Inside Makerbot: the Future of 3D Printing?

Maximum PC Staff

Is the MakerBot a hacker-friendly version of My Little Cupcake or a harbinger of a major sea change?

We are in a warehouse near downtown Brooklyn dubbed the Botcave. We’re talking with MakerBot Industry founders Bre Pettis, Zach “Hoeken” Smith, and Adam Mayer, and we’re contemplating a future where we can all instantly download, distribute, and manufacturer anything, anytime, anywhere. The implications are mind-boggling.

The MakerBot is just like any other printer, except it prints with plastic in three dimensions.

The road to utopia begins with a much cruder and smaller realization of this vision, however. The MakerBot guys hook up our laptop to the Cupcake, a $900 build-it-yourself 3D printer made of etched wood that is painted and lined with blue LEDs. It glows like something from a steampunk novel. We load up a design and start a print job. The gears and motors on this homegrown 3D fabricator sing. The extruder lays down string after string of hot, red plastic. Ten minutes later, Bre Pettis snaps a small toy violin off the building platform. “There,” he says, “the world’s smallest open-source violin.”

Like the MakerBot machine itself, the Botcave is recursive. It is quite literally a factory that makes and sells desktop factories, with the intent of evolving modern-day hacking to far more ambitious levels. In the following pages, we’ll examine the dreams, the technology, and the future of this forward-thinking invention.

How MakerBot Began

“Bre and I actually started Thingiverse before we started MakerBot,” Hoeken explains. The two noticed that whenever they tried to explain their vision of the future—where objects exist as software, and you can download whatever you need and print it out—people responded enthusiastically. “They’d say, ‘Oh that’s great, I’d love to do that, where do I go?’,” says Hoeken. But he didn’t have an answer. “So, we created Thingiverse ( www.thingiverse.com ) as a place where we could share our stuff.”

Thus far, the MakerBot factory—dubbed the Botcave—has sold and shipped 2,600 MakerBot machines all over the world.

At the time, the 26-year-old Hoeken, whose claim to fame also includes making a pair of keyboard pants for a 2009 New York fashion show, was involved with RepRap ( www.reprap.org ), an already-established 3D-printer project. Hoeken wanted to build a simpler version of the RepRap machine that anyone could use. With this in mind, he, Pettis, and cofounder Adam Mayer used the resources, including a laser cutter, at a hacker collective named NYC Resistor to build the first MakerBot prototype. Eventually the trio quit their day jobs to work full-time on this new 3D printer. “Zach said, ‘Quit your job and build robots with me’,” says Mayer. “I don’t think you’re allowed to say no to that.”

Making the MakerBot

Let’s be clear: The MakerBot isn’t Ikea-easy to assemble, but a Maximum PC reader should enjoy the 8–12 hour build. This is definitely an RTFM project. Both the Cupcake and Thing-O-Matic versions of the machine (the Cupcake can print things about the size of a cupcake; the newer Thing-O-Matic prints slightly larger objects, about the size of a kitten) use a standard ATX power supply and a series of boards connected by Ethernet and ribbon cable.

That’s where the similarity to PC building ends. Thankfully, detailed step-by-step assembly instructions guide you through the process of putting together pulley systems, belts, and rods, as well as screwing together the wood and plastic panels and hooking up the stepper motors and the electronics.

Once completed, the MakerBot is about the size of a microwave standing on its end. It prints recyclable ABS plastic‑acrylonitrile butadiene styrene—the same material Legos are made from—and biodegradable corn-based PLA (polylactic acid). The beauty of the MakerBot is that, like its hereditary predecessor the RepRap, all the software and hardware the device uses are open source, so theoretically you don’t even need to buy a kit from MakerBot to build one. But it’s definitely cheaper and a lot easier to put together this way.

Using the MakerBot

Fabricating objects with the MakerBot entails a few different steps. You start manufacturing an object one of two ways: You design it yourself using a 3D modeling program, or you download a pre-existing object from the Thingiverse. We love Maximum PC so much that we designed our very own object and loaded it into the Thingiverse for others to enjoy. Here’s how the process worked.

We started with Google’s free SketchUp 3D software package ( sketchup.google.com ), and designed a circular object with an opening in the middle. It could be a cable organizer, or for our more formal readers, a large and sturdy napkin ring.

To the left: twin MakerBot Cupcake machines. To the right: a bigger Thing-O-Matic model, which is capable of printing kitten-sized objects.

