Last week, I had the pleasure of visiting MakerGear’s HQ to see, in the immortal words of MTV’s Cribs, where the magic happens. The magic in this case is in high-quality 3D printing at the desktop, as the MakerGear M2 is well known as a workhorse of a machine suited for professional and educational users alike, along with hobbyists and makers. Based in Beachwood, on the east side of Cleveland, Ohio, MakerGear has steadily developed a reputation for excellence — largely on the merits of the 3D printers themselves, rather than through any real marketing efforts on the team’s part until recently. While the M2 still certainly speaks for itself in terms of the quality it offers, the company is now speaking up, too — and they’re sharing many of their thoughts with 3DPrint.com as we look to tell the story of MakerGear.
Annie Liao, MakerGear’s Director of Educational Outreach, explains the genesis of the company. In 2009, she relays, there was “a bid for better at the dawn of 3D printing” as founder and CEO Rick Pollack got into a “spirited bidding war” at an auction, ultimately winning and walking out, $250 lighter, with “his very own vintage micro-lathe. It was exactly what he needed, of all things, to fuel his curiosity in the dawning desktop 3D printer movement.”
“It was 2009, and Pollack owned one of the first commercially available desktop 3D printers. At the time, the extruder components on those machines were unreliable; he recalls that if someone managed to successfully 3D print an object, it was cause to break out the Champagne. This fledgling technology, brimming with possibility but thus far lacking in consistency, had him wondering how he could do it better. He began machining better parts, and he saw immediate results in the quality of 3D prints he was achieving,” Liao said.
“Pollack leveraged his knowledge of Internet communities to find people who also needed the specialized parts he could produce. The parts, extruder components, were a critical component to building high-quality 3D printers. And so, MakerGear began, with Pollack at his lathe in his unheated garage, making parts by day and going online during the evening to help people get their early 3D printers up and running. As his reputation for superior quality and customer service grew, a new opportunity began to emerge.”
Pollack continued in his work, starting as “a Maker, not a manufacturer” as did many successful business owners in the space today.
“Pollack began designing and constructing his own desktop 3D printers to sell to his ever-growing, loyal customer base. He set up shop laser-cutting frames and assembling printers from his home, and was always in pursuit of something better. And that pursuit raised the bar for product performance, user choice, and customer service in the realm of desktop 3D printing,” Liao explained.
“After taking a CNC machining class, he had developed the confidence he needed to bid on an industrial sized CNC machine at an online auction. Six weeks later, it arrived on a flatbed, marking a pivotal moment when Pollack moved from Maker to Manufacturer. It gave him the opportunity to produce 3D printers to his own specifications and to create a durable product that could be just as at home in a machine shop, as in an office space or a classroom.
His customers told him that his first 3D printer was built like a CNC machine, which emboldened his commitment to use precision components and steel frames. With dozens of revisions and improvements, MakerGear’s signature product, The M2 was released in 2012.”
From these beginnings, MakerGear has pushed forward with the M2 — and that spirit of dedicated persistence. The M2 continues its reign as the flagship 3D printer from MakerGear, but now in its fifth generation, it has a bit of a different look from the original machine Pollack had created. Now sleek and black with an anodized steel frame, the M2 has seen incremental improvements over the last five years thanks to dedicated R&D, and feedback from the community rising around the machine. Today, the M2 makes its home not just in Ohio, but has hit all 50 US states and more than 75 countries around the world.
“Pollack’s commitment to domestic manufacturing has kept MakerGear’s global headquarters and manufacturing centers in Cleveland, Ohio,” Liao notes. “They source many of their machine components within a thirty minute drive of the headquarters and year-by-year add new jobs to the Northeast Ohio workforce. The company maintains its founder’s culture of customer support, product reliability and innovation.”
The opportunity to see the production facilities where the M2 is tested, assembled, and shipped, as well as the Geauga County R&D center, offered a great glimpse behind the MakerGear veil last week — but of course we always want to know more, and so I had A Few Questions For MakerGear to find out additional details about the company and its views of the 3D printing industry. Owen Schoeniger, Branding & Communications Officer at MakerGear, provided additional insights into the company.
How big is the MakerGear team today, and how many facilities does the company maintain?
“In addition to 25 full-time MakerGear team members, our operations encompass several Ohio-based manufacturing firms with whom we work directly to produce precision-machined components that go into our products. Altogether, we’re bringing millions of dollars into Ohio’s manufacturing ecosystem annually while also supporting the creation of dozens full-time manufacturing jobs for skilled workers. With regard to the two NE Ohio facilities owned and operated by MakerGear, our R&D, production, and tech support operations span more than 11,000 square feet.”
It’s rare to see a company independently built, with no external financial support; how important is this to the company’s sense of self and business development plan?
“MakerGear was founded at the height of the Great Recession by a team with zero manufacturing experience at a time when there was no desktop 3D printer market. With little solid ground to stand on, we made it our top priority to offering the best in terms of products and service as we set out into the unknown. Unlike other original players in the desktop space, we maintained our focus on product development and customer service rather than prioritizing acquisitions, valuations, and hype. Our leadership remained conscious of the fact that any successes built upon bold bets and marketing fluff would not benefit the company nor its community base in a truly sustainable way. As you can imagine, this helped to foster an entrepreneurial culture at MakerGear wherein our key decision makers remain in direct contact with users, allowing our sense of direction to be driven by customer and community needs.
