MakerBot has introduced a new family of 3D printers that run embedded Linux, offering features like advanced web support, LCD screens, and faster printing.
Brooklyn based 3D printer manufacturer MakerBot has launched pre-sales for the second of three Replicator models that appear to be the world’s first commercial 3D printer based on embedded Linux. Almost all 3D printers are compatible with Linux desktops, just as they are with Windows and the Mac, and many, if not most, offer open source hardware and software designs. However, aside from some Raspberry Pi and BeagleBone hacks, the MakerBot Replicator Mini Compact appears to be the first to run embedded Linux.
Like text printers, 3D printers are essentially peripherals — you create a design on the PC and hit print. Consequently, Linux and the pricier processors it requires have been deemed overkill. Yet, we’re likely to see more Linux-based 3D printers for the same reason there have been a growing number of advanced text printers that run Linux or Android: connectivity. There’s a growing need to connect to the web and the growing ecosystem of 3D printing cloud services, as well as to extend the systems with wired peripheral connections.
MakerBot’s fifth-generation 3D printers
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Last month at CES, we missed the significance of the announcement of MakerBot’s three new fifth-generation 3D printers, because the company focused more on the Replicators’ new features than on their embedded Linux technology. This week, however, a Linux.com story by Libby Clark alerted us to the fact that MakerBot’s Replicator Mini, Replicator, and Replicator Z18 3D printers run a Texas Instruments Angstrom Linux build on a TI ARM9 processor.
Clark quotes Anthony Moschella, MakerBot VP of Product, as saying his company chose Linux for its built-in support for peripherals like WiFi, Ethernet, USB, and displays, which sped up the development process. The built-in web connectivity means users can download objects from the new MakerBot Digital Store directly to the MakerBot, without requiring the PC as an intermediary. The MakerBot middleware can be developed on a desktop and run on an embedded system, or vice versa.
Other Linux advantages were said to include a larger pool of talented embedded Linux developers compared to those who know alternatives such as ROS (Robot Operating System). And the ARM9 processor, although lowly by embedded Linux standards, is said to speed printing compared to using a microcontroller.
“It’s the right way to architect embedded systems like this,” Moschella was quoted as saying. “To do it with pure embedded code on a microcontroller, or not using an operating system, is significantly magnifying your development work.”
Inside the new Replicators
The MakerBot Replicator Mini Compact 3D Printer went on sale Feb. 25 for $1,375. The MakerBot Replicator Desktop 3D Printer recently became available for pre-order at $2,899, and the high-end MakerBot Replicator Z18 3D Printer will be go on sale this spring for $6,499. The first two printers, at least, will ship in the spring, and full specs are available for all but the Z18.
The fifth-generation MakerBot Replicator boasts an 11 percent larger build volume compared to the still available MakerBot Replicator 2. It’s capable of creating objects as large as 25.2 x 19.9 x 15.0 centimeters (9.9 x 7.8 x 5.9 inches, or 465 cubic inches). The low-end Replicator Mini instead offers 12.5 x 10 x 10cm build volume, and the high-end Replicator Z18 moves up to 45.7 x 30.5 x 30.5cm, or a foot in each direction and 18 inches in the third.
Replicator Mini Compact (left) and Smart Extruder
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All the systems use the typical fused deposition modeling (FDM) technique for printing plastic models, developed by high-end 3D printing company Stratasys, which last year acquired MakerBot. With FDM, plastic materials are heated and applied in layers via tiny nozzles until an object emerges. Other new features include a MakerBot Smart Extruder, which is claimed to be easy to swap or replace. The extruder is smart in that it can detect the absence of filament and automatically pause printing. It can also send notifications on build progress or problems to MakerBot Desktop and MakerBot Mobile apps.
