MakerBot's 3-D Printers Let Consumers Dream Up Prototypes Of Pretty Much Anything. But Do We Need More Plastic?

Bre Pettis's MakerBot has attracted millions in financing and is selling its 3-D printers as fast as it can.
So how big can his business get? (And why does the world need more crap made out of plastic?)

Says MakerBot CEO Pettis: Using a robot to make digital designs is like getting a superpower | Photo by Michael Lewis
Says MakerBot CEO Pettis: Using a robot to make digital designs is like getting a superpower | Photo by Michael Lewis

onsider a random yet routine domestic mini-tragedy: The paper-towel holder in your kitchen is busted. Wouldn't it be nice if instead of making a trip to the mall or waiting for a delivery from an online retailer, you could simply produce a replacement, right at home, right now? For years, this idea hovered at the edge of plausibility. Just as you transfer words and images from your computer screen onto a piece of paper, so-called 3-D printers promise to allow you to transform digital blueprints into physical objects, on the spot. So far, the number of people doing this in the real world has been modest--mostly tech-oriented artists and superimaginative hackers, engaged in experimental projects, and, really, goof-offs. Using homemade devices, they "print" everything from anthropomorphic coffee cups to plastic replicas of Duchamp urinals. In the look-what-these-zany-kids-are-up-to media coverage that 3-D printing tends to attract, that's the stuff that gets attention. But MakerBot Industries is no art project. A young startup in Brooklyn, New York, it has emerged as the leading brand in the nascent consumer-oriented 3-D-printing realm and has recently closed a $10 million round of venture-capital funding. More than 6,000 MakerBot 3-D printers have been sold. That may not sound like a lot, but bear in mind that most sell in the form of a kit--the company's current flagship model is the $1,300 Thing-O-Matic--that is ordered directly from MakerBot and requires 12 hours or more to assemble. Now that's customer dedication. In less than three years, MakerBot has gone from three tinkering guys to 50-plus employees and counting. "If I had 20 people outside the door who were perfect candidates, I'd hire them all," says cofounder and chief executive officer Bre Pettis.

In a culture with no widespread experience of 3-D printing--and thus no real way to gauge its mass appeal--it is difficult to imagine how big MakerBot might get. But in recent months, Pettis's company began selling prebuilt printers and taking its first steps into traditional retail. "I think it's an enormous business," says Brad Feld, managing director of Foundry Group, a firm that led MakerBot's venture-capital round and has also invested in Zynga. Jeff Bezos's venture-capital vehicle put some money in too--after Pettis met the Amazon founder at a conference and Bezos proceeded to grill him about the MakerBot strategy for half an hour. For these investors, the bet is that 3-D printers will become as popular as laser printers are today. Feld insists it will happen within a decade. If anything close to that comes true, somebody is going to make a lot of money. And MakerBot's strategy stands out for its mashup of entrepreneurial zeal and anticapitalist, open-source ethos. Pettis has a take-no-prisoners business rap about the current opportunity. "It's kind of like the early days of America: People came and just did things and found out if they worked or not," he says. "Empires were built." Yet he's equally evangelical about the competitive advantage of "sharing": His company not only makes public the full technical specs and details of its 3-D printers, but it also collects designs for MakerBottable objects on a site called Thingiverse, a completely free and open-source resource. Thingiverse is where you would go to get that paper-towel-holder design so you could replace the one that broke. Thousands have contributed designs--edgy artist types, but also General Electric, which has its own Thingiverse account. It all adds up to a revolution that might have puzzled Marx--the means of production, in every home! I ask Pettis: But if everybody can just produce their own stuff, with no limits, doesn't it completely alter the nature of capitalism? "Yeah," he replies, not missing a beat. "We are a disruptive, anticonsumerist company." One that just happens to be profitable too.

