3D Systems CubeX and MakerBot Replicator 2X: The 3D Printers of 2013

By Wesley Fenlon

3D Systems and MakerBot will collide this year in a battle of the Xs as their 3D printers take on the challenge of easy desktop creation.

3D Systems got into the desktop 3D printing game in 2012 with the Cube, a $1300 easy-to-use competitor to the popular MakerBot. As we pointed out in May, 3D Systems took a different approach to the printing game, limiting the need for user maintenance and monetizing sales on the Cubify store. The company's newest 3D printer, the CubeX, follows that same design philosophy, but in a dramatically more powerful package. While the Cube was a less expensive alternative to the MakerBot Replicator, the CubeX will go toe-to-toe with the Replicator 2X.

The CubeX breaks new ground for desktop printer sizes, offering a build volume of 10.75 x 10.75 x 9.5 inches with a single print head. With dual extruders, that build volume shrinks slightly to 9 x 10.75 x 9.5 inches, but that's still larger than the Replicator 2X's 9.7 x 6.0 x 6.1 inch build volume. The CubeX also offers an exciting option for 3D printing pros who want to make some really complex objects: a third print head.

Image via Cubify Flickr page

At $2500, the CubeX comes with a single extruder, while the $2800 Replicator 2X automatically comes fitted with two extruders. For $3250, the CubeX Duo comes with a second extruder, and for $4000, the CubeX Trio comes with a third. Three extruders means three separate colors per print, and the 3D Systems printer supports both ABS and PLA plastics. MakerBot has pushed PLA plastics because they're biodegradable, harder than ABS and doesn't give off nasty fumes, but the Replicator 2X supports both plastics.

Image via Makerbot Flickr page

3D Systems promises a Z axis resolution of 125 microns. The Replicator 2X's highest resolution setting gets down to 100 microns. But the printing experience is where the two devices will really differ. As opposed to MakerBot's spools of colored plastic, 3D Systems sells refills in cartridge form to simplify the replacement process. There are downsides to that simplicity, though--the CubeX's cartridges aren't compatible with the smaller Cube, and they cost $100 each, while MakerBot sells spools for $40 - $50 that work with multiple printers.

Both MakerBot and 3D Systems have some proprietary software they want you to use. On MakerBot's side, it's MakerWare (which has landed MakerBot in some hot water with the open source community). The free MakerWare slices up objects to prepare them for printing, though you can still do your 3D modeling in whatever software you fancy. Cubify, meanwhile, offers a simple 3D design program called Invent for modeling. It costs $50, but CubeX buyers get a free copy.

Invent can convert standard STL files to proprietary cubex files, so expert creators are still free to use the 3D creation software of their choice. Of course, 3D Systems would like it if you bought models off the Cubify store, which is like Thingiverse with dollar signs attached. MakerBot's Thingiverse is sort of a wild west of 3D design, while the Cubify store takes a more commercial approach. Many of the designs on the store are expensive, and the Cubify store needs a better way to distinguish between actual objects that are for sale (that you don't have to 3D print yourself) and 3D printer files that can be printed on the CubeX.

Still, both approaches have their advantages--you can find lots of cool, free stuff on Thingiverse, but you'll have to wade through more projects. Cubify's store could become more like the Etsy of 3D printing objects. 3D Systems offers a 60 percent royalty rate on sales, and a 5 percent royalty rates on objects that are cloud printed and shipped out to buyers.

Image via Cubify Flickr page

The CubeX is upgradeable, so you can always buy a second or third extruder after getting the hang of printing with the simplest model. Both 3D Systems and MakerBot are taking orders for their newest printers, though the Replicator 2X is a couple months away from shipping.

The Replicator 2 made a big splash last year, popping up on the cover of Wired, and if the 2X and CubeX are any indication, 2013 will bring 3D printers even closer to the mainstream, impacting everything from rapid prototyping to patent law to miniature gaming.