MakerBot Returns with Professional Method 3D Printer
Michael Molitch-Hou posted on December 11, 2018 |
The Method 3D printer has all of the specs of an industrial 3D-printing system without the same cost...

After introducing the original desktop 3D printer to the market in 2009, MakerBot has been on quite a rollercoaster ride including a rocket to global prominence, the launch of a 3D-printable community, an acquisition, the closing of its retail locations, moving from an open- to a closed-source design philosophy, completely redesigning its printers, a lawsuit (against parent company Stratasys), layoffs, the boom and bust of the consumer 3D-printing hype cycle, and cycling through many presidents and CEOs. Nine years later, the company is in the process of another make(r) over.

The new MakerBot Method 3D printer, alongside the MakerBot Mobile app. (Image courtesy of MakerBot.)
The new MakerBot Method 3D printer, alongside the MakerBot Mobile app. (Image courtesy of MakerBot.)

Under the leadership of its latest CEO, former MakerBot President Nadav Goshen who took over in 2017, the company is announcing its newest 3D printer, dubbed Method. Will the latest system re-establish the Stratasys subsidiary in the desktop 3D-printing market? We spoke to Goshen, as well as Vice President of Engineering Dave Veisz, to learn more.

From the Replicator to Method

The original MakerBot Replicator, released in 2012, was an open-source, plywood box that users could upgrade and modify to their hearts’ content. By the time Stratasys acquired the startup, the Replicator 2 and 2X had already become a powder-coated steel box and lost its open-source credentials.

Soon, the printer transformed even more toward the industrial look and feel of its parent company with the 5th Generation MakerBot Replicator. After initial issues with a problematic extruder system, the company resolved all of the system’s issues, including the extruder, with the Replicator+, a cloud-run 3D printer capable of printing polylactic acid (PLA) materials.

Since then, MakerBot has continued to increase its market share by 30 percent, according to the company. Goshen pointed out that roughly 7,000 schools and thousands of teachers now use MakerBot 3D printers for educational purposes. While 3D printing with various PLA formulations may be suitable for the classroom, Goshen believed that MakerBot needed to focus not just on education but also on the professional space.

The features of Method. (Image courtesy of MakerBot.)
The features of Method. (Image courtesy of MakerBot.)

Method is described by the company as “bridg[ing] the gap between desktop and industrial 3D printing” via capabilities only available on industrial machines and at a lower cost. In other words, Method is a system that acts like a Stratasys industrial 3D printer but has the accessibility and a price-point more closely associated with the desktop market: $6,499.

So, what are these features? If you’ve been following the industry for a while, you may have already guessed some, like the heated chamber, dual extruders and water-soluble supports made from polyvinyl alcohol (PVA). Method also features dry-sealed material bays and an ultra-rigid metal frame, as well as built-in sensors and some automation.

Whereas other systems on the market, and even the legacy MakerBot systems, used open-source 3D printers as a starting point and became more industrial, Method seems to use industrial technology as the starting point and reshaped it to be more accessible and affordable.

The Method Behind Method: A Ton of Specs

“When we looked at the professional segment, we saw a very wide gap between industrial and current desktop systems,” Goshen said. “The desktop systems were and still are a result of incremental improvements from the RepRap movement that was launched almost 10 years ago. The movement, and ourselves as one of the leaders of that movement, were able to make something that was very inaccessible accessible and affordable. When we looked at the professional segment, such as industrial designers and engineers, we discovered that what they require is a professional and industrial tool.”

The company describes Method as a system that can be used straight out of the box but with high levels of repeatability and consistency, including parts with ± 0.2 mm dimensional accuracy and “vertical layer uniformity and cylindricity.” MakerBot also claims that Method can print up to twice as fast as other desktop 3D printers, based on internal testing using matching layer heights and infill settings. And, all of this is possible “at one-third of the first-year cost of ownership of an entry-level industrial 3D printer.”

How does Method achieve this? In part by leaning on the patents of its industrial parent company. Get ready for a ton of specs.

