The BotCave is home to MakerBot, a company that for nearly four years has been bringing affordable 3-D printers to the masses. But nothing MakerBot has ever built looks like the new printer these workers are currently constructing. The Replicator 2 isn’t a kit; it doesn’t require a weekend of wrestling with software that makes Linux look easy. Instead, it’s driven by a simple desktop application, and it will allow you to turn CAD files into physical things as easily as printing a photo. The entry-level Replicator 2, priced at $2,199, is for generating objects up to 11 by 6 inches in an ecofriendly material; the higher-end Replicator 2X, which costs $2,799, can produce only smaller items, up to 9 by 6 inches, but it has dual heads that let it print more sophisticated objects. With these two machines, MakerBot is putting down a multimillion-dollar wager that 3-D printing has hit its mainstream moment.
Unlike the jerry-built contraptions of the past, the Replicator 2s are sleek, metal, and stylish: MakerBot CEO Bre Pettis likens the design to “Darth Vader driving Knight Rider’s KITT car while being airlifted by a Nighthawk spy plane.” There is also the lighting. Oh, the lighting. “LEDs are part of our core values as a company,” Pettis jokes. The new machine will glow in any hue—”to match the color of your couch,” he says, “or like something in the movie Tron.”
You’ve heard of 3-D printers, but you probably don’t own one yet. Pettis thinks the Replicator 2 will change that.
Constructed of laser-cut plywood, with their internal workings on full display, previous generations of MakerBots were for tinkerers who were as interested in the machines themselves as they were in what they could make. Like the Homebrew Computer Club, which helped hatch the Apple II in 1977, MakerBot was part of what amounted to a Homebrew Printer Club, a global movement of hobbyists taking an existing industrial technology and trying to bring it within reach of everyone. Nearly 13,000 have been sold since MakerBot was founded in early 2009.
As the printers got more reliable, though, attention shifted from the machines to the designs they could print. At my house, the killer app for our MakerBots has been toys: dollhouse furniture, board game pieces, models. Print, paint, play. Free design libraries like MakerBot’s own Thingiverse and equivalents from Tinkercad and Autodesk mean that there are premade CAD files available to do just about anything you can imagine. It’s simply a matter of downloading them, modifying them if necessary, and sending them to the MakerBot to be printed.
The whole process is almost magical to watch. That’s the beauty of digital fabrication. You don’t need to know how the machines do their work or how to optimize their tool paths; software figures all that out. We’re moving toward an era when, just like with your 2-D printer, you don’t have to think about how your 3-D printer works, only what you want to produce with it.