The two higher-end systems can handle a minimum layer height — the 3D printing equivalent of resolution — as low as 100 microns, while the Mini defaults to 200 microns. The MakerBot Replicator and Mini system offer a 0.4mm nozzle diameter, and can spin plastic in 1.75mm filaments from a 0.9- or 0.2-kilogram spool, respectively. They all use biodegradable PLA filament as opposed to the typically stronger, but non-degradable, and therefore less environmentally friendly ABS plastics.
Replicator control panel
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MakerBot had no further details on the systems’ TI-based ARM9 computers, which run TI’s Angstrom Linux build. Texas Instruments makes several ARM9 processors, including the AM1705. Thanks in part to their ARM Linux computers, the Replicator and Replicator Z18 each integrate a 3.5‐inch full-color LCD display, which is navigated via an “intuitive dial.” All three models also add another feature missing from the earlier devices: a 640 x 480-pixel camera “for monitoring and sharing,” says MakerBot.
Like the Replicator 2, the new systems provide USB ports, and the two higher-end models also ship with a USB stick. The new models dispense with the earlier SD card slot in favor of WiFi, and the two higher-end printers also offer an Ethernet port.
In addition to providing a larger build volume, the Replicator Z18 features a heated chamber. Both the Replicator and Replicator Z18 also provide assisted build leveling support. None of the printers, however, appear to offer extruders capable of using water-soluble PVA plastic to form plastic supports.
Apps, clouds, and stores
All three systems are said to be “app and cloud enabled,” supporting new desktop and mobile 3D printing apps for discovering, managing, and sharing 3D prints. The desktop apps support Linux, Mac, and Windows PCs, and the mobile apps will launch with iOS, with Android support available later in the year.
The printers also support downloads of free MakerBot Verified and ready‐to‐print 3D models from its Thingiverse.com 3D design community. Users can also save 3D printing files in a personal MakerBot Cloud Library. Other features include MakerBot MakerCare, a service plan for service and parts.
New apps include a tablet-ready, entry-level MakerBot PrintShop app and the MakerBot Digital Store, which sells printable and paintable digital 3D models and collections. Models downloaded from the store can be printed without limits, and do not require supports or glue, says the company.
All three Replicator models won industry awards at CES 2014, including an Engadget Best of CES award for the Replicator, and best of show type awards from PC Pro, Digital Trends, ZDNet, and Popular Mechanics for the Replicator Mini. Not everybody was happy with the new products, however, with Tom’s Guide saying the printers were overpriced — the new MakerBot Replicator costs $700 more than the Replicator 2.
The story, which did not formally review the systems, judged the printers’ new connectivity features and screens as less important than the advances in new materials provided by Stratasys rival 3D Systems. At CES, 3D Systems announced a food-based ChefJet printer, a ceramic ready CeraJet printer, and the CubeJet, which brings new jetted polymer filaments to consumer pricing. Other experimental materials expected to gradually move to small-business and eventually consumer 3D printers include metal, various resins, and potentially nanoscale materials.
Meanwhile, many in the open source “maker” community have backed away from MakerBot when the company decided in Sept. 2012 to reverse its open source hardware policy starting with the Replicator 2. The move was said to be in response to the arrival of an almost identical clone of the Replicator called the Tangibot. MakerBot’s software, however, is still open source.
Most open source printers use one of the many 3D printers based on the open source RepRap design. There are well over a dozen open source spinoffs of RepRap’s Darwin, Mendel, Prusa Mendel, and Huxley printer designs. There are also independent open source 3D printers such as the Printrbot, Solidoodle, Type A, and Ultimaker. Most of these printers are priced below $2,000, with a number of them under $1,000.
The MakerBot Replicator Mini ($1,375) and MakerBot Replicator ($2,899) 3D Printers are now available for pre-order, and will ship in the spring. The MakerBot Replicator Z18 3D Printer will be go on sale this spring for $6,499. More information may be found in this comparison feature chart covering the three new models and the earlier Replicator 2 and 2X, as well as product pages for the Replicator Mini and Replicator.