There has been plenty of criticism surrounding the fifth generation of MakerBot 3D printers. These have mostly focused in on its Smart Extruder system, which, apparently, is quite a bit “too smart for its own good”. The machine is pricey and deemed too unreliable for any serious professional user, sacrificing quality and repeatability in favor of immediacy.
That, however, is a feature that would have been more than welcome in a consumer 3D printing market which has, so far, failed to materialize. Today’s low cost 3D printing adopters are Makers, artists and professionals who want a tool that can help them give a physical form to their ideas: they don’t need that tool to be easy to use or elegant in order to show it off to friends, but only to do what they need it to, as rapidly, reliably and efficiently as possible.
The MakerBot 5 does exactly the opposite. It is probably one of the fastest machines that any beginner can start printing with out of the box. It seriously takes just a couple of minutes. All you have to do is unpack it, turn it on, magnetically attach the extruder, load the filament, quickly calibrate the plate with the assisted procedure, connect it you Wi-Fi, find an object on Thingiverse, and 3D print it with one click.
Some issues may begin after the print has begun. The MakerBot 5 is a little slower than most comparably priced printers, and also less precise and very noisy (which does not make it an ideal home or office 3D printer). However, the single biggest problem is that which was supposed to be its biggest asset: the Smart Extruder. I had a chance to test out a MakerBot 5 when it first came out and that experience had been excellent: it was one of the first 3D printers I had ever used at home and I never ran into any issues for over two weeks of continuous use.
At the time, the software was still in development and the company had promised that new iterations and updates would make it even better, faster, and more precise. So, when MakerBot Europe gave me a chance to try one out again, I enthusiastically agreed. The fact that the machine was shipped to me with two extruders, while certainly appreciated, was not a good sign.
In fact, I did run into some issues with the first extruder, which continued to report the filament as being stuck when it was actually fine. The second extruder worked better and gave me no problems for the entire month I had it with me. So, really, it seems to be a matter of chance, which is not good enough when it comes to professionals and it is definitely a problem when it comes to consumers who have no idea what to do when they run into problems.
However, the immediacy that you can achieve with a MakerBot Replicator 5 when everything works well is impressive. In this particular case, I received the machine while I was right in the middle of a demonstrative event on 3D printing. We had a few machines on display, but the MakerBot was by far the first to be ready and the first to finish a print. Not just any 3D print but an actual replica of an art piece, straight from the ARTFICIAL platform. It came out just about perfect.
The same is true when using one of the many apps that have already integrated MakerBot support, such as MeshMixer and, more recently, Tinkercad. 3D printing the creature’s parts by just downloading the .thing file and sending it straight to the machine is what consumer 3D printing should be all about.
There are still rather few examples of such immediate and fun uses of 3D printing, but Tinkercad and other similar apps are, in my opinion, clear indications of things to come. Hopefully, by the time those things will come, MakerBot (if it makes it through the backlash of current user criticism) may just be ready and set to fully exploit the new trends, with new machines that combine the previous generation’s reliability with the current generation’s immediacy.
What MakerBot users should truly appreciate is the software ecosystem around the 3D printer. Thingiverse is a constantly growing and lively 3D model sharing platform, with plenty of new initiatives to build and cement the community. The MakerBot 5’s firmware is easy to use and control through the full-color LED screen and relative jog wheel. Furthermore, this time around, I was able to finally try the mobile App for remote 3D print monitoring and start/stop functionality. It worked perfectly.
That’s because having an on-board camera, even with limited resolution, means that all you have to do to view your 3D prints from a remote location is download an app. And the fact that it has multiple connectivity options (Wi-Fi, ethernet, SD card, and USB cable) means that you can immediately connect it to your home network and with other 3D printers, which is one of the reasons why the MakerBot Innovation Center system has been chosen by Universities in the US and Europe, even with more affordable (and possibly even more complete) ecosystems being available.
Seeing your 3D print take form from a remote location is still mainly a gimmick at this point, but these are also the features that the first adopters among consumers look for. Sure, you can do the same thing on any RepRap with Octoprint (or by using 3DprinterOS and Astroprint) at a fraction of the cost, but the same is true of Dropbox and Apple’s iCloud. Many Apple users don’t mind paying more to simply not have to think about setting up cloud services. MakerBot is not Apple, nor will there be an Apple-like company in 3D printing for at least another decade, but the idea behind it is not wrong per se.
All in all, I think the MakerBot 5 has been criticized much more than it deserved, simply because it was not as good as its predecessor and it made promises it was not able to keep. Many heads have rolled in MakerBot because of this, let alone the lawsuit and ongoing battles with popular Maker communities like Adafruit. Many changes are happening in MakerBot, even as we speak, and hopefully we will see the company learn from its mistakes and come out stronger than ever at the upcoming Euromold, Formnext, World Maker Fair or, more likely, CES 2016 show in Vegas. That will depend on whether the company feels it is ready to continue chasing after the consumer target.
Making mistakes in a young and unexplored market such as 3D printing is natural. Just about every company has done so, whether they are large companies getting into new markets or small companies trying to scale up. As market leaders, Stratatays and MakerBot may have made a few more than others, but they are still the largest companies in the industry and are still growing strongly enough to overcome hard times and play into the market’s natural evolution. One thing is for sure, there is no turning back, and the best thing that could come out of the 5th Gen experience, now, is a flawless 6th Gen.