The Past, Present, And Uncertain Future Of LulzBot

Considering that it’s only existed for around a decade, the commercial desktop 3D printing market has seen an exceptional amount of turnover. But then, who could resist investing in an industry that just might change the world? It certainly didn’t hurt that the MakerBot Cupcake, arguably the first “mass market” desktop 3D printer, was released the same month that Kickstarter went live. We’ve long since lost count of the failed 3D printer companies that have popped up in the intervening years. This is an industry with only a handful of remaining veterans.

One of the few that have been with us since those heady early days is LulzBot, founded in 2011 by parent company Aleph Objects. Their fully open source workhorses are renowned for their robust design and reliability, though their high prices have largely kept them off the individual hacker’s bench. LulzBot was never interested in the race to the bottom that gave birth to the current generation of sub-$200 printers. Their hardware was always positioned as a competitor to the likes of Ultimaker and MakerBot, products where quality and support are paramount above all else.

NASA’s modified LulzBot

While LulzBot printers never made an impact on the entry-level market, there are institutions willing to purchase a highly dependable American-made 3D printer regardless of cost. The United States Marines used LulzBot printers to produce replacement Humvee door handles in the field, and some of the modifications that were necessary to meet their stringent requirements eventually resulted in updates to the consumer version of the printer. NASA used a highly modified LulzBot TAZ 4 to print PEI at temperatures as high as 500°C, producing parts far stronger than anything that had previously been made on a desktop 3D printer.

Yet despite such auspicious customers, LulzBot has fallen on difficult times. Consumers have made it abundantly clear they aren’t willing to pay more than $1,000 for a desktop printer, and competition above that price point is particularly fierce. Last month we started hearing rumblings in the Tip Line that the vast majority of LulzBot staff were slated to be let go, and we soon got confirmation and hard numbers from local media. Of the company’s 113 employees, only 22 would remain onboard to maintain day-to-day operations. Production on their flagship models would continue, albeit at a reduced pace, and all existing warranties would be honored. But the reduction in staff and limited cash flow meant that the development of future products, such as the LulzBot Bio tissue printer, would be put on hold.

LulzBot wasn’t quite dead, but it was hard to see this as anything but a step on the road to insolvency. A number of insiders we spoke to said they had heard a buyout was expected, and today we can report that the sale of Aleph Objects to Fargo Additive Manufacturing Equipment 3D (FAME 3D) is official. Production of the current LulzBot models is expected to continue, and some of the 91 laid off employees are likely to be hired back, but continuing Aleph Objects CEO Grant Flaharty says the details are still being finalized.

This new financial backing, provided by a venture capitalist, is certainly good news. But it would be naive to think this is the end of LulzBot’s troubles. The market has spoken, and unless the company is willing to introduce a vastly cheaper version of their printer to entice the entry-level customer as Prusa Research has recently done, it’s unclear how an infusion of cash will do anything but delay the inevitable.

For what it’s worth, we hope LulzBot finds some way to thrive. The ideal of building fully open source printers is something near and dear to the heart of Hackaday, but after the loss of PrintrBot, we’re all keenly aware of how difficult it is for small American companies to compete in the modern 3D printing market.

41 thoughts on “The Past, Present, And Uncertain Future Of LulzBot

  1. Lulz mini was my first real printer. Still works to this day. Aleph was/is a good company and very helpful. But they made some significant tactical mistakes. When the vast majority of the market shifted to 1.75mm filament they insisted on staying with 3mm across their entire line, which limits filament choices. When removable print beds became the norm they stuck with standard fixed beds even after tip-toeing up to that line with the new print bed design. They stuck with both of these decisions despite releasing new versions of Taz/Mini printers. They could have made those changes and along with a bit of a price reduction kept longtime users interested. Throw in a sub-$1k option and they would have had a shot. Would have made a lot more sense than doing a niche market bio printer.

    1. > But they made some significant tactical mistakes

      100% this.

      Lulzbot would have been a great choice for many people as a second printer, after finding a new hobby with a cheap Chinese printer. I initially bought a cheap pinter, but when it was time to upgrade to something a bit more serious, I already had a huge stack of 1.75mm filament, and wanted to keep using the Chinese printer without buying every filament twice, so even though I would have loved to buy a Lulzbot, it just wasn’t an option.

      I asked them, they told me to convert the printer to 1.75. But if I wanted to buy a printer to tinker around with, I would have bought another Chinese one!

      So I got a Prusa instead.

  2. There is no medicine against “cheapo chinese”. To average consumers these $200 printers look the same and promise the same as $1000 models, so they never learn about the benefits of quality.

    Innovations being open source gives an advantage over a few weeks at best, which makes them moot. Don’t believe it? Look at how strong innovation was in the first years of RepRap, and how it almost halted since cheap printers became commonplace.

