Since the maker movement began to evolve out of hacklabs and hackerspaces, we’ve seen it transform in ways that led to some of the movement’s initial pioneers go sideways. These developments caused this author to wonder about the state of the movement.
Before getting into the losses of the early desktop 3D printer industry, we have to remember its foundation in the RepRap project. Established by Senior Lecturer in mechanical engineering Adrian Bowyer at the University of Bath in the U.K., the RepRap project (short for “replicating rapid prototyper”) sought to design 3D printers capable of replicating themselves.
Bowyer theorized that, if one could create a printer that could print a copy of itself endlessly, it would render null the monetary worth of the system, possibly taking down capitalism as a whole. Though the first system might cost around $400, its duplicate could be nearly free. The idea was that, if you could print anything you wanted for nothing, then there’d be no reason to buy something from some giant mass manufacturer with sweatshops overseas.
Key to this would be the sharing of open source hardware, software and printable designs. And early RepRap models aimed to incorporate as many printable elements as possible. As the appeal of spinning RepRap designs into profitable businesses emerged, however, printability became less of an objective and Bowyer’s vision did not pan out as he had originally hoped.
The open source hardware community didn’t lose MakerBot in the financial sense. MakerBot still exists today. But would any of the original proponents of the former Brooklyn startup recognize it in its current form? Many of us in the 3D printing industry already know the story of what happened to MakerBot, but it’s worth rehashing for this series.
The company sprang out of the open source RepRap movement, with MakerBot co-founders Zach “Hoeken” Smith being a part of establishing the RepRap Research Foundation and Bre Pettis learning about RepRap while in an art residency at a Vienna hackerspace. Soon, along with co-founder Adam Mayer, the crew was selling kits for customers to assemble their own MakerBot Cupcake CNC 3D printers in 2009.
While the Cupcake CNC, Thing-O-Matic and original Replicator 3D printers maintained a lasercut plywood frame, subsequent printers were made of metal, which would come to represent a shift in the desktop 3D printing space as a whole. From 2009 to 2012, MakerBot and Bre Pettis, the firm’s CEO, were featured in TV segments and on the covers of magazines, representing the face of the 3D printing industry and the burgeoning maker movement.
MakerBot had started with just $75,000 in seed funding from the likes of RepRap pioneer Adrian Bowyer, but by 2011, it was already flirting with Wall Street. That year, venture capital firm The Foundry Group poured $10 million into the startup and took a seat on its board. In 2012, Smith was pushed out as MakerBot abandoned its open source roots and began courting Stratasys.
Around that time, the company began to alienate the community that had supported its development up until that point. Not only was the Replicator 2 3D printer not open source, but it seemed to incorporate designs developed by its open source community and then patent them. Moreover, MakerBot’s file sharing repository, Thingiverse, changed its Terms of Service to indicate that it owned any designs uploaded to the site.
In 2013, MakerBot was acquired by Stratasys, which had recently undergone a merger with Israeli inkjet 3D printing pioneer Objet. Soon, the startup would undergo a corporate transformation that would see an endless string of leadership changes, a series of lay-offs, and legal battles related to issues with new MakerBot 3D printers.
Ten years later and the new MakerBot is finally beginning to recover from some of the publicity associated with those issues to the extent that its foundation as an open source hardware startup are likely all-but-forgotten by the larger 3D printing industry. Those invested in the maker movement, however, may never forget and the other businesses that fell by the wayside as 3D printing marched onward seem to represent casualties in the fight between open and closed source hardware design.
As MakerBot took off in the U.S., another open source 3D printing startup was taking root in Europe. Formed out of work at ProtoSpace Utrecht, where co-founders Siert Wijnia, Erik van de Bruijn and Martijn Elserman hosted workshops to attempt to build a RepRap Darwin 3D printers, Ultimaker went on to abandon the Darwin design to create its own model. Rather than shoot for a printer that could print itself, Ultimaker opted for a laser cut frame.
In 2011, Ultimaker was launched as a company, selling open source Ultimaker 3D printer kits to the masses. Along with the printer, the Dutch startup developed an open source piece of software for preparing files for printing called Cura.