In the window of MakerBot Industries' office on Dean Street, there's a display of MakerBotted stuff, little plastic buildings and airplanes and monsters arranged in an unlikely diorama. This is the MakerBot workshop--aka the Botfarm. It's an airy space lined with glass cabinets holding all manner of curiosities, from brightly colored 3-D-printed toys to the prototype of MakerBot's first consumer product, a 3-D printer known as the Cupcake. On a long table to the left, a row of MakerBot Thing-O-Matics whir away. During my visit, most were producing objects for a holiday window display at the New Museum in New York.

Even at MakerBot headquarters, it is hard to tell whether you are encountering a private company or an art collective. In a separate space beyond the Botfarm are desks where customer-service reps work; beyond that is Pettis's office and a closed-door R&D lab that I was somewhat theatrically denied access to. A work crew is banging away in an adjacent space that MakerBot is taking over, making room for even more staff. Still, the place doesn't quite feel like a business, and Pettis doesn't quibble with that. At 39, with chunky horn-rimmed glasses and thick swept-back, gray-streaked hair, he could pass for Dad in a 1950s sitcom--or maybe someone spoofing such a figure in a Saturday Night Live sketch. "We've got something special going on," he tells me. "Not just with the hardware but with our approach to the community." Just recently, he says, MakerBot launched an effort called Project Shellter to solve the problem of hermit crabs facing a shortage of suitable shells. Working with an artist and a scientist, the company is prodding its customers to help come up with MakerBottable shell replacements. This explains the aquarium full of crabs in the back of the Botfarm.

Essentially, MakerBot's branding strategy boils down to making cool stuff and encouraging others in the technical and design vanguard to do the same--under the auspices of MakerBot. In February, the company started an artist-in-residence program, which essentially entails offering its resources, and some cash, to people like Kyle McDonald, a Brooklyn artist known for provocative uses of (often hacked) technology. McDonald paired a Thing-O-Matic with a Microsoft Kinect motion-control sensor to enable a kind of 3-D scan-and-print system. More recently, MakerBot brought on Michael Curry as a staff designer. Curry was working at the Kansas City, Missouri, architecture firm Populous when he bought a Cupcake printer two years ago and became an active user. MakerBot hired him--his actual title is "design superstar"--to dream up elaborate creations like the Turtle Shell Racer, which meshes multiple MakerBotted parts and some electronics components into a delightful robotic toy car that was a big hit at the most recent New York Maker Faire for do-it-yourself enthusiasts.

Pettis asserts that soon there will be almost nothing you can't make yourself in our
Pettis asserts that soon there will be almost nothing you can't make yourself in our "modular" economy. | Photo by Michael Lewis

These are the kinds of one-off pieces MakerBot creates for, say, Pettis's appearance on The Colbert Report. Or the representations the firm made of Laurie Anderson's dog for the famous performance artist to include in a recent exhibition. When I speak with MakerBot's Keith Ozar, he seems offended when I refer to such undertakings as "marketing." His background is in underground music promotion, and he joined MakerBot when the company advertised a "marketing experimenter" position in early 2011. MakerBot doesn't really market at all, he counters; it actively participates in the community the company seeks to both cultivate and create, involving "people who are creative, people with imaginations." That means a presence at Maker Faire-style events, where hardware hackers congregate, and more recently at comics conventions and the like. The strategy also guides its new retail experiments: The first two venues where someone can buy a MakerBot in person are the store at the New Museum and AC Gears, a gadget emporium in Manhattan. "We're kind of like the skateboarders of the technology world," Ozar tells me.

Pettis likes it that way. A "community"-focused attitude, he says, informs the company's Thingiverse site--which is MakerBot's secret weapon as a business. As of late fall, there were designs for 11,500 printable objects on the site. Some are geeky amusements: toys, gewgaws, and hard-to-categorize creations like the Springamathing, a flexible ring of accordioned plastic with no obvious functionality. Others are hyperspecific, unique parts to make other machines work. And some are useful: clamps, zippers, and, yes, a paper-towel holder. The common thread is that they are available to users at no cost whatsoever. What's more, if you modify a Thingiverse design to make it better, the idea is that you'll share that improvement--for free--on the website. And then someone else may improve your design even further. MakerBot and its employees routinely contribute Thingiverse designs. The upshot is that this free-for-all creates continuous, ever-growing value for the Thing-O-Matic, the actual product MakerBot sells.

