Should Desktop 3D Printing Be Open Source or Closed Source?

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Open source development has brought a lot of advantages to desktop 3D printing. Is our flirtation with open source a youthful indiscretion that will soon be discarded? Or is open source the key to our recent past and to unlocking the future of 3D printing?

A Short History of Desktop 3D Printing

A FAB@HOME model 1.

Desktop 3D printing started with the open source Fab@Home project and the RepRap. These were both open source projects, the former a syringe extruder meant to print a wide variety of materials and the latter a filament-based 3D printer meant to replicate itself. As interest in these projects grew, people started to contribute to them and the RepRap project, because of its significantly lower build cost, started to gather steam. MakerBot and other companies such as Bits From Bytes then commercialized open source systems and benefited from strides forward made by the open source community in general and their own communities around their printers. Across a few years over 500 desktop 3D printing companies emerged worldwide and the market grew spectacularly. MakerBot then became closed source. This angered many in the 3D printing world since they had been such vocal proponents of the technology and had encapsulated so many open source innovations in their systems. There was a backlash and subsequently MakerBot was acquired by Stratasys. Now we have a rather crowded field of competitors, many still pretending to be open source whilst not giving anything meaningful back to the community. A few firms still hold fast to their open source or free software principles – namely LulzBot, Ultimaker, Prusa, BCN3D and Printrbot. These firms continue to do well and fly the open source flag. Other firms such as Formlabs don’t share their source files but then again they never pretended they were going to, either. MakerBot going closed source is still rolled out as an example of what not to do by many. Others cite the same example and imply that open source hardware or open source desktop 3D printers will somehow not work at scale. Other people still think that open source is fine and dandy until investors will force companies to go closed source. What is the current status of open source desktop 3D printers? And should you go open source or closed source?

Open Source Takers Versus Open Source Givers

It is important to note that in our industry we have very many “open source 3D printer” companies who in fact base their designs on RepRap or other open source designs but do not in fact themselves share any source files. Whereas, depending on their license, it may be legally OK to do what they are doing it does undermine the central open source idea. These companies benefit from others’ R&D, in effect fork their own systems from another project and then continue to commercialize it. They never give anything meaningful back to the community. A key benefit that these companies derive from the open source community is their ability to label their 3D printers as open source. This harms open source development but depending on the license and how it is done may not be preventable.

Pro: Marketing Benefits of Open Source

This is important because as we have seen in desktop 3D printing you can derive significant and tangible marketing benefits from claiming to be an open source product. It generates more PR for you and makes your 3D printer more interesting. Press, software press and tech press is often far more excited about open source products in a new category and this in itself is a reason to write about it. It also is a marketing tool that specifically appeals to people who contribute to open source or like the ideals set out by the movement. They are often unaware that these companies do not contribute or share their source files. By claiming to be open source you also have an almost instantaneous bond to many other people in the open source movement and get access to speaking engagements, people and conferences. It is important to note that there are no real globally recognized and followed guidelines, labels or certificates for open source hardware (yet) which could let anyone check this (yes there is Open Hardware and other initiatives but I mean generally recognized and enforced standards that consumers are familiar with).

Pro: The Open Source Inoculation

There is also an additional very direct benefit to being open source, real or not. I call this the open source inoculation and it works in five ways. If an open source product sucks people will be more inclined to accept this product and less inclined to complain about it. Furthermore, if one criticizes an open source company or product one has a real risk of a thousand fanboys deriding you because you somehow attacked the holiest of holies. The fourth thing is that purely because a company claims to be open source people will find them more sympathetic. The fifth thing is that your lies become more believable when you clothe them in open source language. Claim to have the bestest 3D printer in the world and a journalist will be skeptical but claim to want to conquer the world with open source hardware and they’ll check their thinking hats at the door and hang on to your every word. I was asked several times by journalists about particular open source 3D printer OEMs who had products at the time that were in effect nonfunctional. I gave them the background I could and explained that it was more ‘consumer fraud’ than ‘a 3D printer on every desk.’ But, no way in hell was I at that time going to be quoted publicly on saying something openly negative about open source 3D printing companies such as MakerBot. I had to resort to oblique broadly understood references and background to journalists. I wish I had done more. I had a bit more moral courage in private but was often attacked or disbelieved because how could an open source company be duplicitous? Being pro open source is possibly the easiest path to secular sainthood and a very real marketing advantage to you as a person or your firm. It inoculates you against any real broad based criticism, leads to more good PR and leads people to have a far more positive view of you than they maybe should.

Pro: Open Source Works


Apart from an open source sauce to slather over the cold dead chicken nugget that is your 3D printer there are actual benefits to open source as well. Initial RepRaps were rickety teeny tiny sad fragile looking things that looked like someone had eviscerated C3PO and ripped out his knee joint and stomped on it. “Self replicate”, I thought? “I’ll be happy if the damn thing doesn’t fucking electrocute me.” A factory on my desktop? You’ve got to be joking. It is a fire on my desktop.  I can see the idea eventually happening, but to call this a universal making machine is stretching poetic license a bit thin. It would take hours and hours to slowly wheeze, whirr, huff and puff through parts. It was soooo was like watching paint dry only like with 3D paint.  It reminded me of when the cameras come visit the birthday of the “oldest person in the world” and they’d all ask you what your secret was and what it was like to have oil lamps and they’d read a nice letter from the emperor. I kept thinking that the RepRap at that time was kind of like instead of giving that person a letter from the emperor you gave them a glue gun and then sat back for a day watching them trying to fabricate a cup the size of a matchbook. And the print quality. You would have gotten better faster results if you would have given a two-year-old a knife and a lighter to carve and melt a Duplo block into a Yoda head.

