How MakerBot’s Hardware and Software Teams Collaborate Under One Roof
| by Stan Spring
Why MakerBot’s Integrated Approach is Crucial to Advancing 3D PrintingGreater Collaboration for Better Solutions
On September 20, 2016, we revealed what’s next from MakerBot. With the launch of new 3D printing solutions for professionals and educators, we announced a new approach to product development at MakerBot that’s based on carefully listening to our customers.
For everything that the launch revealed, what it didn’t reveal was the intense collaboration behind the scenes that made these solutions possible. By collaborating under one roof, we can create industry-leading solutions that meet the evolving needs of our customers. We will also continue to elevate the 3D printing experience and empower you to do more.
In this post, we’re going to further dive into one of the key collaborations behind the MakerBot Replicator+. With this 3D printer as our example, we hope to show why the integration of hardware and software is more than just a better way to create new solutions. It’s the best way to really make the overall 3D printing process easier, faster, and more effective.
With Feedback as Our Guide
Our thinking in developing the Replicator+ was guided by feedback from in-depth customer research and the collective expertise of our teams. Based on insights from these sources, we set a variety of goals for the Replicator+, like faster printing, greater reliability, higher print quality, reduced noise, and improved ease of use.
Even though many teams collaborated across MakerBot to achieve these goals, one collaboration especially drove the effort: the mechanical engineers from our hardware team and the toolpather engineers from our software team.
First, a Short Lesson on Toolpathing and Slicing
To learn what’s significant about this collaboration, it’s important to understand what we mean by the terms “toolpathing” and “slicing.” Within 3D printing, slicing is a common process where 3D print preparation software cuts a 3D file into separate layers. These layers are the order of how your file will print.
At MakerBot, toolpathing is where the interesting work happens. The toolpath is the very specific set of instructions that tells the extruder on your MakerBot 3D printer the path to travel, as well as the speed and acceleration at which it must travel, in order to complete each slice in the most optimal way possible. These instructions include how much infill to print and at what layer height. All in all, the toolpath can determine a variety of factors for your end print, such as its internal strength, resolution, and the time needed to print.
At MakerBot, the software engineers on our toolpather team focus on how to optimize these specific sets of instructions for MakerBot’s 3D printers. Even if toolpathing can affect a variety of factors, the hardware on the printer, like the gantry and extruder, provide the actual limits for its performance. So software engineers on the toolpather team work within those limits to conduct tests, tune instructions for each printer’s mechanical system, and figure out the right balance between print speed, quality, and strength.
The collaboration between our mechanical engineering and toolpather teams proved beneficial both before and during the development of the Replicator+. While there are many examples that we could highlight, the following are just a few.
Before Developing the Replicator+
Even before product development began, the mechanical engineering team sat down with the toolpather team to brainstorm how we might design the Replicator+ to print faster. Since the toolpather team tuned our print software for the Replicator (5th Gen), they are familiar with that 3D printer’s limitations. For example, since vibrations are inherent when a machine is in motion, the toolpather team tuned the extruder to operate at slower speeds for certain moves. Minimizing vibration enables the printer to produce more accurate print results.
With feedback from the toolpather team, our mechanical engineers could more carefully understand how to increase print speed for the Replicator+ while minimizing vibration. As a result, they realized that the gantry and carriage for the Replicator+ would need to be more rigid and stiff. To increase the performance of the printer, the mechanical engineering team made a number of design enhancements. They simplified the assembly of these pieces, chose more reliable manufacturing techniques, and used sturdier materials, like cast aluminum pieces and aluminum extrusions. Together, these changes allowed for higher performance, like faster printing, higher print quality, and quieter operation.
While Developing the Replicator+
Earlier this year, we noticed an issue in testing the Replicator+. The extruder required added force at certain points when printing a certain model. This force caused the extruder to stop printing momentarily. So, the mechanical engineering team built a test setup with a torque sensor in line with the extruder to measure the extruder push force as it printed. Then, we printed the same model again. The rig collected data from the torque sensor which we compared against the toolpather code we used for this model.
To make this happen, our software team created a new software tool to sync the data from the torque sensor and the toolpather code. That software helped them isolate what move was causing problems. Through this deep data-driven approach, we could better understand the extruder behavior and pinpoint which toolpather commands were causing the issue, so we could make the fix.
After Releasing the Replicator+
This collaboration doesn’t stop once our 3D printers are out in the world either. The toolpather team and our mechanical engineering teams can and do work together to introduce new printing features through MakerBot Print or the MakerBot 3D Printer Firmware, such as further speed improvements. That’s one way our MakerBot 3D Printers offer more value over time.
Improving the Overall Experience
Collaborations like these set MakerBot apart within the 3D printing industry. Both teams take direct input from each other to best inform what they do. While the mechanical engineering team works on a more fixed schedule with harder deadlines, the toolpather team is a bit more agile. In the end, both teams work together to learn how we can improve the performance of our products, before, during, or after development. If these teams were in separate locations, each would have a much harder time optimizing our hardware and our software.
MakerBot’s hardware and software teams aren’t the only ones that benefit from working together in one location. Across all of our teams, close collaboration allows for an easier exchange of ideas, faster testing, and ultimately better decisions. It’s how we can develop and optimize our solutions —3D printers, software, and filament— to work together.
By optimizing our solutions and collaborating under one roof, we will continue to develop the best possible 3D printing solutions for professionals and educators.