The crop of 3d printers at CES was a lot smaller and less diverse than at Maker Faire. Unsurprisingly, most of these printers were targeting a consumer market more than the maker/hacker market that printers under the $10,000+ B2B price range have traditionally been designed for. The most obvious implication of this, and the one you probably already know all about, is pretty plastic cases around everything. I decided to look a little deeper, and found some more interesting trends.

The first and most disappointing trend was a move away from openness and inter-operability. I think the Deezmaker machines that I was there to show (thanks to a generous invitation from that to use them to demonstrate in their booth) were the only open-hardware printers I saw. There was “proprietary-this” and “patented-that” all over the place. I’ve decided to make “Every new patent issued extends the dark ages by 20 years” my own personal catchphrase.

Proprietary filament cartridges were all the rage this year (and particularly enraging to me). These cartridges not only limit the number of materials that a machine can print (typically two or three out of the list of about 2 dozen I recently compiled for the UFID project), but ensure that you have to pay a premium to buy print materials from the printer manufacturer rather than a fair market price. The primary purpose of these cartridges, like the ink cartridges used in inkjet printers, is to make it possible for the manufacturers to employ the razor blade model ("Give 'em the razor; sell 'em the blades”) to entice customers with a low up-front cost (sometimes sold at a loss) and then extract more profit from them over time with overpriced consumables. These cartridges do improve reliability a bit by protecting the filament from moisture and dust (if fully enclosed) and allow the manufacturer to control them for consistent diameter, tolerance, printing temperatures and colors from one batch to another, but the mark-up for these benefits is sometimes as much as 1,000%. Working for Deezmaker, I’ve come to understand that preventing users from using low-quality filament that will jam their machines can be as much of a benefit to the people who have to do customer support as it is to the customers.

3D Systems’ Cube and CubePro were sporting two different proprietary cartridges (the new Cube’s cartridge system is not compatible with their previous model’s). The new Makerbots don’t use enclosed cartridges, but they do appear to be chipped (computer chips are used to ensure that you are not using filament from a competitor or a third party) and have non-standard dimensions that will ensure that it is as difficult as possible to use third-party spools. Note, after writing this I received a message from one of the few people I know who still works for Makerbot, confirming that they are not chipped. Currently the feed tube can be removed to feed filament from a spool that doesn't fit inside the machine, but my contact was not sure that this would be remain true when the printers go into production. I didn’t get any pricing info on their new proprietary spools, but the smart money is on a small premium over their current over-inflated prices. The other Stratasys printers, as always, use enclosed cartridges with a particularly expensive price per volume. The recently-announded Taiwanese Da Vinci 3d printer by XYZprinting is a good example of the razor blade model, with a printer that sells for $500 and proprietary cartridges that work out to about $50/kg for filament.

The Pirate3D Buccaneer was originally announced with a non-standard spool system that would have made it difficult (though probably not impossible) to use third-party filament, but the version they were showing appeared to be using a more standard spool. With the variations between suppliers, most of the spools you can buy probably still won’t fit.

One pleasant surprise was the Robox 3d printer. When I first saw their kickstarter campaign mention chipped filament spools, I assumed the worst, but I discovered at the show that their chips are simple EEPROM chips containing data about the filament to automatically configure certain print parameters. They told me that rather than being used as a DRM scheme to prevent using third-party print materials, the chips are rewritable and reusable, and can be configured with specifications of anyone’s filament. This model provides all of the legitimate benefits of the proprietary cartridge system without the single-supplier lock-in and overpriced materials. I personally started the UFID project to create an open standard with this same goals back in May, and I invited them to collaborate on the project when I spoke to them.

3d Systems had a deluge of new products, including powder printers (some of which print in sugar), 3d scanners, and new models of their Cube and CubePro (formerly CubeX) printers. Nearly all of these products had common visual theme, looking like extrusions of rounded squares. The Cube now has dual extruders (and lots of dual extruder ooze to prove it) fed from neatly-consealed cartridges, and still no heated platform. The CubePro is outfitted with a similar case, but the cartesian system inside still clearly shows the signatures of being designed by the former Bits From Bytes team (or possibly just built out of surplus BFB-3000 parts). They have finally replaced the ancient worm-drive extruders and the enormous 3-pillar nozzles with what appear to be direct-drive pinch-wheel extruders and a hot end that bears more than a passing resemblance to the E3D design. Makerbot’s new hot end also looks like an E3D derivative peaking out of its injection-molded shell, and I suspect that the Cube’s nozzle is similar under the plastic casing.