Some 3D Prints from 2008 by Shane Willowgrass.

Look at us now though. From humble beginnings of trapeze like skyhooks for things we now have machines that work. Build volumes, speeds, materials, reliability, repeatability and throughput have all improved at an incredibly high rate. When comparing the output from today’s systems to those of ten years ago the gulf is enormous. Flexible materials, high temp, filled material, composites, better software, better slicing, better firmware. The materials, machines and software in the open source ecosystem have developed at a rapid pace. In fact in many ways open source systems are developing much faster than closed source ones. From humble beginnings desktop 3D printers are now, 9 years later, being used to make aerospace parts and being used in manufacturing. It is still not a toaster for stuff but at the same time they’ve become much easier to use as well. If anything proves that open source hardware does in fact work then it is desktop 3D printing. To go in such a short time from a barely working device to something that reliably now 3D prints cartilage or industrial parts is nothing short of astounding. It is clear then, the open source approach works and you should be an open source company to contribute and feed off of this open source ecosystem as it annihilates the evil closed sourcies.  

Check out this 2006 video.

Or Adrian Bowyer’s Darwin Build

Con: Patents Totally Work Also  

Not so fast. The patent system also totally works. The initial invention of FDM was done by Scott and Lisa Crump who then commercialized it via Stratasys. Only after Stratasys had done its pioneering work and established this industry together with 3D Systems, EOS, Materialise and others, only then could this open source community even exist. Fused Deposition Modeling was invented, patented and commercialized. Now that the patents have (mostly!) expired they can be used by everyone to make open source FDM printers. Without Stratasys there would be no open source community and no open source desktop 3D printers (except the Fab@Home and its derivatives because this used a syringe extruder). What the desktop 3D printing industry in effect proves is that the patent system works. Innovators and inventors are rewarded for their pioneering work and get a period of exclusivity in return for disclosing their invention. Subsequently the whole world may use the technology. The existence of the desktop 3D printing market proves beyond a reasonable doubt that the patent system works and at the same time fosters innovation while rewarding inventors. Stratasys has a head start, as they should, and now everyone can catch up. If Stratasys had been open source would it have been able to build a company? Would EOS and 3D Systems have been able to finance, invest in and commercialize their products so successfully if they were open source? No, this industry would have stranded in the hobby dens of this world along with many other unfinished products if it were not for patents. Through patents, significant investments could be made in these technologies in the hundreds of millions. These led to core principles and ideas being discovered and built upon. In fact all the major significant innovations concerning print quality and control as well as the core technology were done by Stratasys. These open source companies have done nothing more than “stand on Stratasys’ shoulders” and commoditized the technology with low-quality parts and machines. There is no real innovation in desktop 3D printing, it is simply 500 commodity low-cost copycats slowly but surely discovering things Stratasys has known for decades.

As you may have been told these views are not very mutually compatible. I think that the truth lies somewhere in the middle. 

Pro: Community Hardware Acceleration

There are other indirect benefits to open source however that totally give open source hardware companies an edge over closed source ones. By fostering and nurturing communities around their hardware platforms open source hardware companies put their customers front and center. User value is continually mined and created by the community. Innovative solutions that the OEM has not even considered will be solved faster by the community. Given enough eyeballs all the things are shallow. In 3D printing the Olsson block is a textbook example how a quick change nozzle assembly was done by the community for the community and not by the OEM. Flexible materials were introduced completely outside the path of the OEMs. OEMs were not considering or even roadmapping flexible material but only focusing on ABS and PLA. Vendors working with community members and hardware hackers were the ones that introduced flexible materials, greatly expanding the application areas of desktop machines. Open source hardware communities drive the development of your device to the most useful and innovative areas of your customers’ lives. Through open source hardware new applications and new uses can be found for existing hardware far beyond what the OEM intended. A closed source OEM produces a static hardware device, locked away from the user. Open source hardware turns this device into a fluid set of parameters that can be used to solve problems not foreseen by the OEM. An open source hardware device is a community-driven paperclip that can be molded changed to fit many applications. In 3D printing we now see people printing bone, microfluidic devices and circuits on systems not designed for that purpose. But, because those systems are open source, the users have the freedom to adapt and build the tooling they need to really push the boundaries of technology for them. Open source hardware is simply a better more agile way of engineering solutions for technology problems than the static old way of closed source companies who will slowly fall by the wayside as open source out-innovates them.   

