MOD-t first look: a low-cost 3D printer suitable for office or home

As part of our ongoing 3D Printing Discovery Series, David Gewirtz takes a first look at an inexpensive and quiet 3D printer that might just be nice enough to keep in your office or home, rather than in your workshop or lab.

If Apple were to make a 3D printer, you might expect it to look something like this. With sleek lines, a transparent shell, and a tasteful balance of silver, white, and black, it actually shares some of its pedigree with Apple. The New Matter MOD-t printer was designed by Frog Design, the same company that designed the classic Apple IIc and Steve Jobs' NeXT cube.

Given its design DNA, you might expect the MOD-t to be expensive. That, however, is where it is quite different from Apple. Rather than being at the top of the price point for a given product class, the MOD-t is one of the most inexpensive 3D printers you'll find, priced at US$399.

There's another feature of the MOD-t that, combined with its sleek looks, might make it more appropriate for use inside an office or home (rather than in a lab or a shop): the clear plastic lid.

New Matter MOD-t printer

The New Matter MOD-t printer

The clear plastic lid serves a number of interesting purposes. First, it contains the heat from the printer's hot end, the element that melts the plastic for extrusion. By containing the heat, the designers were able to create a more predictable thermal environment in which to work, which may help with bed adherence and print quality.

Another benefit of the plastic lid is sound containment. While there is still some noise heard as the printing plate moves around for alignment, ambient sound during printing appears to be substantially lower than that of the other printers I've looked at.

This is important, because it would be tough to have 12 hours of the screeching and whining from the other printers next to you in an office. But when I walked in to check on a print a few minutes ago, there was barely any sound.

I'll do a more formal sound test at a later time, but that's interesting.

Finally, the clear shell helps keep the hot end away from curious hands. Those hot ends typically heat up to something like 220 degrees Celsius (428 degrees Fahrenheit). The other printers allow easy access to the print chambers, but that means in a school or home situation, eager hands might reach in and burn themselves. With the MOD-t, you can't get to the hot end without removing the fish tank top.

I'm writing this article based on my first impressions. One of the things I've learned about 3D printers is it takes a while to get to know them.

The MOD-t online interface

In that context, I haven't yet tried to upload my own designs and print them on the MOD-t. To be honest, I may not want to. Here's why.

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Out of the box, the way you interact with the MOD-t printer is through the New Matter online store. It's kind of like New Matter's own version of Thingiverse (with far fewer models). In fact, you upload your design files to the web interface and print from there.

Unfortunately, New Matter's lawyers got carried away and embedded this clause in their terms and conditions of service:

You hereby grant to Company an irrevocable, perpetual, transferable, non-exclusive, fully-paid, worldwide, license (sublicensable through multiple tiers) to use, distribute, reproduce, modify, adapt, publish, translate, publicly perform, and publicly display Your User Submissions.

Basically, anything you upload to the store is considered a user submission, and they own it. So if you're thinking about using this printer to prototype your next brilliant product idea, you might not want to use this printer.

UPDATE: New Matter has indicated that this wording led to a misunderstanding of their intent and they do not intend to take ownership rights for objects. Please see the full letter from New Matter CEO Steve Schell at the end of this article.

Let me be clear: there are other ways to print without going through the store. But the out-of-the-box method of printing basically swipes all your intellectual property rights as soon as you use it.

The network interface

You can control the MOD-t over Wi-Fi, and I was able to go to another computer on my network, log into the New Matter site on Chrome, and send a print to the printer. Once the print file makes it to the printer, it's no longer necessary to keep the browser open, or even that computer online. That's good.

But since I didn't install any browser plugins to talk to the printer, the printer has to be talking, via Wi-Fi, to the online store. It's sending a checking pulse to the store to see if there are any new instructions. When I specify a file I want printed, the printer sees that attached to my account, pulls down the file, and flashes a light on the front of the unit indicating its ready to print.

This is good, because I was originally concerned that anyone with a MOD-t user's user name and password could initiate a print remotely, without permission. But, as it turns out, the MOD-t won't initiate printing until the button is pressed. So if someone else were to try to initiate a print, it wouldn't happen because someone has to physically touch the printer to confirm it's okay to print.