    1. FDM is what it is. The reason “innovation” has been stagnant is there is little left to be gained with FDM, not that people arent trying due to very affordable machines being available. They are indeed trying, they are just failing. And just dont see anything about much as there isnt much to see. And when it comes to DIY machines, you can only have so many ramps and pi enclosures and monstrosities of cooling ducts. The innovation thats been taking place is in cost reduction, and it has succeeded. Its just some companies fail to see the writing on the wall. I honestly dont really understand how Prusa remains afloat other than from sheer media penetration.

      1. Most 3 dimensional shapes can be designed in a CAD program, sent through a slicer to a 3d printer and come out as plastic objects. I don’t know what more we should even be asking of FDM.

        It seems to me that any major future developments would be in recycle bots, metal printing and “printing” circuitry. Really that all exists already though. It’s still just a matter of bringing the cost down low enough to get it into all of our personal shops.

        Are we ready to build an open source $200 pick and place machine yet?

        1. There is a long standing and robust commercial market for metal powder laser sintering printers, most of which seem to come out of Germany, and they run in the $100k+ range on price. There are also additive printers that use TIG style welding, with a subtractive pass utilizing a 5-6 axis CNC. Also pricey. It would be really cool to see this technology move into the pro-sumer / hobby space in the $1k-$2k range.

      2. You don’t understand because you’ve presumably never actually owned a modern Prusa printer. Their reliability and features are far beyond the cheap Chinese machines.

        In fact, a good chunk of the Chinese printers are just Prusa clones.

        1. > You don’t understand because you’ve presumably never
          > actually owned a modern Prusa printer. Their reliability
          > and features are far beyond the cheap Chinese machines.

          That’s the point I tried to make. Actually, most people don’t “understand” this, because after looking at the price tag, they opt for the $200 model from the beginning and never feel a need to compare with a quality model. To stay in business, not the manufacturer has to believe in the advantages of quality, the customer has to.

          LulzBot apparently missed on this point. Prusa Research appears to be closer to fulfilling it by having prices not all that high, putting emphasis on brand building, still keeping quality high and introducing new/improved features every now and then.

        2. The thing with the clones is you can get them for next to nothing and if you like them you can upgrade the parts you want to. In fact the first thing most people do when they get an inexpensive 3D printer is start printing upgrades and new for it. One interesting thing is that I also see a lot of third party upgrades for Prusa printers, so apparently they are not the be all and end all as delivered. And given that many of the inexpensive printers are Prusa clones, it would seem that unless Prusa has patents, and let’s face it, when dealing with off shore manufacturers patents don’t mean much, outside of being built out of more expensive pieces what features do Prusa printers have that the clones lack? Also given the much lower price point of the clones, they seem to be more popular, and with more people owning them, it strikes me that they may be bigger incubators of refinement than their more expensive brothers.

      3. For sure low cost is a feature people go for and can be considered innovation.
        Also innovation: automatic bed leveling, 24V system, removable magnetic print surface, Trinamic drivers, power recovery, and filament detection. Another innovative feature Prusa delivers: reliability.
        I know you’re grumpy and I apologize for walking on your lawn, but your Prusa theorizing doesn’t hold water.

        1. I think what you’re saying is that Prusa brought your list of items to consumer-ish printers. I agree, and I think it’s great, but I would still argue that since Stratasys already had effectively all of that stuff since the early 2000s (including reliability), the real Prusa innovation has been cost reduction of existing FDM concepts.

    2. I’m curious what innovation you think might be left? I have a Stratasys that was built in the early 2000s and it prints as well as the new $300k Stratasys printers for sale now. The only things that have really been improved are the build volume and the material set, and those are both pretty incremental improvements. Once you have a consumer printer that can print as well as a very expensive industrial model, the only things left are reliability and (further) cost reduction. It seems to me this is what the cheap printers were trying to do.

      1. Exactly! Everything that CAN be invented already has!

        (Sarcasm!)

        The issue is that we are at the point where most of the cheap and obvious solutions have been addressed and implemented. Significant changes will require significant money or big epiphanies.
        This is one drawback to open source– it does not always reward those significant contributors significantly… It primarily rewards the broke consumers (with cheap options)a the knockoff manufacturers (who assemble cheap stuff), which limits the resources for significant changes.

      2. TheWizard says:
        > FDM is what it is. The reason “innovation” has
        > been stagnant is there is little left to be gained

        Capt McAllister says:
        > I’m curious what innovation you think might be left?

        Tenaja says:
        > Everything that CAN be invented already has!

        Oh, off the top of my head I see quite a number of possible innovations:

        – Guaranteed, accurate printed dimensions.
        – Heated build chambers might help with this.
        – Printing models without a flat bottom surface.
        – Printing metals like tin or even aluminum.
        – Print head movements following the idea of what’s known as High Speed Milling.
        – Color mixers to become independent from filament color.
        – Granule print heads.