Con: Faster Horses

The counter argument to that is that whereas in software it is fine to have one snake wrangler and a bunch of volunteers make something, it does not work in hardware. In hardware compliance, design and the functioning of the device means that it is per definition not as granular as a pull request on an app. In the real world, hardware devices have many interchanging parts that all have feedback loops on each other. Small incremental changes, fine for software, won’t work in a hardware device because you can go two steps forward and six sideways. Individual expertise areas such as in firmware and hardware have to come together in well-coordinated teams of full-time employees working in concert. Simple systems may be made by open hardware communities but complex devices for manufacturing must be coordinated centrally. Customers often do not know what they want and to have all of them incrementally improving the product is a giant waste of resources. Hardware products should be made top down with a vision and design in mind to meet the needs of customers. Only experts can really truly understand these devices and ensure that they work and meet compliance standards. Hardware is not as fluid as software and you may be OK with your browser crashing but we’re talking about aircraft crashing here and so a central vision-driven approach is the only one able to manufacture reliable hardware devices.    

Con: When You Grow Up You’ll Be Closed Source

I get it, the open source thing was fun and cute. When you were two guys around a kitchen table it was all fine and dandy. But, you’re all grown up now. You have mortgages, resellers, a global footprint. You have responsibilities. Cash flow, growth, people’s livelihoods depend on this now. Isn’t it time to just grow up? Just leave this super nice and cuddly cute open source world behind you and build a proper company, with patents. Open source is great for a scrappy little company trying to make a product. But, now we’re targeting the enterprise. Serious people are buying our printers. We should just grow up and leave open source behind us. Open source is just a phase like acne or that whole Dungeons & Dragons thing. Remember when you were in a rock band for three weeks? This is kind of like that, a fun thing to do and great that you tried it, but not something for the long run. If you want to build an actual business you will need to become closed source. We simply need that to remain competitive and hold our edge. We can’t keep giving all of those competitors a free ride. I know you have principles but look at all these hardworking people around the office, wouldn’t you like to do what you can for them?    

Con: They’ll Copy Everything You Do

Look, these low-cost guys will just copy everything you’ll do. They’ll take your hard-won R&D efforts and rip them off. They’ll just buy cheap components and undercut you. Look at all the copies of your system. Poor versions that hardly work. What are they doing for open source? Nothing. They’re just ripping us off and making barely usable crappy copies. Worse still, they will sell more of their cheap printers then we will of our good ones. They’ll keep undercutting us and get a little bit better. Just good enough to put us out of business. We’ll do all the heavy lifting and they’ll get a free ride which will end up driving us into bankruptcy. We have to survive and grow, it is time to face the music and become closed source.  

Pro: Service and Quality

GE aviation engine assembly.

If you were an airline and someone came to you saying that they had a perfect copy of a GE engine at 10% of the price would you buy it? Of course not. You’d never take the risk. For aircraft engines reliability is the most important factor. You don’t mind paying more for it. You want it to come from GE. Sure someone may be able to make a cheaper jet engine. But that’s not the point. You want the most reliable jet engine in the world with the guarantees, service and reputation that GE conveys. In commodity hardware open source may not work. But do you want to be in the commodity hardware business? A truly critical and important piece of hardware will also be the one that will be a good business. This will be one where people will pay for quality and pay for service. They’ll want it from you and only you. It will be irrelevant who makes it and at what price they’ll want that mission-critical device from the company with the reputation and service to ensure that this device works as advertised. We should make our device open source in order that we and the ecosystem collectively benefit from our joint innovation. If we look at the long-term application areas for 3D printing in bioprinting, aviation, education and medicine, then these markets care above all about the reliability, uptime and quality of a device. There may be very many cheaper rivals out there but they will continue to buy from us regardless of the price because they need perfect prints every time. This is not the PC or the phone or a commodity device such as that (yes your PC has to work but essentially Intel takes care of that for everyone). A 3D printer is a device that will continue to prosper in high-compliance high-accuracy applications and these will be emboldened and helped by our open source nature while they will also continue to buy from us regardless of price.

Pro: Open Materials

If a product is open source or not is really irrelevant. Some people may like you for it and it might help your community find solutions that they could not otherwise. It will help us a bit on the marketing side and on the development side. But, the most important thing is that we are open in terms of materials. Open source is relevant for 3D printing because it ensures that we can not lock in our materials. If we do lock in our materials and let people use only our materials then people can always turn to a competitor who can copy our machine. On the other hand if we do not do that people will stay with us because we are the innovators who understand this device the best. People are industrializing 3D printing now and desktop 3D printer home users are sophisticated. The industrial user and the home user both don’t want to be ripped off. More importantly it is the fact that we have open materials that people are drawn to us in the first place. Open source is important to us because a lot of the real innovation in the market has come from the fact that hundreds of material vendors can set their own prices and develop their own materials for desktop 3D printers. This open material element is the key thing that is speeding up our industry into new application areas. Through having open materials industrial users can be sure that they will be able to develop and buy their own materials for the system. They can be safe in the knowledge that they will not at one point face higher cost or that future systems will not be compatible with their materials. The fact that we have open materials is the key factor giving them the comfort that they need to industrialize 3D printing. The one thing that backs this up and keeps us honest is the fact that we are open source.

What do you think: should 3D printing be open source or closed? Discuss in the Open Source vs. Closed Source forum at




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