Three-dimensional printers, long a tool for makers, are aiming for the home and classroom market. Two of the early entrants, XYZ Printing and New Matter, were brave enough to allow me to borrow their kid-friendly models for several months to check them out: For XYZ, that’s the daVinci miniMaker; for New Matter, it’s the Mod-t. These under-$300 gadgets are said to be aimed at tweens and up (though the primary colors of the miniMaker seemed designed to appeal to far younger children). “Up” includes non-tech-savvy teachers and other adults interested in 3D printing who aren’t hard-core makers.
Both of these school/home printers use only nontoxic PLA filament, a biodegradable polyester made out of renewable resources, typically cornstarch. Those already involved in 3D printing likely see this as a limitation; for the home market, though, it’s a good thing. It means you don’t have to worry about your kids using materials that need serious ventilation for safety.
Neither printer takes up much room: The miniMaker measures 41 x 33 x 36 centimeters (16 x 13 x 14 inches); the Mod-t measures 42.5 x 51 x 48 cm (17 x 20 x 19 inches). The print beds are about the same size: approximately 15 x 15 x 15 cm (6 x 6 x 6 inches) for the miniMaker and 15 x 10 x 13 cm (6 x 4 x 5 inches) for the Mod-t.
New Matter and XYZ aren’t the only ones thinking that the time is right for a relatively easy-to-use printer; several more companies emerged at CES to take aim at this market. Says Steve Schell, CEO of New Matter: “The quality of the hardware and reliability is getting close to being ready for the home, and the software is getting easier to use, with less fiddling required.”
What is not quite there yet, Schell says, is the content—that is, designs to print or easy ways to create them. “Kids want to make toys, they want to make gifts,” he said, but “the design software isn’t quite to mass market consumer usability yet; instead, people have to be patient to go out and find 3D designs on the Internet.” These libraries are growing but are still pretty limited.
I was pretty excited to try these printers out. I remember as a kid loving my Creepy Crawlers (also called Thingmaker, a name that Mattel will soon attach to a home 3D printer); making little plastic toys just seemed magical. 3D printing takes that to a whole new level, one I thought would be fun to share with two of my now-pretty-grown-up kids (age 18 and 21, slightly past the target market) over the winter holidays. The 18-year-old had some experience with 3D printing and maker spaces; the 21-year-old had a number of things she wanted to print, such as a stand for her iPad and tchotchkes for sorority giveaways.
I’ll get to the punchline: Neither of these printers provided a seamless, frustration-free 3D-printing experience. One was more challenging out of the gate; the other had more frustrating interruptions later on. Both companies recognize the issues, and software updates are slowly making the experience better. Both systems played nicely with online design caches, like Thingiverse, and I was generally happy with the objects I eventually printed. However, I was definitely glad I didn’t try to give one of these as a gift to an unsuspecting tween or family—it would have led to a holiday exercise in anger. But I’m optimistic the companies will resolve many of the problems in time for the 2017 holidays.
Here was my experience:
I turned most of the unboxing and setup over to my 18-year-old as I watched. He started with the daVinci miniMaker (now selling for about US $229). Setup took far longer than it should have—the instructions were cryptic, at best and seemed to omit critical steps. Frankly, even just printing the instructions in color would have been a huge help in decoding them. (Perhaps the most mystifying was the instruction to “remove fixed materials.” They turned out to be inserts intended to keep the print head from moving during shipping, but without a legible photo or diagram this took far too long to figure out.) We had some problems with the calibration test stopping without completing the process and had to repeat it a couple of times.
Finally, my son set up his first print project—a multipart keychain—and the miniMaker lost track of alignment on about the third layer. After much, much staring at the user interface and googling, we finally figured out how to stop the printer (another function that shouldn’t be quite so cryptic). We tried to start it up again, then spent the next several hours trying to get around a “printer busy” message. Turning the printer on and off didn’t help; tech support indicated it might be a Mac compatibility problem. We gave up. The problem was somewhat solved (it now needs to be turned off and on between projects, but will reset) several weeks later with a firmware update, but it took the miniMaker out of the action for the holidays.
