MakerBot CEO Bre Pettis on Hewlett Packard, 3D Printing Patents, ‘iTunes for Digital Designs’ & More
Recently MakerBot Co-founder and CEO Bre Pettis was kind enough to speak with 3DPrint.com about several topics surrounding the 3D printing industry. Pettis, along with co-founders Zach Smith and Adam Mayer, founded MakerBot Industries back in January of 2009.
Since then, the company has really taken off, and was even acquired by Stratasys Inc. for what equated to approximately $403 million in stock. They are currenly the leading “at-home” 3D printer manufacturer, and their latest line of printers, the 5th generation Replicators are an industry benchmark for fused deposition modeling (FDM) printers.
An iTunes For Digital Designs?
MakerBot also owns and operates Thingiverse, which is the largest free depository of 3D printable designs on the internet. On top of this, they recently opened their MakerBot Digital Store, which sells designs for different printable collections, ranging from toys to desktop planters.
When the Makerbot Digital Store launched back in January of 2014, several media outlets asked the question of “Is this the iTunes for digital designs?”. So far only MakerBot releases designs to the digital store, thus the comparisons to an “iTunes for digital designs” is not a legitimate one. Thingiverse, on the other hand allows any designers to upload their 3D files, but it does not allow them to charge a fee for downloads.
I asked Bre Pettis if he ever plans to create a service where designers could upload and sell their designs, similar to an iTunes-like resource. While he was noncommittal, he did say that currently they are seeing how the MakerBot Digital Store goes, and that it is possible that in the future they could open it up to allow designers to sell their own designs.
I also asked about the possibility of Thingiverse changing their business model to allow designers to charge for the download of some of their uploaded designs. Pettis informed me that this will never happen. He explained that the whole idea of Thingiverse is to allow designers to freely share their designs with others.
It’s not just about sharing though. It’s about the open source aspect of the site. Some people upload designs that are very raw, and others come along, modify them, and perfect them. The Robohand project is a good example. There are many modifications to this cleverly designed robotic hand, and there have been many prosthetics that have been customized using this design. Thingiverse is not only for sharing designs, but it’s a place for other designers to improve upon designs via the open source nature of the site.
KickStarter or Kick-me-for-backing-this?
Recently there has been a ton of 3D printers hitting Kickstarter. Some have been priced at as low as $99.00. The most notable one recently, has been the $299 M3D Micro 3D Printer that has raised over $3 million. It uses the same type of printing technology that the MakerBot Replicator line does (fused deposition modeling). However it is priced at $1,000 less than the 5th generation MakerBot Replicator Mini, which is similar in size.
I asked Pettis about this, and he did not seem all that surprised. However, he did mention that he has backed a lot of Kickstarter projects, and that only a few of those have actually delivered on their promises. He noted that the Replicator printers have several features that no other 3D printers have, such as the onboard camera, and the smart extruder.
No one has really seen what the M3D printer can do yet, so this topic remains one that can not yet be fully examined.
When Stratasys Inc. acquired MakerBot back in June of 2013, a lot of people wondered how the company would be affected. Really not much has changed. Bre Pettis remains the CEO of the MakerBot subsidiary, and has a good amount of control over the everyday decisions.
Pettis informed me that MakerBot basically is allowed to do their own thing, and that Stratasys had known very well about the latest product releases (generation 5) prior to the acquisition.
I asked Pettis if they plan to take advantage of some of the patents that parent company Stratasys has in its name. He informed me that they very well may make use of the patents. However, when I enquired as to which patents they may use, he simply was not sure. He explained that MakerBot doesn’t seek out and find patents that they can legally use, simply because they have them at their disposal. Rather they come up with new ideas, and new innovations and then see if those ideas are doable based on current patent holdings and laws.
Fact is, Stratasys really focuses on a type of printing technology that differs significantly from MakerBot’s FDM tech, so the patents probably are not of that much use to MakerBot.
MakerBot Replicators on Par With Professional 3D Printers
A topic I always like to ask of industry leaders is that of how quickly we can expect the quality of 3D printers to improve. I asked Pettis when he thinks that we will begin to see 3D printers in homes with the same quality that professional 3D printers print with today. He responded, “We already do. Take a MakerBot [for example].”