Though we’re proud of the milestones that we’ve achieved, we also recognize that the extent of our successes depend entirely on the caliber of our contributions to the industry and to the needs of our global community, which, in turn, depend upon our ability to remain attentive and responsive to their changing needs, aspirations, and challenges. As we outgrow past milestones, we’re learning more and more each day about the benefits that strategic partnerships can bring to both our community and to our brand. Currently, we’re focused on expanding our global network of distributors and resellers while also continuing full-steam ahead toward our mission to empower businesses and professionals to make innovation the new normal.”
“The MakerGear M2 reached its fifth generation, the M2 rev. E, just before its 4th birthday. Although monumental changes and improvements have become apparent throughout this progression, we want to make clear the fact that these five generations represent dozens incremental improvements and innovations, born from our prioritization of reliability over flash and our preference for continuous progress over sporadic leaps.”
“Approaching 50 unique thermoplastic and composites, the list of materials that can be printed with the MakerGear M2 is growing every day, thanks in no small part to the rapid advancements taking place in the 3D materials space. Reaching up to 300°C, our standard V4 extruder provides the widest possible range of options in the desktop world. Users who wish to go beyond 300°C to print with highly specialized materials for aerospace, automotive, and laboratory applications simply swap-out their V4 hot end for a high-temp version, such as B3 innovations’ Pico hot end or the E3D V6 hot end. Companies like 3DXTECH, Formfutura, ColorFabb, Innofil3D, NinjaTek, Polymaker, and Proto-pasta (to name only a few) are doing amazing work, and we are proud to include their contributions to our portfolio of printable materials. With the customizability offered by different print surfaces, enclosures, software, etc, we’re striving to embody the idea that optimization has different meanings for different users. Instead of competing with 3D material and accessory manufacturers, our goal is to build upon their successes through an open and integrative approach.”
The M2 is a desktop 3D printer built with professional use in mind; how does it dissolve boundaries to fit into the professional market?
“Simply put, it provides professional-level results and reliability at a desktop price point; it is ready-to-go in terms of out-of-the-box performance yet ready-to-grow in terms of its adaptability. After building upon the solid foundation provided by the open-source community in the early days of desktop 3D printer development, the MakerGear M2’s evolution was driven more by the engineering, manufacturing, and performance standards of our team here in the US than by industry trends. We didn’t know it at the time, but our homegrown product strategy would eventually result in a product that regularly outperforms high-end professional 3D printers in terms of cost to performance ratio. We realized that we were doing something different when Fortune 500 companies began approaching us and asking for more, explaining that the M2 is actually shifting the paradigm of additive manufacturing in their organizations. When a senior product manager at a global enterprise puts one MakerGear M2 on each engineer’s desk rather than give the entire engineering team access to a handful of high-end machines, they discover that they can achieve their goals and deadlines much more quickly and cost effectively than ever before thanks to our unique approach — these folks have been immersed in additive manufacturing since its onset and can’t be fooled by marketing jargon.
This is not to say that we’re leading a technological revolution, not by many means. Many of these companies already own machines capable of rapidly printing parts with high dimensional accuracy at tolerances of .01 – .05 mm ; what MakerGear has done is change is the size, cost, and usability of the machines capable of doing so.”
“We did not conduct any sales and marketing efforts until the year 2016, which is absolutely crazy in today’s world, yet the M2 has claimed the #1 spot in its category for three consecutive on 3D Hubs’ annual review, and is now the #1 machine among all 3D printers listed on 3D Hubs printer index. Because we’ve never paid any publications or online influencers to write product reviews for us, this is is the kind of thing that can only result from a relentless commitment to our three product pillars: reliability, utility, and adaptability.
From our perspective, rankings and reviews begin with components, assembly, and quality control of our products, and they end with dedicated customer service and technical support. It’s a cyclical process that, though much slower than traditional promotion, results in much more momentum in the industry.
We want our reviews to accurately reflect the experience of our users, whereas one of our biggest competitors on 3D Hubs actually provides quotes for their users to copy and paste into reviews — it appears to have worked well, but to what end? I keep returning to this emphasis on integrity in every aspect of our business because, at MakerGear, we believe it is the only way to succeed in the long term. People take notice when a company makes an effort to prioritize integrity and transparency in their products and practices, I guess.
Any review that you find on the MakerGear M2 has been a form of voluntary expression by a MakerGear community member. Having said that, we’re inexpressibly grateful for the tools, resources, and hard work put forth by 3D Hubs, as their annual 3D printer index and review has allowed us to connect with a global community of users without engaging in the pay-to-play dynamics that seem to dominate the world of 3D printer reviews. Because 3D Hubs leverages a data-driven approach, they enable potential buyers to rise above the white noise generated by marketers in order to gain an accurate, transparent view of the performance of a 3D printer along several important areas of assessment.”
What else should we know about the M2? About MakerGear?
“Empowerment is our business model, and 3D printing is the vehicle for that model. From engineering and design of products to customer service and tech support, everything we do is driven by the question ‘What kind of company and product would we want to support?'”
Empowerment and value are the key terms for this Ohio-based company, as we see them empowering entrepreneurship and manufacturing in the long-established Rust Belt (which is quickly becoming the Tech Belt), empowering makers and professional users with high-quality print jobs at the desktop, and offering value across the board. The care that goes into producing and testing (and retesting) every M2 before it leaves the company’s hands is only one concrete illustration of the MakerGear ethos as this hard-working company showcases — and increasingly shows off — their business model.
Interested in having 3DPrint.com visit your site? Let us know! Drop me an email any time. We love to see where the technology we write about comes to life, and to meet the teams behind the news![All site photos: Sarah Goehrke for 3DPrint.com]