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Waiting for the perfect low-cost 3D printer? Check out the MOD-t

A wave of 3D printer makers are in a race to the bottom to offer the cheapest machine possible, and they are getting there very, very quickly. But the newest option, freshly launched startup New Matter‘s MOD-t, comes with a surprise: It’s beautifully conceived.

The MOD-t launched today on Indiegogo, where it is going for $149 to $249. That’s in line with the lowest-priced 3D printers ever. And given the recent success of the $199 to $299 Micro printer, it means it could rake in millions in funding.

If New Matter can deliver on the vision its co-founder and CTO Steve Schell laid out to me during a recent meeting, it deserves those millions. I want to make clear that I didn’t see the MOD-t physically print anything. I saw a non-functioning machine meant to showcase the planned design and another printer that Schell said worked, but wasn’t set up that day. I did get to handle 3D printed pieces that he said came off of the working prototype.

But I still walked away from the meeting impressed. To start with, the MOD-t is beautiful. The design prototype I saw was a gleaming white box that showcased a black print bed that sat on two rods. A print head hovered over it. The whole thing was encased in a removable clear plastic cover. And that’s it: no crazy tangles of wires, no exposed belts and other pieces to complicate printing.

New Matter co-founder and CTO Steve Schell and a MOD-t prototype. Photo by Signe Brewster.
New Matter co-founder and CTO Steve Schell and the MOD-t design prototype. Photo by Signe Brewster.

But what is more beautiful is New Matter’s vision for the printing experience that will accompany the MOD-t. The company is working with product management and design firm Frog to pin down what it will look and feel like to interact with the printer, and it was clear that this group of people really understands what it should be like to work with a 3D printer.

An example of how the New Matter shop might look on a mobile device. Photo courtesy of New Matter.
An example of how the New Matter shop might look on a mobile device. Photo courtesy of New Matter.

New Matter plans to offer mobile and desktop printing with custom software. Printing will be done wirelessly, and will continue even when the user takes his or her computer out of the room.

“We took a step back and thought about how people interact with consumer electronics today,” Schell said. “They want to be able to interact with a machine from anywhere, whether they are on a computer, their phone, a tablet or anywhere else. If the print is going to take four hours, you don’t want to leave the laptop sitting next to it the whole time. Being able to check on that build status from a mobile phone is a really important feature that I think people are going to expect.”

The startup also plans to offer a collection of printable designs that will be free or for sale on a planned online MOD-t marketplace. Users can print their own STL files as well.

The MOD-t prints at a definition of 200 microns. That’s not quite at the 100 micron scale that MakerBot and plenty of other desktop printer manufacturers have hit, but it’s not bad. It has a decent 6 x 5 x 4 inch build volume.

The company plans to sell filament for the printer, but it is compatible with any PLA plastic. The filament spool sits on the table next to the printer, so no special spool size is necessary. The combination of printer, filament and model sales should bring in enough money that New Matter will continue offering the MOD-t for around $249 after the Indiegogo campaign, according to Schell.

Most printer makers offer their machine at a discounted rate on a crowdfunding site to drum up interest and then ramp up the price when they move to general sales. But Schell said the MOD-t actually costs very little to make because it is made of fewer parts than a more traditional desktop 3D printer, bringing down manufacturing and parts costs.

The MOD-t’s unique design makes it possible to use fewer parts. Most 3D printers have a print bed that moves up and down while the head moves forward, backward and side to side. The MOD-t is the exact opposite. The bed moves from side to side, pulled by teeth-studded rods that simply turn to move it. The head moves up and down, removing the need for a gantry system to suspend it over the bed. It is powered by servo motors, which offer a reduction in noise over stepper motors.

Photo by Signe Brewster.
Photo by Signe Brewster.

There’s no crazy calibration necessary and less of a chance of the bed or head being at the wrong height or angle. The bed just pops out when the time comes to remove a print job.

For the price and planned design, I can’t think of a better candidate for a decent entry-level 3D printer than the MOD-t. This is one to watch.

“We are creating this whole new way of interacting with 3D printers that is new and different,” Schell said. “I certainly hope that the audience sees that it is a different take on the industry and the space and reacts accordingly.”