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TECHCRUNCH

MakerBot’s MinFill arrived quietly last night as a firmware upgrade for existing customers, and the company is already calling it a “big benchmark in speed and widespread adoption of 3D printing.” Many are understandably a bit cautious around such grandiose proclamations from players in this space, particularly when it comes to something as unabashedly unsexy as infill — the support structures inside a model that keep it from collapsing.

At a bare minimum, however, the newly released MinFill setting boasts some potentially impressive numbers. The technology, designed in-house for the company’s Print software, runs an algorithm that determines the minimal amount of material required to create sufficient infill for a model, saving on material and print costs — both major sticking points in the technology’s adoption.

“You can imagine as you print a complex shape, you get a lot of interesting internal geometries that support the shape in the right places,” the company’s VP of Engineering Dave Veisz tells TechCrunch. “The net effect is that it’s going to reduce the amount of filament used and reduce the print time. So, you’re printing less to get your finished product.”

The time and cost savings varies, naturally, from project to project, owing much to different sizes and shapes of objects, but Veisz says the savings to both average out around 30 percent, effectively cutting the amount of material required to print an object by nearly one-third. Really geometrically complex objects, on the other hand, can have savings of upwards of 80 to 90 percent.

It’s a pretty big stretch to imagine the feature being a true driver in the future adoption of desktop 3D printing technology, but it’s easy to see how it can take a major pain point out of the process for existing users, and how, when coupled with future advancements to 3D printing hardware could prove a considerable upgrade to the desktop 3D printing experience.

MinFill, which is a simple setting the user checks before starting a print, changes the process of one from simple repeating lattice or crosshatch structures to unique designs customized to the specific print. “Depending on the geometry,” says the company’s source material, “it builds the smallest possible support structure required inside the object, such as columns that begin narrow and branch out into areas that need support and extremely low density infill to anchor and support those columns.”

“It’s pretty complicated,” says Veisz. “It’s something that’s pretty easy to conceptualize but pretty hard to execute. There are ways it can be done with a lot of manual work, but having it work for variable geometry simply by selecting a print mode is very difficult.”

It’s a small but potentially important step forward for a company has been going through a pretty major transitional phase in recent years, following an initial wave of hype around the technology. MakerBot announced new products back in September after a fairly long stretch of silence, doubling down on its commitment to the educational sector.

At the time, the company told the press that the sector comprises somewhere in the neighborhood of 60 percent of its business, having shipped to 5,000 schools as of 2015 (the last time it publicly released numbers).

For MakerBot, MinFill is a play at the professional space — which is more in the neighborhood of 30 percent of the company’s purchase base (with consumers coming in at around 10 percent). Models made with the setting aren’t particularly durable. Rather, it’s designed with prototyping in mind.

“We’re actually seeing desktop 3D printing disrupting industrial markets,” says Josh Snider from the company’s media relations team. “So, companies that would otherwise outsource for a really expensive Objet print or would be purchasing a $100,000 to $1 million machine from our parent company [Stratasys], we’re seeing them call on desktop 3D printing more often.”