Speaking of Makerbot, the first thing I noticed about all of the machines they were showing was that not one of them was printing. The second thing I noticed was that they were continuing with their deliberately misleading advertising by placing prints that require support material, with supports already carefully removed and cleaned up, inside the printers as if they had just been printed that way, and the third was the prominent “no touching” signs. Looking past their machines’ black-and-red Darth Vader motif, I saw that the new line of machines all use the H-Bot linear motion scheme in which the X and Y axes are controlled by the differential motion of two fixed motors and a single timing belt (turn the same direction to move the carriage along the X axis, turn opposite directions to move along the Y axis). Time will tell how bad the usual racking problem with this setup is in their implementation. I also noticed the accordion-like ceiling of the build area in the Z18’s heated chamber, which it borrows from the Mojo printer, also owned by their parent company, Stratasys. The Replicator Mini also has the exact same build volume as my old Cupcake in a machine that’s not any smaller despite a more efficient arrangement of the axes, and I think my (heavily modified) Cupcake even had better print quality when I retired it.

One nice thing that these machines all have in common is a place for filament to be stored within the machine’s footprint, rather than being off to the side or added as an afterthought. This is, of course, made easier by the proprietary spools and cartridges that are designed to fit inside them, but I would like to see a bit more standardization in spool dimensions by third-party vendors so that attractive options like the Buccaneer’s spool holder mentioned earlier can be implemented more widely. This will also help pave the way for the open source and reusable filament cartridge system that we are working on in conjunction with the UFID project.

There were also several printers in the $500-$1,000 range at the show besides my own Bukito. These printers were all ones with pretty plastic and/or metal cases rather than the more open-framed and hacker-friendly designs I’m used to seeing. The Up Mini and Da Vinci had frames made of thin folded steel inside that looked like what you would find if you cracked open an inkjet printer, giving me concerns about rigidity (I did see some Z wobble in the Da Vinci print I inspected). There was also the usual odd pair of PP3DP and Afinia showing the exact same machine with different branding across the aisle from one another. The Robo3d is a Printrbot/Prusa i2 derivative in a plastic case that is now made with all injection-moulded parts. The Buccaneer has been making some improvements since the photos for kickstarter were taken. It’s hard to see what’s inside of it besides some haphazard soldering that I hope will be fixed by the time they start shipping, but the motor placement tells me that it’s another H-bot. As I expected, the Solidoodle 4's new plastic case was so much lipstick on a pig, with the same shoddy construction that caused me to rant about it in the past, and the only actual improvement visible was the update to a modern quick-release extruder mechanism, derived from my design.

We also saw a surprising number of resin printers at the show. Like the Makerbots, none of these were running on the show floor. The most interesting of these was one of the newcomers, the OWL Nano by Old World Labs. Looking like a combination of a break maker and something you would find in a nuclear weapons lab, the OWL Nano doesn’t use a laser galvanometer or DLP projector like most resin printers. It’s entirely cartesian, with three screw-driven linear axes at right angles to one another. It’s not the first resin printer to work this way, but the interesting part is that they claim to have .1-micron resolution on every axis. According to my math, this is probably a 40-threads-per-inch screw using a standard 1.8-degree stepper with 1/32 microstepping, or possibly a less common .9-degree stepper with 1/16 microstepping. Either way, talking about resolution in terms of microsteps is a bit dubious, as the positioning accuracy of microsteps is not reliable (though in fairness, this is more of a problem for FDM machines due to their volumetric calculations’ dependence on accurate positioning). Like many of the FDM machines, they are also using Marlin firmware (possibly in violation of its license, since it is not an open source machine), which is known to have rounding errors in its positioning when used with imperial threads. The few prints they had on display (under glass) looked pretty detailed, but I have to say that the prints off the Kevvox DLP machine in the booth next to me looked smoother to my eye, possibly a result of not cleaning the prints immediately after printing so that excess resin is able to cure inside the layer lines on the surface.
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