According to Dave Veisz, the MakerBot team often had to use 3D-printing service bureaus to produce parts for design work, despite having numerous desktop 3D printers in the office. Veisz explained that key to achieving the dimensional accuracy and consistency necessary for professional applications was controlling the variables that affect print outcome, namely the structural stability and overall environment of the system.

To ensure a rigid machine not easily affected by the vibrations caused by whirling around a dual extruder at high speeds, MakerBot moved away from the traditional approach. Typically, one will find that current desktop systems and older MakerBot models are built from a series of sheet metal panels attached together with nuts and bolts. To attain more rigidity, Method’s body is made up of just a few parts, including a die-cast base. This is meant to offset any flexing that occurs during the printing process. It is designed to improve part accuracy and fewer print failures.

The circulating heated build chamber. (Image courtesy of MakerBot.)
The circulating heated build chamber. (Image courtesy of MakerBot.)

Additionally, the MakerBot team set to work controlling the printing environment, from the filament itself to the extruder to the build area. To create a circulating heated chamber, MakerBot developed a system that uses two heat exchangers with active blowers that circulate hot air throughout the system during a build. This results in consistent dimensional accuracy and part strength. While other desktop systems are starting to lean toward enclosures of one type or another, we have yet to see a heated enclosure on desktop machines.

Many machines, including previous MakerBot systems, attempt to improve the ability of the first layers of a print to adhere to the print bed by heating the bed. Veisz pointed out that while that does improve first layer adhesion, it does not help over the long term of a print job.

“We’re able to control the temperature at the build plane within a couple degrees Celsius,” he said. “Regardless of where your [build plate is], whether you’re doing the first or last layer of the model, it’s subject to the same environment. We can set the temperature to let the thermal plastic relax and not warp as it cools.”

New extruders feature longer heating channels and greater torque. (Image courtesy of MakerBot.)
New extruders feature longer heating channels and greater torque. (Image courtesy of MakerBot.)

The dual extruders rely on a dual-drive gear system with a 19:1 gear ratio meant to firmly hold the material as it pushes it with a force three times greater than typical desktop 3D printers, according to MakerBot. The thermal core of the extruders is also 50 percent longer than a traditional hot end, which the company suggests improves the efficiency of the material feeding and melting process.

“The very long liquefier region melts plastic about four times faster than any extruder we’ve built before,” Veisz explained. “We have a gear box in the extruder that lets us use a lighter weight motor but with four times the torque. We’re currently extruding approximately twice as fast as other desktop printers, but we have a long runway ahead of us to ratchet that speed up.”

MakerBot has offered some form of dual extrusion since 2011 but has always labeled it as experimental, given the tinkering required to ensure proper printing. For many dual-extrusion systems, and even some single-extrusion printers, users may have to calibrate the extruders using index cards or offsetting the code to compensate for printing issues. With Method, the user does not need to tinker with the system to print appropriately.

“We have automated XYZ calibration that lines up the two nozzles so your extruders are working in tandem,” Veisz said. “Each extruder acts like an accurate probe. We do edge detection through our software script, which you only have to run when you’re setting up the machine the first time or if you remove and re-insert an extruder back into its nest.”

Material is also printed onto a polycarbonate-coated spring steel build plate that magnetically attaches to an aluminum base. Once a print is completed, the plate can be removed and flexed to easily release the parts.

The build volume of the system is 7.5 x 7.5 x 7.75in with single extrusion and 6.0 x 7.5 x 7.75in with dual extrusion.

Previous MakerBot owners have likely long been awaiting soluble supports, given the fact that Stratasys has patents related to the concept. Now, Method users can print complex geometries with water-soluble PVA. Once rinsed away, the PVA used to support overhangs and other difficult-to-print features goes down the drain, leaving only uniquely structured parts, including moving assemblies.

Dry-sealed material storage bays ensure material quality and consistency. (Image courtesy of MakerBot.)
Dry-sealed material storage bays ensure material quality and consistency. (Image courtesy of MakerBot.)

The dry-sealed material bays incorporate sensors for humidity to alert users to a change in the ambient environment, particularly necessary for PVA, which can absorb moisture and ruin prints and cause other issues. This feature was previously only available on industrial systems and is one that we have yet to see in any other desktop machine.

