Close up with M3D’s “The Micro” 3D printer

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3D printing has long been a service only offered to the affluent hobbyist, with most consumer-oriented printers costing in upwards of 2,000 dollars.  Makerbot, currently one of the best known brands, offers their standard Replicator 5 for a small fortune, well out of the pricing range of most enthusiasts.  Although certainly a robust machine capable of producing many high-quality models within a large volume, I’ve found the Replicator to be a world of problems.  It’s software is extremely buggy, and it often doesn’t print over a network.  Sometimes custom models are completely misinterpreted by the conversion software, and the Makerbot Desktop software did not work at all from a Linux based laptop.  The replicator may be one of the better printers on today’s market, but it’s certainly far from an ideal consumer 3D printer.

“The first truly consumer 3D printer”

M3D, a technology startup funded by Kickstarter, hopes to change this with the Micro.  With a goal of just $50,000, the Micro completed their goal within less than an hour, and finished their campaign with almost 70 times of that initial number.

The Micro touts itself as “The first truly consumer 3D printer” due to its supposed ease of use, small form factor, and rather affordable price.  The Micro sold on Kickstarter first at a price of $199, and then at $299.  M3D says the printer will retail at a price of around $350, which is still far below most other machines.

As a disclaimer, I’d like to note that I did pledge $300 to M3D, and I will be receiving a Micro come fall.  However, still an educated consumer, I was interested in learning more about M3D and their popular device.  I decided to drive down to the USA Science and Engineering festival, where the M3D team would be there and have their prototype.   As a second disclaimer, this convention was in April, and what is said in this article does not necessarily reflect the end quality of The Micro.

I’m used to long drives – I actually enjoy them when I’m behind the wheel.  The festival was held in Washington D.C. Convention Center, four hours away from my home, and the sunny ride was pleasant.  Unfortunately due to scheduling, I could only stay for around two hours, so I decided to spend most of my time around the 3D printing area on the lower floor of the building.

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The Convention Center is a massive structure, outlined with high-ceilinged halls and decorated with chandeliers created with shards of blue-tinted glass.  I arrived at around three in the afternoon, so the sunlight filtered through the building’s complex of windows, creating a warm atmosphere.  The actual convention floors were much different.  Located central to the building, they took on a dimmer, more museum-like light.  Both floors bustled with a mass of people, a good portion of them children, as many of the exhibits were education and STEM-oriented.  I slowly made way to the lower floor, where everything from the Oculus rift to the mechanisms of a bomb were being showcased – which isn’t surprising, seeing as the event was presented by Lockheed Martin and contained several other defense contractors.

“There stood the M3D team, with a white table, a sky blue prototype printer, and a handful of translucent models.”

I arrived at the 3D printing section.  There was a good deal of diversity on the floor, with more popular brands like Cubify’s Cube 3D as well as some others which I’ve never seen before, including a gigantic multi-filament machine capable of producing soft, hollow materials similar to a Nerf Football.

I'm not sure who makes this printer, but it certainly is a spectacle.  It's print volume is huge, and it can print patterns that allow for soft, squishy materials.

I’m not sure who makes this printer, but it certainly is a spectacle. It’s print volume is huge, and it can print patterns that allow for soft, squishy materials.

M3D’s table looked rather unassuming compared to the bright glare of LEDs and neon colors of their competition.  There stood the M3D team, with a white table, a sky blue prototype printer, and a handful of translucent models.  Another silver prototype behind a glass box was working on printing a model from the team’s laptop.

After some observation, I introduced myself to David Jones and Michael Armani, the founders of the project, as well as two other members of the team.  I told them of my long drive, and they happily commented that out of the 60-some backers who visited them on their stay, that my drive was the longest.  (They even indirectly mentioned me in an update.)  Even before telling them I was a backer, they were enthusiastically telling me all about the Micro.  It was obvious that they weren’t pitching sales, but talking about something of which they were immensely excited and proud.  I stayed around the booth for around an hour or two, while the team happily answered questions and let me take pictures, as well as just geek out about technology.

