Makerbot opens up Method platform

Makerbot, which produces mainly desktop 3D printers and is a subsidiary of Stratasys, has developed a new Labs Experimental extruder that will accept third party materials for its Method 3D printer as the company aims to expand further into the additive manufacturing market place.

This shows the Makerbot Method printer, with software and the new extruder.

Makerbot has been on a bit of a rollercoaster over the last few years. The company was set up in 2009 and was quickly caught up in the rush to push 3D printing as a consumer technology. That ultimately went nowhere once the novelty wore off and many 3D printer vendors wound up going bust, with Makerbot itself being acquired by Stratasys in 2013. 

That led to a certain amount of restructuring, with Makerbot outsourcing most of its production from its Brooklyn base in the US to the manufacturing company Jabil, which operates a number of facilities in the Far East. Makerbot also made a strategic decision to focus on the education market, developing programs to help teachers and students, while also trying to sell its desktop models to engineers for design and prototyping, along with most other vendors selling desktop 3D printers. 

However, in 2018 the company introduced a new printer, the Method, where the whole build chamber is heated to 60ºC and not just the base plate, as is common with other similar printers using the Fused Filament Fabrication method. 

The key to FFF printing is that it essentially melts plastic filaments, which are then extruded to form whatever object is being printed, layer by layer.  So heating the entire build chamber enables the Method printers to produce parts that are stronger and more accurate, using a range of materials such as PLA, PETg and Tough. The Method uses a dual extruder so that it can also lay down a soluble PVA support material at the same time in order to print complex geometries.

Johan-Till Broer, VP of Product Development at MakerBot, says that these printers also have a strong metal frame that gives good layer alignment, though most people charged with marketing desktop 3D printers also say something similar. However, he adds that the Method printers also include a lot of sensors. 

This was followed late last summer by the Method X, where the chamber temperature goes up to 100ºC so that it can also print ABS materials. As such this is clearly designed to take Makerbot closer to engineering customers and ultimately into additive manufacturing. Broer explains: “The difference between the two printers is the chamber temperature so with the X you have a couple more materials that you can print and the new extruder opens up additional materials.” He adds: “So with the higher chamber temperature you can print more of the advanced engineering materials and especially the ones with a higher heat resistance.” The Method X can also use Stratasys’ SR30 support material. Both the Method printers have the same size build chamber of 19cm long x 19cm wide x 19.6cm high.

Makerbot has also set up a sub-division, Makerbot Labs, for working on more experimental projects that it hopes will also help it expand into more manufacturing applications. Late last year Makerbot announced that it had developed a new experimental extruder under the Labs brand. This extruder has a modified hot end that can reach up to 300°C. It includes sensors that track temperature, materials, and extruder jams and offers interchangeable nozzle assemblies to cope with different materials. 

Makerbot’s new Labs extruder, seen in exploded view.

The new extruder is designed to replace the existing one that ships with the Method printers, with a specific version available for each of the two models. Makerbot also expanded the range of print settings in the MakerBot Print preparation software to take advantage of the extruder.

At the same time, Makerbot also set up a Materials Development Program to help materials suppliers qualify their materials for use with this new extruder. The main advantage is that this has opened up the range of materials that the Method printers can use. Broer says: “We have a little bit of a different approach than some of our competitors. We try to keep the program smaller as we want to strategically pick the partners we work with based on the materials they have so that they can complement each other and offer something new to the Method platform.”

The new materials include Polymaker’s PolyMac PC, which is a polycarbonate said to have good toughness, strength and heat resistance. PolyMax PC works well with the Method’s soluble SR-30 supports to print more complex parts than on other desktop 3D printers. Broer says that they have seen quite a few requests for this filament, which should open new applications in the automotive, railway and aerospace industries.

Dr Xiaofan Luo, CEO of Polymaker, explained: “With more synergy between material and machine we see a greater focus on the applications realized with 3D printing. High temperature materials provide a gateway to production-ready printed parts and the Method is the perfect platform to utilize them.”

Kimya has contributed two materials that take advantage of adding carbon fibre into the mix. ABS Carbon is an ABS composite material with 30% chopped carbon fibre for improved stiffness and compression strength, as well as lower weight than regular ABS. Broer says that ABS is one of the most popular materials and also helps to differentiate the whole platform because it really needs the heated chamber, pointing out that this ABS Carbon has a very good strength to weight ratio. Kimya has also developed PETg Carbon, which uses PETg reinforced with carbon fibres for good stiffness and increased tensile strength over regular PETg.

Jabil offers an alternative, PETg ESD, which stands for Electrostatic Dissipative and is designed for producing parts that will be in contact with sensitive electronics and that could otherwise be damaged by electrostatic discharge. Jabil is also responsible for a flexible ThermoPlastic Elastomer or TPE material, SEBS 1300 95A, which scores 95A on a durometer hardness scale. This is hard enough to print complex geometries whilst still retaining enough flex to bend and stretch. It is not sensitive to moisture and doesn’t require drying.

The final material for now is Durabio from Mitsubishi Chemical, an engineering, bio-based, BPA-free resin. It combines PMMA’s transparency with a higher chemical and scratch resistance compared to polycarbonate. The core applications for the material are in automotive, housing, interior and exterior décor.

Johan-Till Broer, VP of Product Development at MakerBot

These are not new materials as Makerbot has simply invited these developers to quality existing materials chosen to help expand the appeal of the Method printers as a platform for potential users, though some of these materials will require the higher heat of the X model. This has the advantage that the materials are all available immediately. Broer adds: “But we are working with them on new materials for the future, which could be branded as Makerbot materials or Labs materials and we have seen a really good exchange of technology so that has influenced our roadmap as well.”

In addition, BASF 3D Printing Solutions and the Lehvoss Group have also recently joined this program. Thomas Collet, director of 3D Printing Materials and Marketing for the Lehvoss Group, commented: “We believe that the Method X with its 100°C heated chamber is a great platform for our dedicated materials, based on PET and high-temperature resistant PA, to enable end use parts that fulfill the highest requirements.”

Makerbot has had some success in moving beyond the consumer and educational markets, particularly in the industrial and automotive markets where its equipment is used mainly for building jigs and fixtures. Broer says that some car manufacturers are using Makerbot machines to print jigs able to hold gauges for use on car production lines, for example, in measuring distances to ensure the correct alignment when assembling cars, adding: “Also for testing equipment before production, where they need to build testing jigs to hold certain parts in place.” He says that the company is also involved in short run production of end use parts as well as replacement parts. 

He accepts that there is some overlap with Makerbot’s parent company, Stratasys, which is likely to increase if Makerbot continues to target the industrial manufacturing sector but points out that the Stratasys’ printers are mostly much more expensive and so Makerbot is talking to a different kind of user, adding: “It’s important to Stratasys to address both sides of the market.”

It’s also worth noting that Makerbot has an open approach to materials so that users could source their materials elsewhere. But Broer points out that Makerbot supplies its materials complete with an RFID tag that can automatically set the machine up for that material, and tracks how much material is left on a spool. This makes for a good balance, as most manufacturing customers hate having to rely on a single source for materials, but equally don’t want to risk production being affected by a failure from a lower quality or unqualified material. 

The new Extruder is available now and costs $299 with nozzle assemblies priced at $69. The standard Method printer costs £4495 while the more advanced Method X costs £5995. The new materials can be purchased directly from the partner vendors. Any companies interested in joining the MakerBot Materials Development Program can contact MakerBot at labs@makerbot.com. You can find more details at www.makerbot.com/labs.

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