His answer surprised me a little bit, so I was more specific with my question. I asked him to compare it with an Objet, which is a Stratasys professional level 3D printer.
“That’s a different technique,” he explained. “We are focused on the desktop, the living room, the office. Those places are places where things have to smell good; they have to be friendly. You are never going to have goo (referring to the substance used in certain printing techniques) in your home, and you are very unlikely to have super fine powder in your home (used for selective laser sintering). With those machines, you have to basically wear a gas mask, and unless you want to have your whole family wear gas masks, you’re probably not going to have a powder machine in your home.”
Selective laser sintering is a process by which fine powder is hit with a laser and melted onto an object as it prints. As of now, there are many safety concerns with this technology. Pettis did say though, that the MakerBot Replicators are able to print in the same high quality, using plastics and other FDM filaments, like some of these more expensive professional printers. He also noted that many of the items printed on powder based printers do not hold up as well as objects printed on a MakerBot.
I asked about the two most common concerns that many people have with FDM printers, such as the MakerBot Replicators. Those concerns are (1) speed, and (2) resolution. These are the things we hear about on a daily basis. Printing items on a printer can take many hours, sometimes even an entire day for large prints. Resolution on a MakerBot printer is extremely high. However, if you increase the resolution, the speed slows down, due to more layers needing to be laid.
Pettis responded, “I think if you look at it from the perspective of where it’s come from, the MakerBot Replicator 2 and 5th Generation Replicators, when compared to other (FDM) 3D printers are very fast. We’ve really worked hard at making them as fast as possible. You know it’s not as fast as the Star Trek replicator, but it’s also not science fiction. We have to live within the realm of material science, physics, and the amount of letters on a periodic table. Of course we are going to continue to actually work on [the speed].”
What about Hewlett Packard Entering the 3D Printing Industry?
This is a question that I’m sure the CEOs of all the major 3D printing companies cringe at when asked. You know it’s something that has to cause them at least the slightest bit of worry. When I asked Pettis about this, he said, “At MakerBot, we’re an innovation company, and we’ve been doing this for 5 years, and we’re part of a company called Stratasys that’s been doing this for 25 years. There is a lot of expertise and a lot of deep knowledge. We are really focused on empowering people and we make tools that allow people to be super innovative.”
This is so true. Companies like Stratasys and 3D Systems have been around for decades, building up patents, gaining experience, and working with the technology. It should be quite difficult for Hewlett Packard to just decide that they wish to enter the market, and expect to find themselves on par with the 3D Systems’ and Stratasys’ of the world. Like we pointed out in an article a few days ago, even though they have a staggering market capital of over $60 billion, it’s not that easy to just expect to succeed in what really is an entirely different industry than what they are used to.
I followed up the question by asking Pettis if he believes that HP will focus more on the manufacturing sector. He responded, “I don’t know if I would say that, but what we are focused on is building the best possible 3D printers, and making them as friendly and easy to use as possible.”
It’s quite obvious that everyone in the industry is wondering what Hewlett Packard plans to do and how they plan to enter the market. Will they focus mainly on the manufacturing sector, by building printers similar to Stratasys’ Objet printers, or will they target at home users with easy to use desktop 3D Printers? No one knows except for the guys and girls at Hewlett Packard. We have seen both Stratasys and 3D Systems acquire a lot of 3D printing companies in the past few months, in order to beef up their repertoires, but even they can only guess which way things will go.
Pettis as an Innovator and Dedicated CEO
Before talking with Pettis, I thoroughly respected his drive and enthusiasm in what he has done with MakerBot. He has gone from being an art teacher, to a video podcaster, to a ‘Maker’ and DIY 3D printer enthusiast, to a startup co-founder, to a CEO of a multi-million dollar company, to now running the most popular at-home 3D printer manufacturer in the world. After talking to him, I understand what his goal is, and fully expect MakerBot to remain at the top echelon of 3D printer companies. MakerBot is an innovation company. Not only do they innovate when it comes to building easy-to-use 3D printers, but they allow their customers to innovate by using their 3D printers to print out anything they imagine possible.
Let us know what you think of this interview in the ‘Bre Pettis Interview’ thread on 3DPB.com.
MakerBot is here to stay.
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