3D printers can be used to create a range of objects, from true-to-life replicas and high-resolution models, to functioning prototypes, visual aids, real world products, and more.
While it’s true that 3D printing is still very much an emerging technology, the range of output hardware (the printer) has increased considerably, as has the quality of output and the user interface (the software). So much so, the capability of the technology is now keeping up with robust standards required of schools – not to mention the challenge of being subjected the daily onslaught of many pairs of students’ hands wanting to eagerly grab their object from the printer!
At the forefront of this progress since 2009 has been a name you may not be familiar with, MakerBot; its founder was also part of the early pioneering of a 3D printing open source foundation years earlier. The company’s developed a range of 3D devices that are supplied to schools here by Ricoh.
Performance, reliability and ease
“MakerBot is a market leader in desktop 3D Printing,” said Murray Clark, Ricoh Marketing Manager. “Its award winning 3D printers and scanners offer superior performance, reliability and ease of use. Bundled MakerBot desktop software makes it easy for everyone, from novices to experienced users to be 3D printing and scanning in next to no time.”
Once you have the equipment, where do you start?
“It really doesn’t matter if a student hasn’t got the 3D design skills. With the range of 3D design software now available (see below) and the printer, even very young students can design and manufacture objects that will give them real-world experience of manufacturing techniques. 3D printed objects could be used as components for traditional classroom modelling.”
To assist with both inspiration and free designs, MarkerBot hosts the Thingiverse (thingiverse.com), which is a ‘3D printing community’ for discovering, making and sharing 3D printable things. All designs are encouraged to be licensed under Creative Commons, meaning that anyone can use any design. MakerBot also has an online store (makerbot.com/digital-store) where printable things can be bought.
Preparing the file
Now you have a downloaded a file – or you’ve designed your own in 3D software (like Autodesk 123Design (free for schools), Rhinocerous5, Google SketchUp or TinkerCAD.com) – what’s next?
“Users simply import the file (which must be saved in an .stl format) into MakerBot Desktop where the app lets you carryout basic print preparation functions, including scaling and setting the print density/strength,” explained Clark. “It then prepares the file and when you’re ready, export your file and sit back to watch it come to life.”
From the 3D printed examples I saw coming from a MakerBot versus other makes of machines, it was abundantly clear the difference in quality of output. MakerBot software and firmware is what makes all the difference.
“A successful experience for users is not all that common with many of the lower cost brands available. Usually anyone experiencing 3D printing in action for the first time is spellbound.”
Two key requirements that users demand at the outset, are consistency and ease of use. The fact is, for any new user 3D printing is just ‘amazing’. However, as people grow into the experience, reliability, speed and quality of output that replicates as closely as possible what they envisaged, as well as the quality of the equipment, become paramount. These qualities show up to be lacking in the cheaper printers, suggests Clark.
Making the difference
What really impressed me about MakerBot machines was how easy it was to load a new filament and select a file to print. If the print head ever developed a jam the process for correction was so easy – the ‘Smart Extruder’ snaps on and off easily in two seconds or less. Another advantage the MakerBot has is the print head cools the molten plastic instantly as it’s extruded and that means it can print very intricate designs.
Overall, the fineness and the quality of the print are what make all the difference. I compared two ‘interlinking chain-snakes’ made from the same file but one created on a MakerBot, the other a different machine (a reputable brand 3D printer). The MakerBot moved smoothly and freely, and the difference in quality was quite noticeable.
Clark admits even the MakerBot is not always perfect but believes its performance and consistency surpasses any other brand he’s experienced.
“When Ricoh NZ researched the brands, MakerBot stood out head and shoulders above the rest.”
Neville Walker works for INTERFACE Magazine.
For more information about MakerBot 3D printers go to www.ricoh.co.nz/makerbot