One of my first questions was about a tentacle-shaped card holder.  It’s legs arched at a shallow angle, which usually requires supports.  Because a 3D printer prints up in layers, when an object has sufficient overhang, supports are required so that the overhang doesn’t droop when the plastic is still hot.  However, M3D told me that the model was printed without supports, by a combination of software optimization and very small layer height.  I found the level of accuracy very impressive.  I have perfect vision, yet I had to bring the model inches from my eyes to see any sign of layer lines.  The detail is costly in terms of time, though.  A very small layer height means a model can take hours to complete.

The tentacle card holder is around 2 or 3 inches in length, and looks very clean.  The rafts are still firmly on the bottom.  I tried to remove them to no avail - M3D says the rafts still need to be tweaked.

The tentacle card holder is around 2 or 3 inches in length, and looks very clean. The rafts are still firmly on the bottom. I tried to remove them to no avail – M3D says the rafts still need to be tweaked.

Another promised feature of the M3D was its ability to print in ABS plastic and PLA plastic.  ABS, the material used to make most of the display models, usually requires a heated printing bed, since as ABS cools, it shrinks, causing the base of the model to warp.  The Micro does not have a heated printing bed of any sort, yet their models didn’t show any sign of warping.  I asked the team how the ABS printed so nicely, but they politely refused to answer, as some of their methods were still under wraps and they didn’t want any of them stolen before the Micro even went into production.  They did say that many of their innovations had to do with software, and not hardware, so my guess is that warping was prevented by a combination of small model footprints (the Micro has a print volume of around 4 cubic inches) and a printing pattern that is less susceptible to bending.

This vase, as featured in the Kickstarter video, is made with ABS plastic.  It is one of the Micro's earlier prints.

This vase, as featured in the Kickstarter video, is made with ABS plastic. It is one of the Micro’s earlier prints.

“M3D said they didn’t have any intention of creating a similar model sharing website for the Micro.”

I spend much of the rest of the time taking a look at M3D’s other models, including the orange vase featured in the original Kickstarter video.  Surprisingly, the vase is also printed in ABS, instead of PLA plastic.  M3D happily gave me permission to post these images online, with the comment that some images are from earlier software, and do not necessarily represent the final quality of the Micro.

Finally, I was shown the completion of a Warhammer figurine backpack.  It looks as though M3D grabbed most of their models from the Makerbot-owned Thingiverse website.  M3D said they didn’t have any intention of creating a similar website for the Micro, but they are working on integrating the M3D with some Microsoft Surface applications.

The backpack was impressive for its size; the detail mirrors that of the digital model.  The only problem was the raft which refused to completely peel off.  The M3D team tells me this is just a problem with software, and will be fixed before the release of the Micro to the public.

Unfortunately, my time was cut short at six o’clock, when the convention closed. I had a superb time, and it was refreshing to see a group of people so passionate about their product.  The following day, M3D even sent me a message on Kickstarter, thanking me for my attendance.

So, is the Micro big enough to dethrone the likes of Makerbot?  Maybe.  The Micro is one of the first consumer oriented printers, but it has tough competition.  Home Depot is beginning to pilot selling Makerbots, and another startup called New Matter sports an elegant printer with a larger footprint for nearly $100 less than the Micro.  Although the Micro still has four times the print resolution as New Matter’s device, the race for consumer 3D printers is certainly heating up.  It’s also been several months since the convention, and since then M3D has been ironing out their software bugs and optimizing the printer’s performance.  I’ve reached out to M3D for comments and updates.

This image is courtesy of M3D.

This image is courtesy of M3D.

 

 

Octopus

Octopus

A metal casting made by creating a silicon model by pouring molten silicon into a 3D-printed mold.

A metal casting made by creating a silicon model by pouring molten silicon into a 3D-printed mold.

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