Pettis didn't exactly set out to run a tech company. Just a half-dozen years ago he was a schoolteacher in Seattle, spending summers trying to make a career as an artist. His big acrylic paintings and pinhole-camera photographs weren't really selling, though. Then, around 2005, a fellow teacher at Eckstein Middle School showed him the closet he'd filled with computer-operated machine tools. "That was my introduction, really, to digital manufacturing," Pettis recalls.

After Jeff Bezos grilled Pettis at a conference, the Amazon CEO's venture-capital vehicle invested in MakerBot.

It wasn't really a diversion from his past. "I like to make things," he says. "It's been part of my identity since I was a kid." In the 1980s, his parents had a business selling software for Acorn, Apple, and Commodore computers; the business failed, but along the way it exposed him to teenage hacker-programmers. "Those guys were my heroes," he says. As a teacher, he tapped into online networks where instructors could share lesson plans. Later he discovered Flickr, and its active community inspired him to abandon the big physical prints he'd begun to sell in galleries. He was also an early member of the fledgling, pre-YouTube, online video-blogging scene.

By 2006, he'd quit teaching and was making videos for a new publication, Make magazine, which emerged as the central voice for a generation of hands-on tinkerers doing inventive things with electronics. In 2007, he moved to New York and later began making videos for Etsy, the online marketplace for handmade goods. He missed one thing about Seattle: Hackerbot, a gathering of like-minded mechanical experimenters who had banded together to acquire and use some fairly serious industrial equipment. So he started a similar group in New York, rounding up participants who chipped in to buy a $20,000 laser cutter and gathered on Thursday nights in a former brewery near downtown Brooklyn to egg each other on to new feats of hackerdom. The space, and group, was named NYC Resistor.

One member was Zach Hoeken Smith. "What do you make?" Pettis asked him one night. "I make self-replicating machines," Smith told him. Smith was involved in something called the RepRap project, a not-for-profit effort to create a free 3-D printer that could print the parts necessary to make other 3-D printers. Pettis's reply to Smith: "How can I help?"

This was 2008, and Pettis's video work seemed on the brink of landing him a show, on the History Channel, remaking inventions from the past. But when the pilot wasn't picked up for a full season, Pettis and Smith started talking about a different approach to 3-D printers. The two wanted to create machines that used standard parts, an accessible platform, and could be put to a wide range of uses. "We wanted people to 3-D-print anything, not just more 3-D printers," Pettis says. They enlisted a third friend, Adam Mayer, and raised $75,000 from two angel investors: Smith's old boss Jake Lodwick, a cofounder of Vimeo, and Adrian Bowyer, a mechanical engineering professor at the University of Bath in England, who founded the RepRap project. The trio completed 20 kits and put them up for sale in early 2009. They sold out in two weeks. "There was a tangible sense of potential as we packed them up," Pettis recalls. "'We're giving people 3-D printers that they can afford. What are they gonna make?'" Pettis's crew made more and sold those; after 42 days, they'd brought in more money than they'd spent. And so they started hiring.

Today, around the corner from the Botfarm, in the space that used to be occupied by NYC Resistor (which has moved three flights up), is the Botcave. This feels like a business. Production manager Marisol Murphy oversees a dozen or so workers assembling MakerBot kits, plucking parts from shelves stacked with boxes marked type k thermocouple and stepper motor driver v3.3. (In addition to the $1,300 base price, it costs an extra $1,200 to get one prebuilt.) The products stack up by the front door; about 300 kits go out every month. When I sound out Pettis about ways the company might grow over time--selling through Best Buy? stand-alone MakerBot stores?--he rules out nothing. "I see," he says, "a million MakerBots on the horizon."

