Fast Track for a
High-Tech Startup


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When Bre Pettis and two friends, Adam Mayer and Zach Smith, built a 3-D printer because they wanted one that wouldn’t break the bank, little did they realize where they were headed. Now, four years later, MakerBot Industries, the startup they formed in Brooklyn, NY, is a booming business and has racked up a string of awards.

Like many other tech startups, the biggest challenge has not been the technology. CEO Pettis says, “The most challenging issue has been demand exceeding supply. From the moment we created MakerBot and sold our first 3-D printer, we thought it would be a technology that took a while to catch on – or at least a few months.  We were wrong.  We sold out in days, and we are still working really hard to keep up with demand.” There is now about an eight-week wait time for the newest model, MakerBot Replicator 2X Experimental 3D Printer, introduced in January.

To date, MakerBot has sold about 15,000 desktop 3-D printers and estimates it has about a 25% share of the 3-D printing market. Additionally, the company has expanded to include a MakerBot retail store in Manhattan and other 3-D printer-related offerings. Most recently, Pettis announced that MakerBot is developing a Digitizer Desktop 3-D scanner that allows scanning of a physical item, then digitized and printed by someone with little or no design experience. The scanner is scheduled to be available this fall.

MakerBot founder Bre Pettis. Image: Bre Pettis

MakerBot has also had to navigate some turbulent waters surrounding its commitment to open source collaboration while protecting what it feels it must to build a sustainable business. This caused quite a bit of online comment among the community last fall when it seemed that MakerBot was backing off from open source. Responses from MakerBot, however, about its plans have seemed to bring about some calm.

Affordable Price

The concept of 3-D printing has been around for 30 years, but the printers have cost tens of thousands of dollars. MakerBot took existing technology, based on the open source RepRap Project, and made an affordable printer that originally came only in a build-it-yourself consumer kit. Starting with a kit took much less time to make than following instructions on RepRap.

A 3-D print of a tractor from the MakerBot printer. Image: MakerBot Industries

MakerBot’s latest models that cost under $3,000 come assembled. In addition to the newest printer, the MakerBot Replicator and MakerBot Replicator 2 are also available. But Pettis says many original Cupcake CNC printers are still in use.

Asked why MakerBot has been successful when others have struggled, Pettis says MakerBot was the first to bring 3-D printing to the desktop at an affordable price.  “MakerBot … is truly fueling the next industrial revolution,” he says.

His belief is that 3-D printing allows individuals to “manufacture” many wanted items, including repair parts, instead of buying them, in other words, putting a factory on each person’s desktop.

“We see 3-D printing as the most exciting development in manufacturing and product design. It empowers engineers, designers, and architects to creatively find ways to make better products, create life-altering prosthetics and iterate design options faster and better,” he says.

Using the printer starts with a 3-D image using CAD software, which sends the information to the printer. The item is created by layering a material, often types of plastic, onto a platform, and building it up layer by layer.

Another key to MakerBot’s success is the company’s Thingiverse website, a place for shared innovation where more than 40,000 digital designs have been posted for physical objects that can be downloaded for free and made with 3-D printers.

Burgeoning Market

With the initial build-it-yourself approach, MakerBot was geared for individuals and small organizations. As the company’s newest models become targeted at more advance users, large organizations are among the fastest-growing customers. “We’d like to see a MakerBot on the desk of every engineer, in every company, in every country,” Pettis says.

Already, MakerBot printers have had a role in NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s prototyping of the heat shields for the Mars rover, Curiosity.  NASA engineers told MakerBot they previously spent $6,000 on each new version of the prototype they created. MakerBot also was involved in the custom clips made to attach high-powered LED lights to suspension cables on the San Francisco Bay Bridge. Ford Motor Co. said last December it is putting a 3-D printer on the desk of every engineer, Pettis says.

MakerBot is also pursuing partnerships with other 3-D design and like-minded companies, such as Nokia and Adafruit. It recently signed an agreement with Autodesk, a leader in 3-D design software, to jointly market a combination of 3-D design software and 3-D printing hardware.

To hear Pettis tell it, the printer is limited only by one’s imagination considering that among its output already has been everything from an ear bud holder for mobile phones, baby monitor, skull models from MRI scans, and a robotic hand for a young boy.

Nancy C. Giges is an independent writer.

We’d like to see a MakerBot on the desk of every engineer, in every company, in every country.

Bre Pettis, CEO, MakerBot Industries

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May 2013

by Nancy S. Giges, ASME.org