That's smart, because in addition to the security question, the printer doesn't have an on/off switch. So you want to be sure that if you leave the printer unattended, it's not going to rise up and turn into a Decepticon, and kill us all in our sleep.

I also don't trust that Alexa. Just sayin'. The confirmation button helps keep us all safe from Megatron, Starscream, and all the rest. Maybe I should name this printer Optimus.

Filament management

One thing I haven't mentioned is that the MOD-t is a PLA-only printer, like the MakerBot Replicator that we've discussed so often. PLA is made from corn starch in the US. (Here's something I just found out. In some Asian countries, PLA is made from tapioca root. So if you buy filament made in Asia and your garage suddenly smells like dessert, you'll know why.)

PLA is non-toxic and doesn't have the nasty smell you'd get from ABS plastic. I've been working mostly with PLA and it's been quite nice, although I'll be doing some ABS testing on the LulzBot Mini for projects needing more robust plastic.

I do have some design concerns with regard to the MOD-t. The biggest is how filament feeds into the unit. Because the printing head is enclosed in the plastic fish tank, filament can't just flow over the top of the printer from the filament spool. Instead, it travels through a tube that originates in a hole in the back of the printer.

This means, at least for my shop, that to load new filament the printer will have to be picked up and turned around. It's a bit of a pain, needs more juggling in terms of work space, and the moving and jostling of the device may lead to a reduced service life. We'll see how that turns out in real use over time.

Final thoughts

Another annoyance may well be that clear plastic cover. Every time the print bed is accessed, that cover has to be removed. That's okay, but it's an extra step. Also, in an office or in the home, that thing is going to show fingerprints. I've only used it for a few hours and already it's showing my prints.

Those are minor complaints though. Let's not forget that while the MOD-t has a much smaller print area and a few nits to pick, it's also one-sixth the price of the MakerBot Replicator.

Compared to the LulzBot Mini, it doesn't seem as robust. The LulzBot is built like a tank. It also doesn't support all the filament types of the LulzBot Mini, but it's got a similar build area and costs a third of the price.

I'm a few hours away from completing my second print on the MOD-t, but so far build quality seems quite nice. So let's sum up some observations.

The MOD-t looks nice and is probably quiet enough to share your office with you. It's made almost entirely of plastic, so there is some concern how robust the printer is and how long it will last. You give up the rights to own your designs once uploaded to the New Matter online site, but if you print directly to the printer, you should be fine. Loading filament is a bit of a pain, as is removing and managing the plastic cover.

On the balance though, for $399 -- which is way less expensive than almost all the other 3D printers I've seen on the market -- my first impression is that this looks like a heck of little machine for the price.

Letter from New Matter's CEO on intellectual property rights

I'm sorry that the phrasing of our General Terms of Use has led to a misunderstanding. New Matter as a company, and I as an individual, deeply value the intellectual property rights of all creators, including and especially the users of our products. The section causing you concern (Section 6 "User submissions" of our General Terms of Use) was never intended to pertain to user-uploaded design files. Rather, that section is intended to give us permission to use or share comments and remarks users may submit as feedback (ratings, photos of printed objects, etc.).

User-uploaded files are covered under Section 8 of the Design Store Terms (not the General Terms of Use), found under a different tab on our Legal pages. You can see in that section that we only claim the ability to (a) store and backup the data, (b) access the file if necessary to provide you with customer support, and (c) use the data as necessary to make the system actually function.

The fact that this misunderstanding occurred causes me great concern because the impression you had is so very different from the spirit of who New Matter truly is. We're a dedicated team of entrepreneurs who believe strongly in doing the right thing for our customers and acting with our core values in mind always. So in response to your concern, we plan to revise Section 6 of the General Terms of Use in order to more clearly and explicitly exclude user-uploaded design files, and provide a live link to the relevant section, in the hope that we can prevent any future misunderstandings. That update will make its way to the website in a few days' time. Thank you for bringing this to my attention.

Sincerely,
Steve Schell
Co-Founder and CEO, New Matter

You can follow my day-to-day project updates on social media. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz, on Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz, on Instagram at Instagram.com/DavidGewirtz, and on YouTube at YouTube.com/DavidGewirtzTV.

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