperle, with their Ultimaker and MakerBot printers (with a RepRap Prusa Mendel on the way).

But Aljosa Kemperle, who has been using both Makerbot and Ultimaker 3D printers and is getting ready to put together a RepRap printer known as the Prusa Mendel, scoffs at the notion that Ultimaker blows MakerBot out of the water. 

”I like them both equally,” Kemperle says. “Both are finicky machines.”

 “You can see the Dutch [touch in the design],” says his father, Bozidar Kemperle, a sculptor and installation artist who lives in the Boerum Hill section of Brooklyn, a block away from Makerbot headquarters.
“These guys [at Ultimaker] come from a completely different garden.”

 The elder Kemperle relies on his 25 year-old son, a 3D animator, to keep the MakerBot and Ultimaker printers up and running in his cave-like studio, which is housed in an old glass-blowing shop in the Greenpoint section of Brooklyn, on the East River.

Bre Pettis, co-founder of MakerBot Industries and one of the founders of the Brooklyn hackerspace NYC Resistor, concedes that Ultimaker is damn fast.

”They can move their machine around at a pretty amazing speed,” he told MAKE. “There are some things they did that are pretty clever.”

Pettis says he’s not worried about Ultimaker cutting into Makerbot’s market share. “This is what happens when you do something that’s successful. Other people figure it out, too, and start businesses. More 3D printers are good.”

There are currently 5,000 MakerBots out in the world and a staff of 33 at the company’s “Bot Cave” is busy cranking out more. (The company’s landlord put a clause in the lease requiring that all robots made in the space follow sci-fi writer Isaac Asimov’s three laws of robotics, which include a mandate that robots refrain from injuring humans.) Makerbot’s Thing-o-matic 3D printer costs $1299 as a kit and is selling like hotcakes, according to Pettis. The company recently started selling an assembled version for $2500. MakerBot, which started an artist-in-residence program in January, is currently looking to hire more people, including a publicist. Pettis denied a rumor that one of the giant printer manufacturers made overtures to acquire the company.

One indication of the hunger for affordable 3D printers is that 100 units of a RepRap machine dubbed Huxley were offered recently for around $500 on the web site IndieGoGo by a new UK-based company called eMAKER. But orders came in for a total of 305 Huxleys and eMAKER’s founder, 33 year old Jean-Marc Giacalone, says he’s hoping to have more on sale for $550 in October or November. The production of Huxley is being farmed out to individuals and companies around the world, Giacalone says. Not bad for an enterprise started in a garden shed in Milton Keynes, UK by a stay-at-home dad. EMAKER is now based in Bristol, England. “I see a great future for these machines,” Giacalone declared during an interview over Skype.

The optimism is shared by Pettis and the Ultimaker team. Because Makerbot and Ultimaker are both open source endeavors, the two companies are free to borrow each other’s technology. Ultimaker, in fact, is using MakerBot’s Replicator G software, though Ultimaker owners are free to purchase NetFabb Engine Basic for Ultimaker, proprietary software that costs an additional $250.

Aljosa Kemperle thinks the Ultimaker software needs some more work. “I would say they didn’t put enough development into that. I think they slapped it together and shipped it because they wanted to get it out of the door, which is understandable.”

But he praises the Ultimaker’s mechanical design. He likes that the electronics bay is hidden on the bottom of the printer and got a kick out of the use of kite fabric to cover switcher cables and stepper motor cables that run down the inside corners of the Ultimaker’s wood frame. “You can see these guys thought about all the little things,” Kemperle says.

Dave Durant, a software engineer at Stratus Technologies in Boston, can testify that even a well-designed 3D printer like Ultimaker can be grief at times. Unable to get his to print, he tweaked, pulled apart, and scrutinized various parts before putting out a call for help in the Ultimaker Google group. Martijn Elserman suggested he put some grease on a threaded rod. Voila, problem solved.

Ultimaker says that eventually it will offer another model with a taller build capability.

Bio: Jon Kalish is a contributor to MAKE magazine and a special contributor to Makezine.com. He also covers the DIY beat for National Public Radio.

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Jon Kalish is a Manhattan-based radio reporter, podcast producer and newspaper writer. He's reported for NPR for more than 30 years.

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