        Sure, there have been seen experimental steps into each of these, even into metal printing. As far as I can see, none of them are commonly available out of the box features, though. As Tenaja writes correctly, they require some investment, which means it either needs public funding (early RepRap had this!) or it isn’t achievable with an open source business model and maybe not in the current market at all (see your comments as proof).

        1. You can’t really print metal with FDM, even low-melting metals. Metals don’t go through much of a gooey state like plastics, they go relatively abruptly from being solid to being liquid. Also the warping would be horrifying.

    3. And what if they do know?

      To the “average consumer” 3d printing is a hobby. I don’t know about you but $1,000+ machines are not in my hobby budget regardless how much they might improve my output.

      Personally, I prefer to build and upgrade my own printer and work towards quality that way. Still, if my only options were a $200 chinese printer or a > $1k state of the art machine I would have to go with the $200 one. Yes, there is and will be a market for higher end machines. They are good for prototyping. That’s about it though, mass manufacturing via 3d printing is a terrible idea. It is far too inefficient.

      Unfortunately we have too many people with dreams of being in that tiny high-end market. So, the bubble pops and the market corrects itself. There are and will be regrettable casualties.

      Personally, if I were designing 3d printers to sell commercially I would set myself a price limit of $499.96 for my highest end model and a goal (whether I reach it or not) of “decent” quality at $199.96.

      1. What do you mean by high end? because $500 for high end is pretty inexpensive for me!
        I see high end as a machine that enable a team in a company to prototype rapidly and that allow more that $500 in investement!

        1. Exactly the same thought here. $500 is not ‘high end’ in my book, it is only just above ‘budget’ (aka: cheap and nasty).
          For me high-end is over 10K. I would never be able to afford such a printer, but if I did, that is what I would envisage one would cost.

    4. There’s still tons of innovation in the slicers. Where it’s needed most, because software improvements benefit all users and avoid the need for expensive hardware.

      Besides, if you buy a decent $150 printer(Like the MP mini V2 or XYZ Jr Pro), and turn the speed down, quality will be good.

  3. Unless they size themselves to build quality printers for smart people, trying to compete with quality in the segment where only price matters won´t work.

    Of course they could have tried to find ways to squeeze price reductions in their fabrication methods without sacrificing quality, but that is possible only to a point. After that, they need to choose between keeping the quality idea or stopping, if they checked their options, and decided it would be better stopping than starting producing trash to compete with cheapo imported machines, more points to them.

  4. “replacement Humvee door handles”

    Which demands the question, why are the door handles so complex that a spare part can’t be hammered out of a piece of sheet metal? Would last longer if they were.

    1. The soft-side doors have a handle simple enough that one wouldn’t have to look long to find an appropriately shaped stick. I got out in ’05 which was just when the up-armored units were finding their way to troops so I’ve never seen one in person but I’ll bet there’s a linkage or two… :D

    2. Would they? A ball bearings is far more complex than a hole drilled in some brass with some oil on it. What lasts longer? And a magnetic bearings is even more complicated, with a solid state device replacing the whole thing being *way* more.

      Simple doesn’t mean reliable. It’s often the simple things that fail in electronics.

  5. I loved my Lulzbot Mini because it worked perfectly out of the box and is definitely a sturdy printer, but then they did a firmware upgrade that buried the print head into the bed and dragged it across, destroying the surface.

    That’s when I started looking at other printers and even though I had to build it myself, the Prusa I3 MK3S is a far superior printer. The quality of the parts is better, the startup reliability is better, the no-touch bed leveling works every time, the bed is much larger, removing parts via the flexible steel sheet is a breeze, I could go on…

    But there’s still a ton of improvements that can be done with these printers, mostly around support, support material and overhangs – improvements in this area could easily justify $1,000 for the printer.

  6. “LulzBot was never interested in the race to the bottom that gave birth to the current generation of sub-$200 printers.”

    There’s an enormous amount of room between $200 and $2000 to $5000. Seems like a case of “we’re not interested in A, so we’re going to keep doing Z” without realizing there’s an entire alphabet in between.

    Totally understand them not being interested in the race to the bottom, but at the same time, there shouldn’t have been any surprise in the market for ultra premium priced FDM printers dwindling to an unsustainable level. They’re undoubtedly better designed, more reliable and print better than $200 printers… but not literally SEVERAL THOUSAND dollars better. I have a mid level FDM that does well enough 80% of the time and a Photon resin printer when I need the extra detail. If I need strength and detail (resin is generally too brittle for anything structural), I’ll just have an SLS print made at Shapeways or the like. There’s simply no way I could justify LulzBot prices for FDM printing with it’s inherent limitations.

