Makerbot's fourth generation desktop 3D printer was launched yesterday, and it's very impressive indeed. The Makerbot Replicator 2 continues to raise the bar for at-home 3D printing with increased build volume, new software and significantly finer layer resolution than the company's previous offering.

It seems like yesterday the idea of owning an affordable yet competent desktop 3D printer was unimaginable. How quickly things have changed – both in terms of quality and price.

The Replicator 2 desktop 3D printer will cost US$2,199 when it becomes available in four to six weeks. You'll need to toss in an additional $50 to buy either ABS or PLA plastic in 1kg spools.

So what's different about the Replicator 2? To begin with, it's capable of a much finer layer resolution of 100 microns (about as thin as a sheet of paper), nearly three times smaller than the previous version. That means the unslighty ridges of earlier printers are less visible and less rough to handle. I do some 3D modeling in my spare time, and this is the first time an at-home 3D printer is capable of a resolution I think will work for many of my models.

Granted, if the model is incredibly detailed and you want it to be absolutely pristine (with no visible build lines) then the reality is you'll still have to use a 3D printing service bureau. The Objet Eden series of printers - among the most advanced on the market - print with a resolution of just 16 microns. That's the kind of detail you want if you're printing a fine art piece sculpted in Zbrush or Mudbox. 3D printing at that level is still very expensive – depending on the size of your model, a service bureau could end up charging you more than the price of the Replicator 2. It's a huge investment in a single piece.

Another improvement is the Replicator 2's build volume, which is 11.2” (length) x 6.0” (width) x 6.1” (height). That's actually quite big, so unless you're printing something huge you won't have to cut it up into smaller pieces that would need to be assembled later. And if you are printing something big, you'll divide it into fewer pieces than many of Makerbot's competitors.

One of the major announcements is the introduction of the new MakerWare software. MakerWare has a simple GUI and allows you to load multiple STL or OBJ files at once. Just about every 3D modeling software allows you to export to OBJ, but until now the somewhat annoying STL format was the default for most printers, so that's a very nice feature. Once your model is loaded, you can rearrange its position and scale it to whatever size you want either alone or in a group. Once you're ready to print the company's proprietary slicer, Miracle Grue, prepares the models for printing 20x faster than Skeinforge with optimized tool paths for more consistent prints.

3D printers are obviously intended for people who create digital models, and Makerbot has grown a community (called Thingiverse) where of builders can upload and share their creations. Currently the site is home to more than 28,000 projects that can be downloaded for free and printed. And if you want to print in two colors or materials, the first shipments of the Replicator 2X ($2,799) are expected early next year.

Makerbot CEO Bre Pettis runs us through how the Replicator 2 works in the following videos.

Source: Makerbot