Bre Pettis CEO MakerBot


Osborn: Did the early versions of all these machines use some Arduino- based hardware?

Pettis: Technically, the hardware could be considered  an Arduino. We have the same chip on there, but because an Arduino doesn’t actually have a lot of room, it ceased being an Arduino and became  a MakerBot. We built it on Arduino architecture but pretty quickly scaled out of that and had to customize it.

Osborn: So you still have an Atmel microcontroller, but that’s about all you have in common at this point.

Pettis: That’s right.

Osborn: There are a couple  of different types of filament technology out there, PLA and ABS. Can you talk about the differences in the two and why you chose PLA for the Replicator  2?

Pettis: The MakerBot Replicator 2 is set up for MakerBot PLA. The MakerBot Replicator 2X is set up for MakerBot ABS. That’s because people still just love ABS, even though  I think PLA is a more elegant solution. PLA is just a beauti- ful material. It has very low shrinkage, high-dimensional tolerance, and it’s a renewable bio plastic, so it’s guilt-free making. We really like it, and it makes beautiful models.

Osborn: I don’t know for sure, but it seems like there’s a lot less smell when you extrude  PLA. Is that correct?

Pettis: You know my guess is that they probably  have the same amount  of smell. It’s just that PLA smells so much better because it’s made out of corn.

Osborn: Like corn instead of melting plastic?

Pettis: Yeah.

Osborn: In addition to the MakerBots, you guys built this great community site called Thingiverse.5  I think anybody that owns  a 3D printer has probably been to Thingiverse. I remember seeing a blog post that mentioned there are over one hundred thousand things on Thingiverse now.

Pettis: Yes, we surely have seen an uptick recently. I think it’s more than one hundred twenty thousand now.

Osborn: Wow. Can you tell me what Thingiverse is and what people go there for? What is its purpose?

Pettis: We actually started Thingiverse before we started MakerBot. It was a Saturday afternoon  project for me and Zach. We wanted  a place where we could share digital designs. We were making things on the laser cutter and we were misplacing them on our hard drives. I was literally uploading the 3D design files to my DreamHost  account, and that wasn’t going to scale. So at the time, Zach was working at Zinio, a place where  people share video files. We sat down on a Saturday, and after about  an hour, we were like, “This is pretty interesting. Let’s keep going with this.” We decided on the name, Universe  of Things,Thingiverse. We liked that. We just kept going. We were sort of the early power users, along with a couple  of other community members. We made Thingiverse in 2008. By the time 2009 rolled around, it was starting to pick up some traction. I think in the begin- ning, if we could get one thing a week uploaded, that was awesome. And then pretty quickly that turned into one thing a day. Now hundreds of things a day are shared and uploaded to the Thingiverse. Thousands of things a day, maybe tens of thousands are downloaded. People really use it. It’s a great place for designers to share their work and really shine and be a superstar.

Osborn:  There’s a bit of—I don’t know if you’d say controversy  or concern in the community about people applying DRM to designs and selling their designs. I don’t think we really understand what that’s going to mean to the community and what impact it is going to have on society. I don’t know if you have any opinion  on that. If I 3D-scan this object, should I have the right to print my own copy?

Pettis: It’s an exciting frontier. For us, we really work hard to set up the site so it would have great features for attribution. When you make something, we encourage you to upload an image of it so that the person who designed it can see your manifestation of that digital design. It gives you this feeling of the dad watching your design go out into the world and do wonderful things. We are about to launch the MakerBot Digitizer, which is a desktop  3D scanner. I think we’re at probably the same place that the audio industry  was when it launched—when the tape recorder came out, or the VHS machine. It’s a little bit different  because it’s things. It’s not music and it’s not video. All of those things fall under copyright.  Things actually fall under patent law, so for us, there’s  a whole  frontier out there to explore. Our goal is to create  a wonderful place for people to share things that they want to share and really shine  a spotlight on them and allow them to shine. While I’m excited to see how things go in the legal world, we really don’t know yet—nobody  has brought it up in the courts, so it really hasn’t worked its way through the sys- tem. Everything is conjecture  at this point. Our goal is to create  a wonderful place for people to share the things they want to share—to point a spotlight at them and allow them to shine.

