MakerBot’s 3-D printers will soon be able to produce items that look like bronze, limestone, and wood, thanks to a new line of plastic-based composite materials shipping later this year. But the launch may be too little, too late: Entrepreneurs and artists interested in working with metal and wood are already embracing desktop milling machines that can handle the real deal.
The calculation is simple: Buy a MakerBot Replicator, the leading desktop 3-D printer, for $2,889, and you can produce plastic prototypes or the kind of trinkets that you might find in a Happy Meal. Buy a small-scale milling machine like the Othermill, which retails for $2,199, and you can make jewelry and mechanical parts out of everything from aluminum to walnut.
“Once you can cut metal, you can make things that last,” says Danielle Applestone, chief executive of Other Machine Co. “For the first couple of months that I was working here, I was scared of cutting with metal. It was louder, I was worried I was going to break the tool. But as soon as I jumped in, it quickly became like wax to me.”
“Metal is power, it really is,” she says. “You don’t go back.”
Milling machines, which subtract material–in the simplest terms, you can think of them as “smart” chisels–are having a moment, as entrepreneurs launch affordable models on Kickstarter and crafters discover their potential, through software far friendlier than the G-code of old. Printers like MakerBot’s Replicator, in contrast, suddenly seem better suited for party tricks. Undercurrent, a New York-based digital agency recently acquired by Quirky, used to wow clients visiting its Soho offices by 3-D printing a plastic whistle during the course of their meeting. It was a neat gimmick, but one emblematic of the challenges facing 3-D printing companies catering to consumer audiences.
While no one disputes that 3-D printing or additive manufacturing is growing quickly–research analysts at Canalys project that the market will be worth $16.2 billion by 2018, up from $2.5 billion in 2013–the vast majority of that growth is expected to come from industrial applications in fields like medicine and aerospace. Desktop 3-D printing, for hobbyists and small-scale fabricators, has so far failed to live up to the hype surrounding it, and the recent tribulation at industry poster child MakerBot is case in point. Brooklyn-based Makerbot announced layoffs, cost reductions, and three store closings in April. According to Motherboard, the company fired 20% of its 500-member staff.
“These organizational moves are part of the continued scaling of MakerBot,” David Reis, chief executive of Stratasys, MakerBot’s parent company, said in a statement. Former employees are less oblique, describing management as horrific at worst and questionable at best in Glassdoor reviews. On Amazon, customers have been blasting the company’s most recent, fifth-generation Replicator as “a complete disaster,” and “not ready for prime time.” MakerBot executives declined to be interviewed for this story.
“We don’t expect desktop milling machines to impact our business, since we believe that both technologies will continue to complement each other,” spokesperson Johan-Till Broer told Fast Company. “A desktop milling machine can be a great addition to a MakerBot Desktop 3-D Printer and is another tool in the maker’s toolbox.”
Increasingly, though, a desktop mill can be a maker’s only machine. On the lower end, there are customizable kits like Inventables’s X-Carve, which requires some assembly but starts at just $799. For $2,500, there are options like the Carbide3D, which takes several swipes at 3-D printers in its marketing materials (“Ready to make real 3-D parts?”). And for around $3,500, there are innovative models like the Pocket NC, a five-axis desktop mill, set to ship next year.
“A big mill is $10,000; you need half a garage. The little desktop mills are pretty nice,” says Mark Hatch, CEO of TechShop, a membership-based chain with eight locations. For $125 per month, members–many of them aspiring entrepreneurs–gain access to TechShop’s laser cutters, printers, mills, and lathes.
Hatch estimates that 70-80% of the jobs being done on TechShop’s desktop 3-D printers are prototypes, not finished products. “You can iterate two or three times in a single day, and that’s incredibly powerful,” he says. “Sometimes it’s good enough. Sometimes it’s an interior component so it doesn’t really matter what it looks like.” But for finished products, or jobs like custom gears, more accurate machines that can accommodate wood or metal are typically a better fit. Basic 3-D printer plastics, he says, don’t have “the compression strength, the tension.” And for most members, contracting out jobs to industry-quality 3-D printers, who can accommodate a wider range of materials, isn’t economical. “When you amortize the cost, in many cases you should just mill that baby out,” he says.
Jony Ive agrees. To test their ideas, the Apple staff members working in Ive’s famous design studio don’t use 3-D printers; they use three computer-numerical-control (CNC) milling machines, the desktop models’ full-size equivalent. According to the New Yorker, Ive wanted the machines “to be as integrated into the studio as noise and dust pollution allowed,” because of their ability to shape the metals and other materials that distinguish Apple products.
I’m typing this story on a MacBook Air that Apple machined on a CNC, placed on top of a simple standing desk that I designed and machined on a CNC. It’s easy for me to imagine having a desktop CNC at home, in order to make custom kitchen tools for my cooking projects or gifts for friends.
“It’s the small craft businesses–that’s really where the broader market opportunity is for these kinds of machines,” Applestone says. So far Other Machine Co. has raised $6 million and sold 500 Othermills, many to design and engineering labs at schools and universities. As the company expands to serve a broader consumer market, she sees an opportunity on par with other household tools–not for everyone, but still mass market. “Everybody has a toaster. Maybe it’s more like a sewing machine,” she says, with a range of price points.
TechShop anticipates a similar trajectory. “We believe that a substantial set of the economy–5, 10, 15%–will give way to locally produced materials, local artists co-creating with consumers,” Hatch says. “And they’ll leverage this combination of design tools and computer-aided manufacturing to do it.”