We next turned to the Mod-t (now selling for about $299). By this point my daughter had selected several projects from Thingiverse and was eager to get going; my son’s keychain would have to wait. The unboxing and setup process was absolutely brilliant—with clear written instructions accompanied with impossible-to-misunderstand videos; every part was carefully labeled in order of unboxing. I’ve never appreciated setup instructions more.
My children also loved the look of the Mod-t—it’s as streamlined as one could imagine and, mostly white, wouldn’t be out of place in an Apple store. (No surprise, the look came from Frog Design.) It was far more appealing to them than the primary-colored miniMaker, whic would fit into a preschool environment (and, they told me, would not appeal to the tween target market for the device). And the Mod-t’s thick acrylic cover actually provided some soundproofing, unlike the thin plastic cover for the miniMaker—which theoretically sticks onto the printer but falls off so easily I gave up on it.
We turned it on and began the calibration process. Disaster. It groaned and clattered and noisily ground away with very little happening. We turned the power off and started again, and again, checking the instructions, checking videos. Nothing gave us a clue, and tech support was gone for the holidays. We spent about an hour trying to troubleshoot the problem, then gave up. We later determined that this press loaner had been through some rough handling and one of the motors was dead. So much for 3D printing with my kids during the break.
In late January, I was ready to start again—on my own this time. The miniMaker had released the firmware update that made it possible to clear the print queue by turning it on and off—an annoyance, particularly with the switch hard to reach, but workable. The Mod-t folks, meanwhile, had swapped out my broken unit for a new one, and this one calibrated just fine, in a process that seems magical—it slides the print bed around on grooved rods until it somehow decides it’s done. (See video below)
So I was finally good to go. Given that I usually start dreaming about the beach around this time of year, I decided to print various beach gadgets—like cup holders, towel pins, and sarong rings. I also had broken my last bag clip in the kitchen, so I added several bag clip designs to my folder of printable files.
The user interface and tools provided for the two systems differed in approach, mainly because the Mod-t requires uploading designs to a website for processing, while the miniMaker does it on your computer, but both were fine; I won’t get into details about the software here.
I started with a large clothespin on the miniMaker—one I planned to use to clip my beach towel to my chair. The printer slipped out of alignment again, and I had to stop and restart. Interestingly, this was the very last alignment problem I had with that printer; every other project went smoothly. The Mod-t, assigned to print the cup holder, also had an alignment problem, and I had to stop the project and restart. This was also the last alignment problem I had with that printer and remains a mystery.
From then on, the miniMaker worked smoothly, with the exception of the turning it off and on between every project. I also wasn’t thrilled that I had to get out a screwdriver and fumble with changing a chip that goes inside the spool hub in order to switch colors. You can only use filament purchased from XYZ for this printer; the company says that insures quality control, and to be fair, they don’t price it outrageously, at around $28 for 600 grams of 1.75 mm filament. But the whole spool and chip disassembly process was annoying.
Meanwhile, the very pretty Mod-t was driving me a little bit crazy. The main problem: filament breaks. It was, at least most of the time, easy enough to reload, but I lost count of how many times I tried to print, or was well into a project, when I noticed nothing was coming out of the print head and had to stop. It doesn’t detect these breaks itself, so if you walk away, you can hear the thing chunking along for hours and think all is well, but nothing is actually printing. I also had a troubling experience with the print head getting stuck and shutting the whole thing down; tech support eventually walked me through the process of unsticking it manually. I was told that the head is supposed to react to resistance that rises too high, but it doesn’t always do that. So the company is working on a firmware update to address the issue. After the stuck head problem, I was able to print a few more objects. Then a filament break that, this time, led to a filament jam finally took me to the end of my patience; I ran the unload sequence several times and then gave up, turning to the miniMaker for the last few objects I’d wanted to print.
The verdict: The Mod-T looks cool, and I loved to watch it calibrate itself—that process is really cool. And the filament is easy to change; that’s a plus for people who don’t want every object they print to be the same color. Meanwhile, the miniMaker was ridiculously hard to set up, it looks silly on my desktop, and the filament is more annoying to change, but, well, it’s still working. (And the filament didn’t break—not even once.)