Microsoft's Windows 8.1 support for 3D printers is growing: MakerBot recently released the first Windows 8.1-compatible 3D-printing software driver — to be used with its Replicator 2 printer — and other manufacturers are working on drivers for their models.
The MakerBot driver, which is available now, works with Microsoft's latest operating system to control the printer without the source program having to know anything about the printer itself. For example, you could print from a 3D design program without having to worry about if the software supports the printer directly (just as you don't have to worry about compatibility issues with Microsoft Word and a regular printer, for example).
Instead, the driver and the OS handle the communications with the device, making it simpler to add support for new printers. MakerBot claims that its driver, which is based on its MakerWare software, makes 3D printing as easy as printing a document from Microsoft Word: You just hit Print, and the driver does the rest. This plug-and-play capability works only with the Replicator 2, not with MakerBot's older printers, such as the original Replicator, or 3D printers from other companies.
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Other manufacturers are also supporting the new Windows 8.1 driver system, with drivers coming soon for printers from 3D Systems' Cubify models and TierTime's UP Plus 2 printer. 3D Systems says drivers for its Cubify printers will be available in December, said Alyssa Reichental, a spokeswoman for the company. TierTime did not respond to messages from Tom's Guide, but a Microsoft spokeswoman told us that the drivers will be included in Windows Update "in time for the holidays."
Open-source printers, like the Prusa RepRap models, are also getting support. “[Microsoft] has one of my printers, and they used it for some development — so you can be sure RepRap printers are supported," Josef Průša, of the RepRap 3D-printer project, told Tom's Guide in an email.
"Microsoft offers a 3D-printing SDK [software development kit] to help hardware manufacturers develop 3D-printer drivers for Windows 8.1," Kris Iverson, principal software engineer at Microsoft who oversees the development, told us. Basic support for RepRap printers will be included in the SDK, he said, with improvements added in each SDK update.
However, Průša doesn't think that the Microsoft initiative will have much impact. “To be honest, I'm not sure if it does anything innovative, and it is too generic," he said. "Manufacturers will still continue to supply their own control software, which will be better optimized and probably will push for it. But I can be dead wrong, and we might love it."
Microsoft has also released a simple 3D-printing app called 3D Builder. It is available from the Microsoft App store, runs on Windows 8.1 only and offers a selection of premade models that can be manipulated and printed. These prebuilt objects include a toy train set and track, as well as a number of household objects and miniatures. Some basic editing features are available, such as rotation and scaling, but objects can't be manipulated or built from scratch. Microsoft intends for this to be an intro to 3D modeling and printing rather than an alternative to advanced 3D modeling programs, such as Blender.
NOTE: An earlier version of this story listed Josef Průša as the creator of the RepRap 3D-printer project. The RepRap project was created by Adrian Bowyer.