But sooner or later, even the most besotted fan of desktop manufacturing notices that whatever the future may hold, the present is filled with plastic novelties that are amusing but mostly pointless. Pettis nods knowingly. "One of the criticisms we get is, 'Does the world need more plastic crap?'" he says. "But you have to look beyond the plastic crap, to the design, to the experience, to the empowering nature of the MakerBot and the community." Partly he means the share-friendly Thingiverse, the Maker Faire scene, the gatherings online and off where adventurous tinkerers find each other. But that makes the MakerBot idea sound vaguely like an eccentric subculture--and Pettis clearly believes there's something more significant going on.

When I point out that you can't exactly print an iPhone on a Thing-O-Matic, he counters that, in fact, there's almost nothing you can't build yourself in an increasingly "modular" economy that's taking shape. Tinker-friendly Arduino circuit boards have become a maker-crowd hit. Web-based retailers such as AdaFruit and SparkFun sell a variety of open-source hardware parts and kits; the TechShops chain of workshops is trying to turn the hackerspace idea into a business. In the make-it-yourself world, these are widely known names at the center of a new grassroots marketplace. MakerBot is not the only outfit pushing 3-D printing and chasing a mass-fabrication future. There are already industrial-grade prototyping machines--made by 3D Systems and Stratasys, among others--that can make bigger objects sharper and more quickly, and from more materials (including metals and ceramics), than the Thing-O-Matic. Though such top-end machines are well beyond the financial reach of a typical hobbyist, many of these firms are now eyeing the consumer market. Hewlett-Packard, for instance, jumped into the desktop 3-D-printer business in 2010, with a model going for a reported $17,000. Other rival printers include the Ultimaker and Shapercube, both with European roots, and Fab@Home, an open-source project spun out of Cornell University. Still others--CloudFab, MakeMe, Ponoko, and Shapeways--are pursuing business models that involve users uploading a custom design that a company will print for them.

Pettis is breezily self-confident about potential competition. MakerBot, he argues, understands the new maker marketplace in ways that give it a distinct advantage. He points to the Thingiverse, which relies on the social-motive rewards of sharing rather than the profit-motive rewards one might assume are necessary to get thousands of people to contribute. He insists that his company's accessible, participatory approach taps into the direction our culture is moving: away from the mass-produced and toward the individually created. "When people have a MakerBot, they have a different mind-set from everybody else, who grew up as a consumer," he says. "Instead of thinking, I need to go buy that, they first think, Do I need to go buy that? I could just MakerBot that." In Pettis's view, the Thing-O-Matic is a particularly potent example of a "meta tool"--a tool to make other tools. "It's like getting a superpower," he says. As such, it fits into the maker movement's efforts to overcome an alienation from the gadgetry we depend on. (Do you really know how your computer works? Could you build a smartphone?) The Thing-O-Matic, as Pettis puts it, "is like a raw innovation machine. The cost of failure is low. The plastic is cheap. The time is robot time. So you can have an idea and you can fail as many times as you need to until you're satisfied."

This idea, he asserts, will be even more powerful when it reaches the constituency that interests him most: students. "That's my next big project--getting MakerBots into every high school in the United States," Pettis says. MakerBot currently has a 3-D-printing curriculum in a pilot program in a handful of New York City schools. If more kids could learn the lesson of innovation through iteration that the Thing-O-Matic teaches, he contends, "we'd have a different world."

You can still hear the voice of the schoolteacher he once was. Too many people, he remarks, and maybe kids in particular, "are scared of failure, scared of innovating, scared of trying, because they're afraid that it won't work, and they don't know that if they keep trying, it will work." MakerBot, as Pettis sees it, is a symbol for being able to fail--and then push beyond failure. "Overcome adversity," as he puts it, "and make anything you want exist." And then he stops sounding like a schoolteacher and says something, well, unprintable. But the essence of it is: That's how MakerBot really messes with things.

Related:
How To Print With A Thing-O-Matic

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1 Comments

  • Cartridge James

    Wow, that's really inspirational, actually! Really helps one get all hyped up and ready to shape the future.