Some folks don't play fair,
Wily tricks up both their sleeves.
Learn and bide your time

The urge to write really goes away fast in the midst of paper deadlines for conferences/journals...

I had the chance (or obligation) to talk to a Stratasys maintenance rep the other day, and it gave me a little bit more insight into how the big players in the market (Stratasys, 3D Systems, etc) operate nowadays, with the absurd flood of low-cost, DIY designs into the market. The established market leaders still tend to get a lot of flack (perhaps rightfully so) from the maker community for their high cost, closed and proprietary designs, and lack of innovation, but I still think they were established as and continue to be very different companies from the new 3D-printer companies of today. In my opinion, Stratasys and 3D Systems are B2B companies being compared to a new crop of B2C companies, and neither of them have any business trying to break into the home consumer market.

The Drill Press and the Handheld Drill

Despite what bullish writers say about the 3D-printing consumer market, Stratasys and 3D Systems have long found most of their success in industrial applications, and I think they'd be wise to stick with it. Prior to their acquisition of Makerbot, Stratasys' entry model was probably the uPrint, which was apparently only released in 2009, by the way. At $15k-ish per machine, with filament cartridges costing over $100 each, it's certainly out of reach for your average household consumer. I can make the argument that my personal printer, which originally cost $1k and uses $30 reels of non-proprietary filament, can produce prints of similar quality to the uPrint, but I'd also have to admit that my printer requires fairly regular maintenance, tweaking, and will inevitably show signs of mechanical wear within the year. In contrast, while I can't speak for its first year of operation, the uPrint we have on campus here at Yale has experienced a serious mechanical failure just once in the past four years. In fact, that issue was due to user error (part lifted off an over-used tray, obstructed the gantry, and eventually tore a timing belt), and it was fixed via the Stratasys service contract within the week. During those four years, we hammered that printer regularly with long jobs, and students had no problems running last-minute print jobs without fear of print failures.

In short, the Stratasys uPrint is a workhorse, and even with the widespread proliferation of new printers today, I'd struggle to put anywhere near the same amount of trust in any of the consumer-level desktop printers. This isn't to say I wouldn't get a consumer-level printer (I have one, after all), but the two are clearly incomparable. You'll have to deal with intermittent failures and regular tuning with consumer-level printers. Any forum for even the most well-established printer companies would attest to this. For a customer that uses a printer as an integral part of their design or production tool-chain, I don't think the latter scenario would cut it. What benefit do the big boys get from joining the race to the bottom, especially if they already have a product without the warts and compromises? Low-cost printers aren't for everyone, unless you like big paperweights when the going gets tough.

Open-Source: An Overvalued, Underutilized Perk?

I don't think the maker community will ever forgive Makerbot's 'betrayal' when they went closed-source, and then corporate after the Stratasys acquisition. While I thoroughly appreciate the lengths that companies like Aleph Objects goes to stay open-source and promote innovation, I think this value's been a bit overblown. Granted, I'm a bit biased, as I'm part of an open-source project that has struggled to gain traction with outside contributions. Sites like ifixit have shown that anyone's free to tear down and publish on even the most proprietary of products. The latest Makerbot model had a detailed teardown published within days of the printer's official release. 3D-printers can be pretty magical, but we're not talking rocket science here (I still assume rocket science is difficult).

If the demand's big enough, capable designers and engineers will still be able to innovate on top of existing designs, closed or not. If the demand's insignificant (present company's project included), I doubt even the best documentation (hey, I'm proud of my project's documentation) will spur progress onward. To be fair, open-source is a pretty nice gesture, and if you're dealing with the maker community, I don't see any reason why you wouldn't adopt open design practices.

Don't Leap Forward into Shark-Infested Waters

Along with the uPrint, we recently got the Fortus 250mc, a larger and more capable update of the uPrint. The extruder design between the two is identical, part for part. Four years of potential research and development, and there's no change to probably the most critical part of the printer. Meanwhile, nearly every new Kickstarter printer boasts some new design quirk or upgrade. The more established companies release new models almost annually. The difference between Printrbot's initial Kickstarter design and their latest low-cost model is particularly jarring. The maintenance rep I talked to said that the Stratasys Mojo and 3D Systems Cube were examples of attempts at innovating at a lower price-point to try and keep pace with the newer and more nimble competition. Both were also probably released a little bit too soon, based on the initial customer feedback. New companies have very little to lose, but when you're on top, the best you can do is stay where you are. Patience is a virtue, especially when the risks you take are significantly more costly.

Old Guys Slow Down, Young'uns Still Catching Up

I don't think stagnant design necessarily means bad design. The Stratasys extruder that hasn't been changed in four years is an absolutely incredibly extruder design. It has a single filament driver for two materials, switches material with a mechanical/bistable switch and gantry movement, detects filament clogs, has modular and easy-to-replace nozzle tips, and calibrates to stay level to the print bed before each print. There may have been hacks and attempts here and there to support some of that functionality, but I doubt you'll find anything with the polish of what Stratasys has already been delivering to users for the past 5+ years. The proprietary filament reels that printer enthusiasts like to complain about are sealed containers with desiccant to prevent moisture from damaging the filament, which are also extruded in-house to maximize consistency and robustness. Meanwhile, users are just beginning to seriously look at filament storage and material optimization.

3D-printing's continuing to move fast, and it's a lot of fun to be present for the ride, but I wonder if we're just jogging on a well-trodden path, headed towards some destination where others have already been.