SketchUp is easy enough to use that we were quickly able to visualize and build our object in three dimensions. Unfortunately, it does not save projects in the proper data format for Thingiverse. For this conversion, we turned to Blender, a powerful General Public License 3D software suite. (You could also use Blender to build your object, but it’s much more complicated than SketchUp.) We converted SketchUp’s .dae file format into a .stl file and saved it to www.thingiverse.com as “Maximum PC Round Thingy.”

This .stl file needed to be translated into data the MakerBot can use to print a 3D object. We used a series of Python scripts called Skeinforge to chop the solid model into “slices” corresponding to the thickness of the layers of plastic that are extruded, and calculate the infill necessary to connect everything. Skeinforge also allowed us to set variables such as density and solidity, as well as the speed and position of the build.

Not surprisingly, printing an object requires some user tuning, and often takes a few tries to generate the exact piece you want. And, just like PC parts and technology, component-specific variance, inconsistent voltage, and heat/humidity can all affect the outcome of your projects.

Starts with a Whistle

Ironically, the future the MakerBotters dreamed of, where objects are ideas to be imagined, shared at the speed of light, and changed and shared again, actually started with a referee’s whistle.

“That was the teleportation moment,” says Mayer. The whistle was created by Eberhard Rensch in Offenburg, Germany. In an effort to explore and extend the limits of his MakerBot Cupcake, Rensch redesigned the machine and upgraded the extruder by printing new parts and modifying the device’s firmware.

“The whistle originated from the [desire] to print ‘unprintable objects’ with the Maker-Bot,” says Rensch. “The MakerBot doesn’t print with a second support material. Thus, it’s not possible to print large overhangs or objects with captive parts.” With this in mind, he designed a whistle—an object with both a captive part (the ball, also known as a pea), and an unsupported overhang (the mouthpiece). To get around having to print a sphere for the pea inside the whistle, he made an icosahedron, a symmetrical 20-sided shape similar to a 20-sided D&D die.

Within four hours of Rensch uploading his whistle, other MakerBot owners around the world had printed 10 copies of it. “There’s no way you can ship a whistle that fast, MakerBot founder Adam Mayer exclaims.”There’s no way to move a physical object that quickly, and there it was, popping up all over.”

Meanwhile, Back in Brooklyn…

Once we get our “skein” output from Skeinforge ready, we dump it into ReplicatorG, an open-source 3D-printing program that allows your PC to control the MakerBot. ReplicatorG runs G-Code, which is the de facto standard for CNC (computer numerical controlled) machines and is essentially a series of coordinated instructions specifying location, speed, and on/off commands for the device’s three stepper motors and plastruder. The application monitors barrel temperature and lets you tweak the size and modify the flips and rotations the printer makes as it constructs your object.

Once we’ve heated the barrel and platform, fed the plastic into the top of the plastruder, and set the head against the build platform, everything is ready to print. The motors are connected to two X- and Y-axis sliders that continually reposition the build platform, and a Z-axis that controls the vertical position of the plastruder. The MakerBot machine begins an elaborate dance, with the platform sliding back and forth while the plastruder moves along the Z-axis.

Essentially a print head for your MakerBot, the plastruder is the most complex bit of machinery. The MakerBot wiki describes it best—it’s like a robotic hot-glue gun whose main purpose is to heat up your plastic, and then extrude it in a fine stream. Two key components make up the plastruder. First, a filament drive uses the gearing’s teeth to grip the plastic and push it through a Teflon tube into the heater. The second element, the hot end, consists of a heated stainless barrel that the Teflon tube runs through, which both heats and directs the plastic through a narrow nozzle.

A thermocouple attached to this stainless tube provides temperature readings back to the firmware, and ultimately, ReplicatorG. All of this is attached to a stepper motor, which builds along the Z-axis by raising and lowering the plastuder assembly.

The machine isn’t quiet, but the stepper motors have a smooth, almost synth-like sound that slides into a kind of robotic power chord. Initially, it’s surprising how musical these machines are when in action; some patterns emit such a solid funk-eletronica groove that a library of MakerBot music now resides on the Thingiverse, with no plastic required to hear the samples.

What Can You Make?

Many of the founder’s favorite models are the simple ones, objects someone made in order to solve everyday problems. One of the earliest uploads to Thingiverse was a bath plug. Thingiverse user Batist designed and posted it after realizing he didn’t have one.

