Five months after news broke that professional 3D printer manufacturer Stratasys acquired his famed consumer 3D printer company MakerBot, co-founder and CEO Bre Pettis said in a recent interview with Gigaom that it is the same company with a big gain: It now has access to Stratasys’ stock of protected knowledge.
“Until we merged with Stratasys, we spent a lot of our efforts … respecting their IP, and now we kind of have our hands in their cookie jar,” Pettis said. “There will be fun stuff coming down the line in a couple years where we can take advantage of that.”
Pettis sat down with me to talk over the five-year-old company’s past, present and future. Read the condensed version of our conversation below:
Gigaom: How has Stratasys acquiring MakerBot changed the company?
Pettis: We’re still the same old MakerBot. We’re growing just as fast. We’ve probably, I think, we’ve hired more than 200 people this year. We’re coming up on 400. We’re just growing as fast as we can. We’re still the same people, still in New York, we just have more resources to go faster.
What is MakerBot working on right now?
We just launched the Digitizer. That’s what we’ve been working on. What’s next is get a Digitizer and explore that frontier. It’s really, where as (a 3D printer) takes digital designs and makes them into physical objects, taking physical objects and turning them into digital designs is a whole other thing. Most people don’t feel empowered to make CAD models. The MakerBot Digitizer solves that problem.
Do you plan to improve the Replicator 2 3D printer?
At this point anybody who wants to use one can use one. You’re right, leveling the bed is a little bit fussier than we’d like it to be. We’re going to continue to evolve it. We brought (the price) from a hundred grand down to two grand. We’ve already done the lion’s share. We’re kind of, improving it from here on out, there’s improvements to be made. But it’s kind of like, the last 5 percent can take twice as long as the first 95 percent. We’re in a sweet spot right now, and it shows.
What do you think of the sub-$1,000 printers available on crowdfunding websites?
They’re not sustainable. We made early pricing mistakes. Our first machine had a build of materials that was like $650. We sold it for $750. It almost destroyed us. What I like on Kickstarter is when I see real innovation and I see people building something new. It makes me sad when I see things that are just the same technology; you aren’t passing the technology forward.
We spent a lot of time looking into what we wanted to do. The great thing about MakerBots is that they’re fast, they’re nontoxic, they’re friendly, and when you’re done, you just take (the object) off of the build plate and it’s ready to go. If you want to get this technology around kids, you can’t have it be toxic. PLA (plastic) is just a wonderful renewable biomaterial. When you think about metal, there’s things that happen when metal melts. You probably don’t want that in your house. We’re focused on things that people can have comfortably on their desktop in their living room that are friendly.
What is your response to criticism of your move away from building open source printers?
We were the first people to try open source hardware and we took it straight up to the edge. It was a choice of, do we fold the company really or do we make a small change? And we shifted from being absurdly open source to being sharing as much as we can. We just hit a threshold where we were getting knocked off and (people were) taking our technology we had spent a lot of time developing. They weren’t innovating. They were just sending it to Asia and having it made more poorly and cheaply, and those people were buying it and calling our support department. I think in some ways because we took such a purist position in the beginning, we really set ourselves up to get beaten up when we made that shift. But it doesn’t mean that we don’t want to share and empower. If people want to share anything, they can on Thingiverse, and it’s wonderful.
MakerBot recently announced an initiative to make it easier for schools to acquire a 3D printer for students. Why is that important?
We’ve had a real challenge in the last 20 years where, you know, I grew up with shop class. Those are all gone now. School is now reading, writing and tapping on a computer and there isn’t a real connection to craft or creation. For me, when you put a MakerBot in a school, you add a manufacturing education to the environment where I think we can really empower the next generation to compete in the global economy.
Do you worry that 3D printing will lead to a boom in piracy for physical objects?
We survived the VHS tape. We survived the cassette tape. We survived the CD burner. The internet has already happened. The fact that it’s happened to things now is no surprise.
What will the future look like for 3D printers?
Within five years, we’ll have passed that mark of everybody knows somebody with one and we’ll be closer to everybody having one. In 20 years, … it will be normalized. Refrigeration technology was super badass and cutting edge at one point, but up until 100 years ago, people had ice houses in their backyard where they would get big blocks of ice. Now we don’t have that anymore. I think it will still be exciting. We’re just at the beginning. We’re really seeing people be pioneers and leaders and explore the space.