Osborn: I think the most controversial 3D project was Defense Distributed. It is this really shoddy 3D printed weapon, but has got  a  lot of attention because 3D printing  is an exciting topic right now.

Pettis: I would  say there  are many things that are way more interesting. Have you seen the Robohand project?

Osborn: No, but that leads me to my next question, which is interesting things your customers or people are printing with MakerBot.

Pettis: I think we made MakerBot with the intention  that people are going to use them for wonderful and positive uses, really explore the creative frontier. The Robohand project is a project by two people. One is in South Africa and one is in Seattle. They use MakerBot  as a 3D fax machine.  They  designed a prosthetic called the Robohand for kids. Kids don’t usually get prosthetics because they cost ten grand each and they grow out of them like sneakers. But when you have a MakerBot, you can make them. So these guys made a model. They shared it on Thingiverse. There have been a few derivatives. Now you can make a hand for a kid who has amniotic  band syndrome, which is where you’re born without fingers or a thumb.  This giveskids  a robohand. They get to go to school and it’s like they’re Iron Man or something. They’ve got a robotic hand. It cost about $5 in materials. When you grow out of it, it’s not a big deal. You scale it up and you reprint it. This really changes the game when you think about how prosthetics work, specifi- cally for kids. It opens the door for all sorts of other ways of thinking about how 3D printing  can change any industry.

Osborn: There are definitely some interesting  medical use cases  for 3Dprinting. I saw where they printed  a woman’s entire lower jawbone.One thing you guys did recently that I thought was pretty interesting was open a retail space for 3D printers in New York. I was wondering what led you to do that, and how’s the response been?

Pettis: My goal with that was to have a space where people could  see, and touch, and feel, and hear, and smell 3D printing. In some ways, it’s sort of a community center. People who come to New York and are into 3D printing, it’s on their tourist list. We see people come from all around the world to just really experience 3D printing. A lot of them walk out with MakerBots as well. We sell 3D printers there, and we sell projects designed to be printed on the MakerBot. For us, that’s  just a great place where people can experience what a 3D printer is, because for most people it’s still science fiction.

Osborn: Besides the Robohand, can you give me some other cool projects that people are building with the MakerBot?

Pettis: We just had a birdhouse challenge where we got lots of people in the community  making birdhouses. It’s on Thingiverse.  Thingiverse  is a great place to find things.

Osborn: I saw that recently.

Pettis: People are making rockets, making their own games, making  a neck- lace or tie rack. There’s just an amazing amount  of things on Thingiverse for pretty much anything that you’re interested in. One of our users is Kacie Hultgren.  She’s at Pretty Small Things.6    She’s a Broadway set designer. She used to use cardboard  and glue and X-Acto knives to design things. Now she just makes things digitally and prints out this amaz- ing model—making  set furniture on her MakerBot,  and then she has a whole side business where  she sells dollhouse  furniture. Super cool. There’s a whole bunch of folks using Minecraft   as a modeling  tool. That’s super cool, they just build things in Minecraft, then print it. They’re using MakerBot  in the Natural History Museum to scan dinosaur bones. Then the art museum scans precious works of art that nobody can ever touch, so they can make copies of it that people can touch.

Osborn: My favorite project I think I found on Thingiverse is OpenRC.7

Pettis: Yeah, the RC car.

Osborn: I have some wheels that I’ve printed. I glued the tires on recently. So, how many people are out there making things right now with a MakerBot?

Pettis: I think we’re around thirty thousand. I don’t have the exact number, but I think we’re around there.

Osborn: That’s  a lot of people. That’s a big community.

Pettis: We’re still at the beginning. We’ve got a lot of work to do to make people feel comfortable with 3D printing.

Osborn: It seems like MakerBot  has become the go-to printer for 3D printing. I read that Ford bought a MakerBot  for all of their design engineers to have on their desks. A company like Ford could purchase any 3D printer on the market. I was wondering what makes the MakerBot stand out amongst what seems to be an endless number  of competitors right now? There are a lot of people building 3D printers. I think a lot of them got a lot of cues from you. There  are a lot of them out there, cut out with a laser. What makes the MakerBot the favorite for a company  like Ford, as well as makers  building things in their garage?

