In the world of engineering, if you haven't heard about 3D printing, you’ve been living under a rock; however, utilizing the prototyping tool is a different story. 3D printing technology, or additive manufacturing, has been around for some time now (FDM dates back to the early 90s), but it has only recently begun to reach the masses outside of engineering. Much of that exposure, and the growing impact of 3D printing in the mainstream, can be credited to makers, or physical hackers, and the MakerBot.

As the market gap between hobbyist makers and professional engineers continues to close, desktop 3D printing is emerging as the next golden nugget in prototyping and small-scale manufacturing. MakerBot has been at the cusp of this revolution, as CEO, Bre Pettis (pictured) explains, “when we started, we wanted a 3D printer, but at the time they were way too expensive [for the] average person, so we had to make one. When it worked, we started a company so everybody could have one.”

Open-Source to Money Maker

The original MakerBot was designed as an open-source 3D printer for makers to create their most imaginative creations. As the company, and 3D printing, grew in popularity, Bre Pettis adjusted their business plan. “We moved away from our purist point-of-view, and now we are just mostly open-source,” explains Pettis. Making money and open-source don’t typically go hand-in-hand, but MakerBot has stayed true to their sharing mentality. “We’re committed to sharing, and that sharing makes a better world. We share as much as we can, while still being able to have a business, so we can keep going.”

Sharing comes in with MakerBot’s strong community, MakerWare platform, and Thingiverse. The MakerWare platform is a virtually universal CAD platform. Nothing complicated, but it certainly opens the world of design up to amateurs and allows for easy printing of CAD designs. Thingiverse is a contribution driven portion of the MakerBot website that allows for free sharing of ideas, designs, CAD layouts, and concepts. Everything from the next Kickstarter iPhone case to the latest in plastic jewelry design can be found and downloaded on Thingiverse.

Democratizing Innovation

A powerful idea that resonates throughout the MakerBot culture is the concept of democratizing innovation. Pettis explains, “The idea is, basically: Up until when we showed up, if you wanted to manufacture things, you had to do it in the traditional way, which meant you had to interact with a factory, and in order to do that, you have to hit half-scale.” Half-scale prototyping is expensive, and interacting this way is, often, only achievable for companies or individuals with lots of capitol. “So a MakerBot can change all of that because you can manufacture things. You hold the power of manufacturing in your hands. You can have an idea, see if it works, and even go into production.”

MakerBot, and most desktop 3D printers for that matter, are seeking to change the world of manufacturing. Right now, between the price of materials and time-to-market, mass manufacturing is still more efficient with molding or machining techniques, but in-home or office manufacturing and prototyping is already happening, and it's bound to expand. Pettis says, “It’s great for entrepreneurs, tinkerers, inventors, and anybody who has an idea and wants to get it out there. You can route around the big, old systems to do it with the MakerBot.”

Most engineers already know the impact 3D printing has on prototyping, but bringing this technology to the desktop adds even more to the design arsenal. Pettis explains, “For engineers and designers in particular, it’s great because you can fail faster. You can fail more, so you can get to the right product. As you’re designing something, you can try it out and try it out multiple times a day instead of multiple times a year, because it only takes minutes to hours to make something.”

Prototyping in a more affordable manner gives the engineer and industrial designer the ability to iterate faster, innovate faster, and invent more. “Because it’s more affordable, you can take more risks because you’ve got more time and there’s less stress on the cost of the prototype,” says Pettis.

Replicator 2X : The Next Generation

MakerBot’s latest printer is known as the Replicator 2X. Sporting 100-micron layer-height resolution, stabilized ABS cooling, dual extrusion, and a super-flat heated build plate, the latest MakerBot generation has progressed from the maker market to the prosumer realm, where the line is blurred between consumer and professional grade. 

Pettis says, “One of the things about MakerBot as a company is that we are out to lead the next industrial revolution by setting a new standard with desktop 3d printing. From the beginning, we’ve been focused on empowering people to make things.” The Replicator 2X is targeted at industrial designers, architectural engineers, and professionals that need fast, durable prototypes. 

The fourth generation machine has come a long way from its wooden, laser-cut predecessors. “The great thing about the old days with the wooden machines being laser cut, we could make endless iterations and change at the drop of a hat, modify it, and ship a new design the next day,” Pettis continues. “It got to the point where we didn’t need that flexibility, so we could invest in tooling to make a powder-coated, steel chassis, and injection molded parts. We knew that we were going to be selling a lot of them, and that is a more efficient way to build than laser cutting.”

The Next Industrial Revolution

As 3D printing becomes cheaper and smaller, limitations continue to melt away. “You’re not limited. There are limitations around build volume and layer resolution, but for the true independent tinkerers or the true engineer, there are no limitations,” says Pettis. “Like Doc Brown said at the end of Back to the Future, ‘where we’re going, we don’t need any roads.' When you have a machine that allows you to make things, while there are limitations, you can route around those by just being clever.”

The 3D printing bug is spreading, and it's the first step for any emerging technology. Pettis explains, “Back in the early days of computing, I was the first person on my block to have an early Apple computer and everybody came over to my house to play with it. So, we’re going to get to a stage where everybody knows somebody who has one of these things, so when you want something made on one, you’ll be able to get it.”

Whether we are months away from manufacturing low-cost hardware in our homes or years from buying CAD files for our kids’ toys and printing them at home, it can be assumed that the use of desktop 3D printers will only grow. As the world of the amateur engineer and professional designer begin to mesh, 3D printing and technology like the MakerBot are sure to provide a uniting umbrella.