From its early beginnings to now, Ultimaker continued to grow and receive good reviews for its 3D printers from the likes of MAKE: Magazine. With the Ultimaker 2, the company ditched the plywood for an acrylic frame, summoning fears that the firm was following in the footsteps of MakerBot and shedding its open source philosophy.
However, it continued to release the design files for its products up until the Ultimaker 3 in 2017, though the files would be published somewhat after the printers were released in order to maintain an edge on competing companies and overseas clone manufacturers. It was at this time that Ultimaker also filed its first patents, which CEO Jos Burger said was only a defensive measure to protect its IP, not constrain the open source community.
Cura continues to be open source and we’ve reached out to the firm to learn if its newest series will be open source but have yet to hear back. Because of Ultimaker’s immense growth since its founding, there may be concerns that it has undergone its own fundamental corporate transformation.
Arduino vs. Arduino
Essential to the proliferation of open source desktop 3D printers were low-cost microcontrollers, such as those made by an Italian company called Arduino. Developed by students at the Interaction Design Institute Ivrea (IDII) under the supervision of Massimo Banzi and Casey Reas, the original Arduino device was made up of a printed circuit board, an ATmega168 microcontroller, an integrated development environment based on the Processing programming language. Initially, an open source research project, the first commercially available Arduino boards began to sell in 2009 at the low cost of $50.
At such a low price point, Arduinos helped power a good deal of open source hardware projects, but, since the founding of Arduino LLC, the name has been associated with controversy. In 2015, a lawsuit erupted when Arduino LLC sued an entity called Arduino SRL. The story is a convoluted one that involved the acquisition of Arduino’s largest manufacturing partner, Smart Projects, by a man named Federico Musto, who changed the name of the firm to Arduino SRL.
The two companies ultimately performed a merger, Musto went on to secure 50 percent ownership over the firm and became CEO. However, Arduino partner Adafruit Industries performed a thorough investigation into Musto’s background and learned that he’d fabricated his academic record, listing that he held a PhD from MIT and an MBA from NYU, neither of which was true.
In 2017, Musto began pulling Arduino source files from the company website before, amid the controversy, the original Arduino founders purchased the rest of Arduino and its trademarks and ousted Musto.
Missing from the entire story is the fact that the original IDII project is the student who initiated it, Hernando Barragán. In a blogpost, Barragán explains that the source code for Arduino was originally forked from his project, but that he was not invited to participate in the founding and development of Arduino.
Printrbot, RepRap Pro & More
Though the RepRap model was meant to transform our financial system through the sharing of open source designs, we actually saw an explosion of desktop 3D printing startups looking to bank on the 3D printing boom. And who could blame someone for trying to earn a living doing something they enjoyed, especially if they maintained the project’s open source philosophy in the process?
As the technology proliferated, there were so many companies born that we can hardly remember the names of all of them, unfortunately, but there were some that seemed to be fundamental to the larger open source hardware movement. Printrbot, for instance, sold some of the least expensive desktop 3D printers and printer kits on the market, often recommended as perfect for new and young hobbyists.
RepRap Pro was Adrian Bowyer’s own startup, which promised entirely unique innovations in the desktop space. Others that proved to have robust community support and well-liked open source brands were LulzBot and Type A Machines, among others. All of these startups, however, were eventually forced to shut their doors, though LulzBot was able to reopen them when it was acquired by Fargo Additive Manufacturing Equipment 3D. Printrbot attempted to find a buyer, but was unsuccessful, though founder Brook Drumm is still working on projects with a YouTube channel and Patreon account.
How did these companies fail while others succeeded? Perhaps they were unable to sense the industrial shift the desktop 3D printer market was taking. Or maybe they were dramatically undercut by the flood of clones and contract manufacturers that flooded the space. We’ll explore these factors in our next installment in the series.
We reached out to Bre Pettis, Zach Smith, Ultimaker, and others mentioned in this article. Though we have not received comments from many of them, we will include comments from Adrian Bowyer and other members of the open source community in the next part in this series.
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