Pettis: I think it’s a couple things. The first thing is that we’re on our fourth- generation machine, so we’ve worked out a lot of bugs. We’re ambitious. It’s a very large build plate. It’s a very large build volume, and that means you can do a lot of things. On the Replicator 2, it’s six by eleven by six inches, so it’s just a really nice, large build plate. I think the other thing you can look at is the software. We’ve come a long way with MakerWare. When we started, we created  a very basic command-line tool. Now it’s a really nice tool with a beautiful  GUI. It’s just a pleasure to use a MakerBot. We have a huge support team. I think we have forty or fifty people right now in our support department, whose job it is to support people in doing amazing things with their MakerBot. So all of those things add up. We’re a company  that’s  in it for the long haul. We’re not just going to do a Kickstarter, make something and deliver it, and disappear into the world. We’re going deep. I think besides that, it just looks good. You can have it in any color as long  as it’s black. We made it into something that not only looks good on the out- side, but we set up the lighting on the inside so that the objects you make look beautiful, too. It’s a special machine, the MakerBot  Replicator  2. It strikes a chord with people—it’s a professional-quality  machine, but still affordable enough that it’s like the equivalent of a nice laptop.

Osborn: Tell me a little bit about the recent Stratasys acquisition.

Pettis: That’s pretty exciting. We’ve been at this nearly five years. MakerBot is nearly five years old, so we’ve been doing this for a while.  When you’re growing fast, you have a couple  options  for scaling up quickly. We chose to take venture  capital, and that means we were dedicated to really building  a large, sustainable company that would do really wonderful things in the world for a  long time. We were actually out raising our next round, and in the middle of that Stratasys came knocking at our door and said, “Would you be interested in talking to our president?” And we started talking about it and basically, they’re just really cool people. They’re just as big 3D-printing  geeks as we are. Before the acquisition we had to work around  a lot of patents in this space. That’s one thing I think a lot of people jumping into that space don’t realize that there’s—even if the original patent is expired, there’s another five hun- dred patents in this space that you have to work around. We’ve made a point to be very respectful of IP as we go forward.  Actually, we’ve worked around a lot of Stratasys patents, and when you do that, you don’t necessarily get the best solution. You get a solution. I’m super excited to have access to the Stratasys IP. Plus, these folks have been doing 3D printing for twenty-five  years and there’s a lot we get to learn from them in terms of expertise in being able to just put the pedal to the metal on what we’re doing. They have the same mission: We want to grow the worldwide adoption of 3D printing, so that more 3D print- ers can be out there. More people can be empowered  to make the things that they need in life.

Osborn: The last question I have is what’s next for MakerBot? You mentioned the 3D digitizing scanner. What else do you have going on?

Pettis: Well, the next big thing for us is the Digitizer.We announced it at South by Southwest, and we showed a prototype there to give people a glimpse into the future. Since then, we’ve actually developed it and we’re getting ready to ship this fall just an amazingly beautiful product.  What I can say about  it now is that it looks like a spaceship.

Osborn: Cool.

Pettis: It just changes the whole game. CAD is hard. We’re creating  a tool that allows people to be creative without having to go deep into the CAD world.

Osborn: Do you have any words of wisdom for people getting started in 3Dprinting?

Pettis: I would kind of circle back to where I started and just say that it’s just an amazing time to be a creative  person  in the world. There’s so much infrastructure  and support for people who have ideas to bring them to frui- tion and explore the market, whether you need investment or whether you go on Kickstarter, whatever it is you do, whatever it is you want to do, there’s so much more support now than there was back in 2004, 2005. So in many ways, if you have an idea, there are fewer excuses for not executing that idea and nurturing that idea and bringing it to life. I would sort of wrap this up by encouraging people to really explore their ideas, explore the frontier of what’s possible, and live it up.

Osborn: If you don’t have  a 3D printer, there’s  probably  a place like NYC Resistor or TechShop in your area, so you probably  have access to those machines if you really need it.

Pettis: I think that’s  a really good place to wrap it up. I think that’s  a good message.