ReadWriteBuilders is a series of interviews with developers, designers and other architects of the programmable future.
Bre Pettis was a little choked up. At the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas last week, the MakerBot founder addressed a roomful of tech reporters and told them a story. It wasn't about the innovations in his new lineup of 3D printers or how user-centric his new apps are—he'd get to all that later. In this moment, he focused on something else: a child who needed an artificial arm.
Young amputees, he said, often don't get prosthetics because of cost. They simply grow out of these expensive limbs too quickly. But thanks to 3D printing, these kids can make their own prosthetics as needed using inexpensive plastic filament.
Pettis' choice of anecdote highlights the image problem of 3D printers. They're largely known for making plastic models, figurines and other tchotchkes, and as a result, these expensive, complicated machines are only really feasible for businesses. Only rarely does Pettis get to talk about just how 3D printing might change things for ordinary people, and when he does, it really seems to move him.
If Pettis is a sensitive guy, you can blame that on his artistic background. He's worked in film production and puppetry, and he was a teacher, hacker and on-air video/TV personality. Now he's founder and CEO of MakerBot, one of the high-profile companies leading the charge for 3D printing.
I caught up with Pettis for a few moments at CES, to find out how this "maker of things" went from puppetmaster to 3D printing evangelist—and how MakerBot plans to turn everyone else into builders, too.
ReadWrite: You used to be a puppeteer, a teacher, and you worked in film production. That's quite a varied background. How do you go from that to making 3D printers?
Bre Pettis: I’ve always been a tinkerer. I’ve always loved making things, and I’ve always been willing to say "yes" to adventures.
When I finished school, I ended up having time between when I finished all my work to graduation. So I made a puppet theater, which led down a windy path to working in Jim Henson’s Creature Shop. When I was done with that, I was teaching young people how to use puppets, that morphed into becoming a public school teacher in Seattle public.
I was making videos for my students, because they paid better attention to me in video than in person, and I ended up publishing those to the Web and becoming one of the first video bloggers. I made more videos about how people make stuff, and the next thing you know, I needed more tools. I created a community in New York City called NYC Resistor, and the one tool we couldn’t afford was a 3D printer. So we had to make one, and MakerBot was born.
RW: So you were just filling your own need at the time? How did you turn this one project into the MakerBot we know today?
BP: We kind of tricked ourselves into it. We thought it would be easy; we didn’t realize it was going to be hard. But we were already too far into it.
I’m a schemer and somebody who tells stories. And I’m probably, if anything, obsessive. I care about being able to empower creative people to make anything, and we hold ourselves to a really high standard. But early on, there was a lot of learning around supply chain issues and how to scale up a business. So I hired great people who were smarter than me.
RW: Seems like things accelerated last year, when Microsoft decided to support you, packing plug-and-play print drivers in Windows 8.1.
BP: At an operating system level, that made it easy for people to use MakerBots on Windows. It’s just critical for crossing the chasm and making those a real consumer place, making it friendly at the OS level. What they’ve done with the driver is just great.
RW: In 2012, MakerBot partnered with fashion designer Asher Levine to 3D print sunglasses that paired with his menswear collection. Are you planning on doing more of this kind of mainstream outreach?
BP: We just did an interesting project with fashion designer Francis Bitonti (in September 2013), and we made a dress out of MakerBot flexible filament. He designed the dress, and we collaborated with him on that.
One of the things that will be really exciting for 2014 will be what people do with 3D printing. There are so many opportunities to explore possibilities.
RW: Do those possibilities involve the new printer models? With this lineup, it seems you're really making that play for consumers now.
BP: Well, we announced three 3D printers: a small (MakerBot Mini, $1,375), a medium (MakerBot Replicator, fifth generation, $2,899) and large one (MakerBot Z18, $6,499).
The small one is for consumers, (but still) focused on professional quality, no compromise. The medium one is for prosumers. Still professional quality, but something that engineers, industrial designers and architects can put on their desk and be creative.
Then there's the MakerBot Replicator Z18, which is a very large 3D printer (with a heating chamber). This might be the most disruptive of the bunch.
When you look around at 3D printers that can make big things, they cost a lot more. So it’s a very accessible price to make very large objects.
RW: The new printers aren't the only things you've been working on. Didn't you strike a deal with sensor company SoftKinetic?
BP: We announced an exclusive partnership with SoftKinetic. They make a module that can be used to make 3D scanners, and we have a partnership with them to develop that. We also announced the MakerBot digital store, which makes it easy to purchase digital models, or collectibles, that you can make with a MakerBot.
RW: Seems like you're really focusing on making things simpler to use. How do your new apps play into that?
BP: We launched three new applications: the desktop application, the mobile application and the printshop application. With each of these, we're making it easy to make a model, integrate it into the MakerBot library (or browse through the) Thingiverse catalog and print to your MakerBot 3D printer.
MakerBot printshop is a design tool, for starters, to make signs and bracelets, but there will be more coming. For us that’s so important, because there are so many people who might not think of themselves as designers.
Once you use the MakerBot printshop application, like it or not, you’re going to be a designer. So it’s easy enough to be a designer and make something special that you can feel really good about.
Francis Bitonti 3D-printed dress image, courtesy of MakerBot/Thingiverse. Bre Pettis headshot and Digital Store images, courtesy of MakerBot. All others by Adriana Lee for ReadWrite.