“It’s important for the model material to stay dry, but it’s especially important for the PVA. PVA support is very friendly for the user in terms of support material because it will dissolve in tap water, but that same attribute makes it really challenging to deal with all the way up to the point of extrusion,” Veisz explained. “[PVA] acts very differently depending on the environment it’s exposed to. You might get good performance right when you take it out the bag, but once it’s exposed to [the ambient environment] for a couple days, it has a totally different printing performance because of that moisture content. Literally, the water molecules explode as it going through the extruder.”

MakerBot Tough (a special PLA formulation), PLA and PVA are described as precision Materials in that they are said to be tested to a high extent for reliability and the ability to create accurate parts. However, Method goes beyond cornstarch-based PLA to use specialty materials. This includes polyethylene terephthalate, or PETG, an engineering-grade polyester material. Other materials will be released in the future.

Veisz said that extrusion temperatures are currently set to reaching 250°C for the materials being used, but that the extruders are capable of reaching much higher temperatures. Whether or not they can meet the 400°C necessary for much greater range of engineering-grade materials, such as ULTEM, is, therefore, unclear, but it would be interesting to see such capabilities introduced.

Other features include material spools with built-in RFID chips that communicate material type, color and amount of filament remaining; a 5in capacitive touchscreen; and cloud-based MakerBot Print Software that works with 25 CAD programs and includes onboard camera monitoring for the MakerBot Mobile app.

Altogether, you have a printer that seems quite capable for industrial designers and engineers to perform prototyping and early design work. This includes testing designs that will ultimately be produced in larger runs using industrial additive manufacturing technology.

Back in the Game?

After the slew of issues discussed at the top of this article, it’s no secret that the Stratasys brand lost much of the trust in the marketplace. Will Method bring trust back to MakerBot?

In terms of printer specifications, Method is very promising. It is clear that the company has gone in a completely different direction with Method than with the Replicator, abandoning PLA-only materials and the so-called Smart Extruder. This is a system with all of the industrial features one might associate with an industrial machine, including a heated build chamber from the inventor of heated build chambers.

This is just one of the many features that seem to suggest industrial quality printing: all features that seem to serve a purpose with very little of the marketing fluff one might expect from a company re-envisioning itself.

We also know that former MakerBot CEO Jonathan Jaglom was associated with some of the issues discussed at the top. It was after Jaglom took over the company that employees were laid off en masse. And, it was while founder Bre Pettis was still with the company that the Smart Extruder was rushed to market, possibly with known issues—one of the bases for the Stratasys lawsuit.

However, the company is now under different leadership. Specifically, Goshen has dealt with turning companies around for the majority of his managerial career.

“A turnaround is complex because it’s like you need to fly an airplane while building it at the same time,” Goshen said. “You need to keep on moving, but simultaneously you need to make sure you’re fixing the problem so that you can continue and fly.”

When Goshen took over, he decided to shift away from a marketing-focused strategy toward a product-focused one. While other companies were still focused on the consumer market, which often involved bringing the price down as low as possible, Goshen centered on developing products suitable to serving the educational and professional markets.

“At that time, we opted to not participate in the race to the bottom in 2016. It was a very controversial decision,” Goshen said. “We could have lowered the price and compromised on reliability and performance, but, again, we would be more of a market company than a product company. I think MakerBot is a product company.”

To rebuild the plane as he was flying it, Goshen said he changed the way the company operates, including its structure. The technical and product teams were raised in terms of importance, and manufacturing was moved from in-house to a contract manufacturer.

Goshen still sees MakerBot’s roots in the current manifestation of the company, with Method acting as a steppingstone in the democratization of 3D printing. Whereas many desktop printers don’t quite offer the capabilities necessary for the maker revolution envisioned 10years ago, Method brings many of those features at a price that is more accessible than industrial systems. Goshen likened it to the process of democratizing personal computers.

“To move from a mainframe to a mobile phone, you have to [take a few steps]. I think Method is one of these [steps],” Goshen said. “I think that will grow 3D printing in general for everybody. We are very proud to be part of this next step for 3D printing.”

Method is available for pre-order now with shipping expected to begin in the first quarter of 2019.

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