MakerBot Went Big (and Small) at CES with New Lines of 3D Printers

Xconomy New York — 

To hear Bre Pettis tell it at the press conference he held at International CES, new territory has opened up for MakerBot Industries.

Last week, the CEO and co-founder of the Brooklyn-based company introduced three new desktop 3D printers at the tech tradeshow. Hardware may be what MakerBot is known for, but the company also growing as a player in software and apps, Pettis said.

He spoke briefly with me after the announcements, and said his team had been working on the new lineup in the background. “This is the fruition of years of work,” he said. Pettis said his team has had interesting conversations with the folks at Stratasys since their merger last June, but did not say if the deal accelerated the rollout of new products. From a bigger picture perspective, the deal, he said, made strategic sense. “If we hadn’t merged with them, we would have had to think about going public,” Pettis said.

Makerbot’s previous printers have been used by hobbyists and professionals. A larger-scale 3D printer unveiled last week, though, showed how the company hopes to attract industrial users as well.

Pettis started off by showing the MakerBot Replicator Mini, a compact 3D printer about the same size as the original MakerBot Cupcake (which is no longer in production) but with more horses under the hood. The Mini is designed for novices and professionals, he said. “We took everything we’ve learned,” Pettis said while onstage, “and came up with something special for the consumer.”

The Mini is designed for speed, he said, with a simple setup that uses only one button. “If I were announcing cameras today, this one would be the point-and-shoot,” he said.

The Replicator Mini connects to a computer via USB or Wi-Fi and has a camera inside that lets users watch the progress of the print job. It can create objects up to 3.9 inches by 3.9 inches by 4.9 inches. When the job is done, the printer sends an alert and can also take pictures of the final product. Pettis said the Mini’s retail price is $1,375. “We’re going to start shipping in the spring,” he said.

Next up was the new Replicator, a prosumer model intended for engineers, architects, and other designers to use at their desks. It is an update of last year’s Replicator 2, Pettis said, but the company is doing away with numbers to denote the new generation. (The MakerBot Replicator 2 and 2X models, shown at CES 2013, will still be available.)

3D printers have long been used to create prototypes, and MakerBot has seen uptake in that arena as well. Lockheed Martin printed up models of the forthcoming James Webb Space Telescope, Pettis said, with MakerBots. That allowed the telescope’s designers to practice making upgrades to sensitive parts, he said, saving six to 12 months of production time.

The new Replicator can produce objects 8 inches by 10 inches by 6 inches, with a printing layer resolution as fine as 100 microns (same as the Replicator 2.) It became available for order last week, at $2,899, with shipping to commence “in a couple weeks.”

MakerBot brought three new printers to CES 2014 (photo by João-Pierre S. Ruth.)

MakerBot brought three new printers, the Z18, the Mini, and the new Replicator, to CES 2014 (photo by João-Pierre S. Ruth.)

If the size limits of desktop 3D printers seemed restrictive in the past, Pettis brought out a new model that widened the range. The MakerBot Replicator Z18 can make objects 12 inches by 12 inches by 18 inches. Built for industrial projects, the Z18 can also make fun stuff—such as a helmet for an adult-size head. Priced at $6,499 and due to ship in the spring, the Z18 is the biggest printer MakerBot has offered so far. It can print at the same level of resolution as the Replicator, and has the built-in camera and other features of its smaller siblings. “This has been our dream for a long time,” Pettis said.

While 3D printers are the company’s bread and butter, the role of software continues to grow at the company. A new desktop app includes MakerWare control software for MakerBots, and access to Thingiverse, an online space where people share design ideas. Prints can be monitored the MakerBot desktop app, Pettis said. “You can see how long it’s going to take [for objects] to be made,” he said.

A MakerBot mobile app also lets users receive alerts, control the 3D printer, and observe the printing on camera. Another app in the works, MakerBot Printshop, will let lay users easily design and print objects they create or pick from curated models chosen by the staff.

Pettis said an ecosystem has developed around the company’s software and Thingiverse. One project shared on Thingiverse, Pettis said, was a design, by members of the community, for a low-cost alternative for kids who need a prosthetic hand. “Normally prosthetics cost tens of thousands of dollars,” he said. “On a MakerBot, they can cost $5 in material.”

The company is evolving in other ways as well, with last year’s introduction of the MakerBot Digitizer, a portable 3D scanner. Using the scanner, creators can capture the dimensions of existing objects, then import them into design software for use in printable 3D models. “It’s not just about 3D printing; it’s about unleashing your creativity,” Pettis said.

As of CES 2014, MakerBot had shipped more than 44,000 3D printers to customers around the world, Pettis said. And he wants to see that number grow to more than one million. The company has retail stores in New York, Boston, and Greenwich, CT, where visitors can get scanned and rendered in 3D on site. “Instead of taking a photograph, it makes a 3D model,” Pettis said.

While on the subject of scanning, he also announced a new partnership with SoftKinetic, a Belgian company that develops 3D sensors. Pettis said the companies plan to make a new generation of 3D scanners—but offered no other details. “I can’t tell you what they’re going to be because we haven’t made them yet,” he said.

The Z18 can take on larger scale projects (photo by João-Pierre S. Ruth.)

The Replicator Z18 can take on larger scale projects (photo by João-Pierre S. Ruth.)