Simple things like doorknobs, hooks, and bath plugs demonstrate how quickly and easily a 3D printer that’s integrated with a file-sharing site can integrate into our lives, but the projects of Cathal Garvey of Ireland demonstrate a much more ambitious potential. Garvey is a geneticist who is working to replicate as much biotech lab equipment as he can with a Dremel and a MakerBot.

“The [biotech lab] equipment is incredibly expensive. It costs ten or a thousand times what you’d expect,” says Garvey. Thus far, his open-source models include a gel electrophoresis for analyzing DNA, a Dremel-driven micro lathe, and the Dremelfuge, a centrifuge that fits standard tubes. The Dremelfuge took a lot of tries to get right. “In the end, I got one that printed correctly, fit the Dremel snugly, fit the tubes snugly, and I spun the tubes,” he explains. But unfortunately, “at any speed above the second setting, the tubes would go flying out.”

The Thingiverse community came to the rescue, helping Garvey improve upon the design to the point that he was able to make a Dremelfuge that could operate at top speed, saving himself thousands of dollars in the process. “What I like about Thingiverse is that it’s not trying to reclaim an open culture,” he tells us. “It’s founding an open culture.”

Garvey can see the small bits of plastic that fill every corner of our lives going the way of long-distance communication and music—no longer hard or scarce enough to support their traditional business models. “They are going to have to find something else scarce to sell,” he says.

Replication is Complete

Back in Brooklyn, MakerBot Support Manager Isaac Dietz notices something and summons everyone to his monitor. A man named Christian Arnø in Norway has uploaded a 3D blueprint for a complete MakerBot clone to Thingiverse, uploading the design in roughly 160 pieces. Anything that isn’t electronics or metal is MakerBotted ABS plastic. Unlike its RepRap predecessor, the MakerBot wasn’t designed to be self-replicating. But there it is anyway, a 3D printer printed on a 3D printer. People all over the Botcave are cheering.

We designed this object in Google’s free SketchUp application, then
imported it into Thingiverse.com.


Dietz starts rounding up things to send Arnø. There’s no contest to win, but everyone feels the same: This deserves a prize. He quickly grabs a book and a t-shirt before someone brightly suggests that what Arnø probably needs the most at this point is more plastic. A half pound of bright red plastic goes in the box.

The energy and attitude at the Botcave are infectious, but they also reinforce the notion that these are frontier days for MakerBot and its dreams of ubiquitous do-it-yourself 3D printing and fabrication. To date, the company has sold 2,600 MakerBots. That’s not bad, but it’s not quite world domination. But what if these guys are right? The notion that Bre Pettis, Zach Smith, and Adam Mayer might be harbingers of a new personal industrial revolution conjures up sepia-toned images of Thomas Edison’s Menlo Park lab in the late 19th century. Or Jobs and Wozniak tinkering away in a Northern California garage in 1976.

That’s a long way off. For now, MakerBot will move forward in small steps. As an example, the new Thing-O-Matic model prints larger items. And most recently, MakerBot added an optional automated build platform, making it the first 3D printer capable of continuously printing the same model over and over again, like a traditional factory.

What about after that? The founders are working on a 3D scanner and associated software that would allow you to seamlessly copy an existing item. And, in a tacit acknowledgement of the potential evil of plastic, the MakerBot community is still trying to find a way to throw printed objects into a hopper and quickly pull reusable plastic back out.

It’s hard to say if geneticist Cathal Garvey is right, that home fabrication will do away with the market for the small, hard, plastic bits of modern life. But it’s easy to imagine an explosion in creativity tied to sharing physical objects, whether we’re printing PC parts and modifications, creating home bio labs for teens, or just chaining together collaborative Rube Goldberg machines. Ultimately, the easier it is to realize our dreams, the more innovation we’ll see in art studios, labs, and garages.

The Three Most Popular MakerBot Products

Whistle: The beauty of this project is that it prints the pea right inside the whistle; you use a screwdriver or tweezers to break it loose.

Gothic Cathedral Playset: Designed by Michael “Skimbal” Curry, who calls this build the “Mount Everest of MakerBot prints,” mostly because of the large number of overhangs and arches. The full model is made of 20 different parts.

Micro Lathe: For geneticist Cathal Garvey, printing a micro lathe was one of the first steps in replicating a host of biological lab equipment.

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