  7. The name does them no favors with any serious purchasing manager. I guarantee you the juvenile name factor is a turn-off for me as a hobbyist with a decent budget, and I imagine I am not alone. Marketing to people beyond your generation can be a smart thing….

    1. I own a 4 and 5 and the first thing i did was take the name badge off. Everyone (myself included) was like LULZ TAZ? Lulz is juvenile, and Taz reminds me of the Tazmanian Devil character which is kinda imagery from a less discerning kinda trashy motif? Ok, white trash. Its white trashy. Come at me PC police. Its something you’d find on mudflaps at a truck stop, or a sticker your meth dealer had on the back window of his ’87 Mazda B2300. I dont know what better way to describe it. Petty? Yes. But brand image is important whether you like it or not.

      But also, cheap chinese copies of everything needs to stop. Theyre usually a terrible place to start and just lead toward more junk in the landfill. Sure, some intrepid hackers will make something out of nothing, but most people wont, and their first experience with 3D printing will be a failure and their sub $200 machines will just be in a dump in 2 years. If you want to innovate, innovate that. Unfortunately, consumers rarely want to learn and only want to save $.

      yay for everything!

    2. True. I don’t know how much of that factors realistically into their current problems, but I don’t doubt the name has raised some eyebrows. It’s a similar situation with GIMP: it was a cute name when it was just an open source project that only hackers and nerds used, but once you try to get into the real world, the joke falls flat quickly.

          1. Me too and it is a terrible thing.
            Let’s start a class action lawsuit and sue Stallman for that!
            Now, as for the sub-200 buck 3d printers many of them work fine!
            These Lulzbot printers are even using an 8 bit controller board!
            They are nice printers and all but there must be a lot of profit in them!
            I just can’t see paying 2500-5000 bucks for a printer with a lot of 3d printed main parts
            holding it together!
            At least injection mold them!
            As for Prusa he has a very interesting multimaterial setup going but also still at 8 bit….

  8. We have an Ultimaker3 here at work, and I have a PrintrBot Plus, Monoprice MiniDelta, and Ender 3 at home. While none of my home printers with the exception of the Monoprice can compete with the Ultimaker3 on out of the box experience, now that I have them all dialed in honestly I’m pumping out parts that have the same quality at home as I do at work. Frequently if the Ultimaker is busy at work I’ll just fire off the prints and home and bring them in. Point being, if you’re talking about quality of the end result, even those cheap Chinese printers are capable of the results you’re getting off the $1k+ priced printers. Where the more expensive printers at least attempt to justify their expense is in their support, durability, capability to deal with multiple different users, material support, dual extruders, and working out of the box without all the tuning. I honestly wouldn’t recommend an Ender 3 for the office because of all the variable to tweak to get the quality dialed in, we need something here that just works and gets the job done. However at home, it’s hard to justify spending 5x the money or more when a few hours of my time gives me the same final result.

    1. I should also note, I’m talking about mainly PLA (or PETG) prints here, if we start talking about ABS, Nylon, PC, or any other variety of materials, the Ultimaker is loads easier, but for home, PLA handles 90% of my use cases, and PETG covers the rest.

  9. I’m quite dissapointed by Lulzbot. No filament sensor built-in at that price? Wat?

    And the mechanical design is a hassle to service. Anything that involves putting a rod through three layers of non-transparent material needs a redesign if it can be.

  10. Malyan kicked the pins out from under the small and inexpensive 3D printer market when Monoprice started shipping their M200 worldwide as the Select Mini. Nobody else had a printer that only needed the bed level checked before it was ready to print. The folded and welded steel chassis proved to be rigid and the 16 pound weight made it stable.

    Mine has paid for itself a few times over.

    The Mini became so successful that other Chinese companies are making cheap knockoffs, many of which are pretty terrible.

  11. Well they did, originally, position themselves around the statement of not for the small hobbyist (I was told this by the guy giving us the tour of the plant). And that does seem to be the case as you see these printers in the bigger names (shoot I even asked about military contracts, to which I was told “I cannot comment” … which we all know what that means).

    That being said, I will take a Lulzbot over ANY other printer, regardless of the price. One great example, every friend I have who owns a NON-Lulzbot printer, has had it break down, yet mine, has been going solid. Not to mention the full open sourcing is really nice (I did something stupid and damaged a part, 3d printed a new one, no problem). I have been meaning to actually play around with the source code as well, just haven’t had a chance.

    Not to mention you throw out the SL head, and right there, a lot of competitors are gone. And let’s not take for granted all the CURA profiles built for all the filaments they sell. A nice convenience.

    I could go on and on, but I’ll just say you get what you pay for, and Lulzbots are the prime example.

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