M3D has launched a Kickstarter campaign for its Micro 3D printer and it is getting a warm reception, surpassing its $50,000 goal in 11 minutes. From a casual glance, it's easy to see why the Micro is off to a fast start; its low price (starting at $200), compact size and sleek case (available in several colors) generate an aura of simplicity, user-friendliness and, dare I say it, cuteness. But, the printer's almost toy-like looks are part of a unique design strategy which co-developers Dave Jones and Mike Armani have used to create a surprisingly affordable, capable, user-friendly machine which may be a preview of the future consumer 3D printer market.

Armani and Jones are both highly-capable technologists but with radically different personalities, interests and talents. Although it's a source of constant friction between these two longtime friends, the tension created by their divergent approaches is responsible for the design process which may enable the Micro to achieve its lofty goals.

It had to be attractive enough to appeal to the average consumer. This turned out to be the key driver for the entire design process. After carefully studying how many of the most successful consumer products were designed, Armani realized that the common denominator was how they shaped the customers' perception of a product. So before the first lead screw, IC  or other component was ever considered, Armani devoted himself to imbuing the empty shell with a set of visual cues that communicated trust, comfort and safety.

Once defined, Jones led a team of production engineers to create the mechanical and electronic elements. Instead of the usual practice of designing first and then trying to buy the necessary parts afterwards, they used an iterative process.  M3D's engineering was in constant communication with the production sourcing group, as well as the visual design teams.

This is when the tension between the two creators did its magic as the struggle to balance form and function helped them refine the design. The result is a machine which can be produced inexpensively, deliver great performance and maintain the same look and feel in everything from the menus in the slicing software to the sound the print head motors make.

Both Armani and Jones admit it was a grueling process, with lots of 16-hour days and almost constant struggle between the groups, but it resulted in several breakthroughs enabling them to meet their ambitious cost and performance goals while maintaining the Micro's unique appearance. Among the innovations packed into the tight cube is an advanced ceramic print head which heats the filament more uniformly, allowing much lower operating temperatures that result in higher-quality, stronger and more uniform prints. M3D also re-thought the motors and drive system used to move the print head. They developed a mechanism that uses, in the words of Mike Armani "a very different kind of motor," which is less expensive to produce and more power-efficient than the stepper motors used in most 3D printers. Rethinking the print mechanism also resulted in the creation of a self-calibrating system which not only auto-levels but also adjusts for wear and misalignment to maintain nearly-constant print quality.

There are some quirks and compromises in the design. For example, the maximum height of the print volume is higher or lower in different areas of the print bed, but Armani would argue persuasively that they were simply giving their users as much freedom as possible rather than impose a flat ceiling unnecessarily.

The demonstrator unit I got to see in operation recently helped strengthen my opinion that Armani and Jones may have a hot new product on their hands.

Specifications:

  • The Micro Supports many different materials: ABS, PLA, nylon, chameleon, as well as M3D's micro-filament spools or standard 1.75 mm filament spools
  • Compatible with Mac, PC and Linux through a direct USB-connection.
  • Advanced users can use the expert settings, as well as other software such as open-source slicers.
  • Micro Motion Technology is a sensor and feedback system built into the print head, providing auto-leveling and auto-calibration.
  • 50-350 micron layer resolution, 15 micron X and Y positioning accuracy.
  • Print height: 116mm (4.6"). Base Print Area: 109mm x 113mm. Print Area Above 74mm: 91mm x 84mm.
  • Removable ABS-bonding Print Bed.
  • Printer Dimensions: 185mm³ / Printer weight: 1kg (2.2 lbs).

The Micro is designed for assembly and production in the USA.