To kick off the 20th year of SXSW Interactive, Bre Pettis, the co-founder of MakerBot (one of the leading companies in desktop 3-D printing), was selected to give the opening remarks. To call Pettis’s success the past few years as “extraordinary” would be an understatement, second only to calling 3-D printing’s potential “revolutionary.” The word “revolution” is one that Pettis himself is comfortable with, describing 3-D printing (and specifically MakerBot) as the “next industrial revolution.” When SXSW Interactive’s director, Hugh Forrest, introduced Pettis, he called him “the next industrial revolution’s commander in chief.”
That’s a long way from four short years ago, when MakerBot was a brand-new startup comprised of Pettis, Adam Mayer and Zach Smith, who simply wanted to make a 3-D printer because they “really wanted one”. When Pettis came to 2009’s SXSW with the very first MakerBot prototype, he went into random bars and printed out thimble-size shot glasses to the delight of patrons. Today, Pettis believes MakerBot can fundamentally disrupt global manufacturing, which, according to the National Association of Manufacturers, is a $1.8 trillion industry in the U.S. alone.
Is 3-D printing a niche technology, or is it on par with the cultural magnitude of the television or the personal computer? According to Pettis, MakerBot’s current biggest customer is NASA, which uses their printers for early prototyping models. MakerBot has the rocket scientists, but what about the rest of the market? Pettis sees MakerBot as a “force of goodness” for the world.
Therein lies MakerBot’s biggest challenge and its biggest asset. The key to MakerBot’s success, according to Pettis, is its community of users and creators. Since its inception, early adopters, many of which are at-home enthusiasts, have flooded the MakerBot-owned website Thingiverse with 40,000 designs, everything from jewelry to juicers. All of these items were designed by people through trial and error, and available to anyone to download, for free.
MakerBot’s biggest challenge is the technology itself and the way users design objects. Even MakerBot’s flagship product, the MakerBot Replicator 2, is limited to printing multicolored, rigid pieces of plastic. MakerBot is investing heavily in the material sciences to expand on this, but there’s no timeframe for new materials to come to market. The technology is just not there yet. The Replicator 2 also retails for $2200.
But MakerBot is making big advances on user design. They’ve partnered with AutoDesk to make more friendly interface applications, like 123D Creature, to introduce younger audiences to the world of 3-D printing. Pettis also unveiled MakerBot’s newest product at SXSW, the Digitizer. Only a prototype, the Digitizer is a desktop 3-D scanner that can scan any small to medium size object (up to 8 inches), save all the data into the Makerbot printer, and print new copies of the scanned item. It’s another way for a wider audience to understand and apply 3-D printing, without the thorough knowledge of complex rendering programs. It's supposed to commercially launch Fall of 2013.
3-D printing is still in its infancy, but Pettis firmly believes in MakerBot’s global significance. It can replace “two centuries of mass production” by giving individuals the tools to design and fabricate their own products, essentially making anyone an entrepreneur. It can be a “new medium” for artists. It can be a vital educational tool for schools. Basically, whatever people can imagine. Pettis doesn’t even stop with Earth, stating that his biggest goal is to have a “MakerBot on the moon." Those are huge goals, but Pettis did have some well-grounded advice for entrepreneurs. “Believe that it’s possible, get started and throw yourself into it, and build momentum.”
How revolutionary will 3-D printing become, for the world and for business?