Oct 18, 2017 | By Benedict

New York 3D printing company MakerBot has launched MakerBot Labs, an experimental platform with open APIs, custom print modes, and an online resource-sharing site. The platform purportedly allows users to “push the limits” of 3D printing.

It’s fair to say that MakerBot remains a fairly divisive company within the 3D printing community. Once a beloved offshoot of the RepRap project, MakerBot turned from a community-focused DIY kit maker into something of a corporate machine, eventually being acquired by Stratasys in a $403 million deal.

Rather than boost MakerBot to new heights, the Stratasys ownership was followed by mass firings and some very iffy Replicator 3D printers. However, the company remains a major player in consumer-level additive manufacturing, thanks in no small part to Stratasys’ financial clout.

Needless to say, as its main priorities became focused on profitability, MakerBot eventually stopped adhering to its open source values, alienating much of the maker community that had supported it through the early years. But could that alienation be coming to an end?

While we’re unlikely to see a boyband-style reunion of co-founders Bre Pettis, Adam Mayer, and Zach Smith anytime soon, the current incarnation of MakerBot appears to be making some effort to reconnect with the grassroots 3D printing community.

It’s doing so through MakerBot Labs, a new experimental 3D printing platform consisting of open APIs, custom print modes, an experimental extruder, and a Thingiverse community page for stimulating discussion of MakerBot DIY tinkering.

“This release marks another stage of MakerBot’s growth and 3D printing leadership,” said MakerBot CEO Nadav Goshen. “MakerBot built the industry’s first desktop 3D printers, then the first fully connected 3D printers, and most recently launched solutions for Educators and Professionals that go much wider than our hardware offering.”

MakerBot says this is purely a case of giving the fans what they want. And while it may be a case of too little, too late for many, it’s still a surprising step for a company that could easily decide to cut its ties with DIY 3D printer users altogether.

“We’re introducing this new, more open platform as a direct response to our advanced users calling for greater freedom with materials and software,” Goshen said. “This comes as an added option to our most advanced users who are looking to experiment, but still need the industry’s best reliability out of the box.”

At present, there are a few distinct components of MakerBot Labs. First up is a new experimental extruder, which has a modifiable design and four interchangeable nozzles. It purportedly gives users the “freedom to quickly switch from reliable production to sandbox experimentation,” and offers both large-diameter nozzles (for high-speed draft printing) and a hard, stainless steel nozzle (for printing with metal composites etc.).

Perhaps the most interesting part of this new release, however, is access to a number of MakerBot software and hardware APIs.

“We’re taking a step towards openness by offering an experimental platform that allows developers and engineers to interact with our technology, governed by an open API,” Goshen explained. “It’s definitely in the spirit of what the tech community refers to when they mention ‘open source.’”

While that will certainly appeal to users who—for whatever reason, contractual, financial, or otherwise—are committed to using MakerBot 3D printers, it probably seems a bit silly to others. Why would an advanced 3D printer user choose to use a printer that is only partially open, and only “in the spirit of” open source, when there are so many excellent open machines out there?

Just for the record, Goshen says MakerBot’s resistance to going fully open source is due to the following: “Our products are a combination of highly integrated systems, and in order to maintain a high level of performance and quality, each component has to be optimized to interact with each other. That optimization and quality depends on close control and predictability, which requires us to be very selective about the parts we open.”

One area in which the open APIs could be useful is schools and universities. Like many 3D printing companies, MakerBot has made an effort to crack the classroom with projects like the My MakerBot 3D printing platform. The partially open nature of MakerBot Labs could give advanced students a chance to open up the back of their machines, while knowing that the fairly wide MakerBot community is on hand to offer advice.

And that relates to another major element of the new MakerBot Labs project: sharing. MakerBot Labs is offering a suite of new custom print modes, tailored for different materials and printing objectives, and is encouraging users to make and share their own. This ultimately entails users swapping their preferred printer settings with other users on the Labs Community forum.

Speaking of which, the new MakerBot Labs Community on Thingiverse is being described by MakerBot as “the single resource hub for user submissions and collaboration.”

While some of the more vehemently pro-open 3D printer users will scoff at MakerBot Labs, others will simply be excited to get inside some mainstream 3D printing technology that has been under lock and key for several years.



Posted in 3D Printer Company



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