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Chessmen, belts, other ephemera come to life with Cube 3D printer

3D Systems' Cube 3D printer challenges MakerBot in bringing user-designed objects into the real world.

LAS VEGAS--The profile of 3D printing will rise after this year's CES, and 3D Systems' Cube is partly responsible.

Now playing: Watch this: First hands-on of Cube 3D home printer

MakerBot's build-it-yourself Thing-O-Matic has claimed most of the consumer attention for 3D printing this past year, and MakerBot's own CES announcement, whatever and whenever that will be, will only spur more coverage. In the meantime, the Cube underscores the idea that 3D printing can be consumer-friendly, and that a growing number of vendors see it as a viable business.

The design of the Cube printer is a contrast to the garage workshop aesthetic of the MakerBot product. Instead of the Thing-O-Matic's exposed circuity and wooden housing, the Cube with its friendly-looking plastic chassis looks more like a sewing machine.

Other than in appearance, the two printers are not that different. Each relies on an attached spool of plastic: ABS (Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene), the same material from which Legos are made, in the Cube, or ABS and PLA (polylactic acid, like that used for keg cups) in the case of the Thing-O-Matic. The plastic for each is available in assorted colors, and as the video above shows, it offers all kind of output possibilities.

3D Systems

The two printers also depend on a community of designers to make printing plans available to others. The Cube has a Web site for hosting designs called in development, and MakerBot has its Thingiverse, already home to more than 15,000 object plans.

That community-mindedness seems pervasive in the 3D printing industry. Yes, it's smart business for a 3D printer vendor to cultivate a library of plans for users who might not be handy with a 3D design application. But the Cube, the Thing-O-Matic, and other 3D printers like Ultimaking's Ultimaker and Delta Micro's Up 3D Printer all use common STL design files, which means no one has pursued a lock-in strategy via proprietary software.

That doesn't mean 3D Systems isn't trying to set itself apart. In addition to hosting design files, the Cubify site will also let you place an order for 3D Systems to print and ship out objects too large to print on the Cube. The object-to-order business mirrors that of Sculpteo, also at CES, although so far 3D Systems seems to be the only company that sells both 3D printers and 3D printing services.

The Cube will sell for $1,299 when it goes on sale this quarter. That's more than the $1,099 Thing-O-Matic, but you don't need to assemble the Cube yourself.

Your move, MakerBot. Watch this space for coverage of its pending announcement.