Envisioning the potential of open source tools to facilitate making, Bre Pettis retraces the thorny and convoluted path from wanting to produce self-replicating robots, through a series of prototypes, to being at the core of a little universe of 2,500 MakerBots. He reports just a few examples of what makers and artists have made with the MakerBot and wonders what the future might hold.

Bre Pettis

2007: Pizza around the Clock

In 2007, I was actively recruiting hardware hackers in New York City to be part of NYCResistor, a hackerspace where we could make anything together. I met Zach at an NYCResistor microcontroller study group. After hearing about self-replicating robots, I spent the autumn in a corner of a film studio, where some friends of his were letting him work on RepRap robots  REPRODUCTION when films weren’t being made. We spent a lot of time working on the McWire RepStrap, a 3D printer  PRINTING made out of plumbing pipes. We would meet up, solder some new boards that he had designed from tutorials on the internet, swear at broken traces, and in general just have fun. One of the things to come out of this time was a commitment to LEDs. I remember him turning to me and remarking that he had not put LEDs on a PCB. At that point, we made a solemn vow that no electronics board would ever make it through the design process again without blinking LEDs.

We did not have a working machine yet, but for months on end, we seemed just hours away from getting it to work. We were close enough that I ordered my own plumbing pipes and bent aluminium to take to Vienna, Austria, where I had an artist-in-residence spot with Monochrom, an artist collective in the Museum Quarter. I enlisted the help of the local hackerspace; the entire crew there, including Marius and Philipp Tiefenbacher, and Red, helped out for a week straight. Back in those days, we had to make our own wiring harnesses for everything, and it took forever. The code wasn’t working yet, but it was constantly very close to working. We ate pizza round the clock.

2008: Printing Vodka Shot Glasses

This first Austrian experiment was beautiful.  HELLO WORLD It worked for about a minute before the first-generation electronics burned traces and let the magic smoke out. The extruder was made from a mix of ballpoint-pen hardware and angled aluminium that was ground down with a Dremel, a handheld rotary grinder. We pulled stepper motors from old disk drives and scanners found in the depths of the Metalab archive. We had planned to print out shot glasses at Roboexotica, the cocktail robotics festival  EVENTS  in Vienna that happens every winter, but our machine failed completely; we couldn’t even print out swizzle sticks. Even more shame was heaped on our failure when we were awarded the ‘lime’ award, which is reserved for non-functioning robots. I left the machine in Vienna with Marius and Philipp. By the next year’s Roboexotica festival, they had fixed it up and got it working. Through a combination of brute force and alchemical magic, they spent the cocktail festival of 2008 printing out shot glasses that they promptly filled for visitors with a horrid Scandinavian concoction of vodka and Fisherman’s Friend throat lozenges. Robots and alcohol are a fantastic combination.

Finally, the ordinary person is in the unique position of being able to make almost anything with off-the-shelf modules, parts, community and shared code.

Back in the States, after I had left the McWire machine in Vienna, NYCResistor had found a location and the hardware hacking club was in full swing. Starting with nine people, we created a wonderful clubhouse for hardware hackers. The NYCResistor motto is ‘Learn, Share, and Make Things’. Early on, we chose to collectively share our tools, and we pooled our money to buy a $20,000 laser cutter. The team at NYCResistor is a special group of people who are not afraid to push technology forward and with a tendency towards the absurd; almost anything is possible. Electronics have gotten to the place where creating the electronics of your dreams has become a real possibility. Microcontrollers like the Arduino are accessible. Blogs like Make Magazine and Hackaday, as well as countless personal blogs, are fantastic resources for tinkerers. Finally, the ordinary person is in the unique position of being able to make almost anything with off-the-shelf modules, parts, community and shared code.

On a Saturday in August 2008, Zach and I started Thingiverse to give people a place to share digital designs for things. We had been telling people that downloading designs would be possible someday. Since nobody had created a library of digital designs that allowed people to share their work under open licences, we created it ourselves. Thingiverse is now a thriving community where sharing runs rampant and creativity is found in abundance.

Later that year, Zach got a Darwin up and running, but that design had so many flaws that getting it to work was a challenge. It extruded plastic for a few minutes before this model joined the ranks of machines that release the magic smoke. It was very disappointing. He had spent years trying to get a machine working, and then it worked for only a few minutes before failing completely. We had developed a taste for 3D printing by working on the RepRap project, and we wanted more. That early McWire machine and the RepRap
Darwin  REPRODUCTION showed us that creating an inexpensive 3D printer was possible. We promptly quit our jobs.

That winter, in December of 2008, Zach and I were at the 25th Chaos Communication Congress.  EVENTS Zach gave a talk about RepRap and I spoke about living a prototyping lifestyle. We got home and somehow came to the conclusion that we should start a company to make 3D printers that could be made with the tools we had at hand (the laser cutter) and as many off-the-shelf parts as possible. In January of 2009, we formed MakerBot Industries. Adam Mayer, another friend from NYCResistor, got involved; since he had spent 10 years working on firmware and software for embedded devices, he was immediately charged with making the software functional and friendly.

2009: MakerBot Industries

When we started MakerBot, we set different priorities than RepRap had done. Rather than focusing on self-replication, we wanted to make our first MakerBot the cheapest 3D printer kit that anyone could put together and have it actually work. Those first few months of MakerBot were intense. While prototyping during the first two months, we rarely left NYCResistor. We went through two whole cases of Top Ramen instant noodles and drank countless bottles of Club Mate, a carbonated and caffeinated soft drink from Germany. Powered by caffeine and carbohydrates, we used the tools we had at hand, a laser cutter, and off-the-shelf parts to create the MakerBot Cupcake CNC kit. We went to our friends for funding: Jacob Lodwick, who started Connected Ventures, and Adrian Bowyer, who initiated the RepRap project. They invested some money in us so we could start ordering the electronics, parts, motors and other things we needed to get the first kits together.

We worked hard on those first prototypes. After two months of work, we got the first machine to work at 8:15 on the 13th of March, 2009. As soon as it worked, we threw it in a Pelican case and took off to SXSW, the big music, film and interactive festival in Austin, Texas, where we shared it with the world for the first time. I set up shop in bars and printed endless amounts of shot glasses and twelve-sided dice. The machine printed flawlessly for the entire week. We had been able to pull together 20 kits; we expected to sell 10 of them that first month and have 10 in stock to sell the next month. When all 20 sold out in two weeks, we started staying up late running the laser cutter making the parts.


The buyers of those machines were brave. The electronics came unassembled and required SMD soldering, not a trivial task even for seasoned tinkerers with Heathkit assembly experience. Still, they were putting them together and they worked! The MakerBot Google group buzzed with chatter, shared pro tips and stories. Thingiverse, which up until then had been mostly a repository for DXF files for laser cutting, started seeing more and more 3D-printed designs.

Our mission at MakerBot is to democratize manufacturing. We make 3D printers to offer an alternative to consumerism. A year and a half after we began, there are now 2500 folks with MakerBots, and those people are living in a future where they can 3D print the tangible products of their imagination. They get to make a choice between buying something and 3D printing it.  DOWNLOADABLE DESIGN Kids that grow up in a household or classroom with a MakerBot have the option to 3D print the things they want as an alternative to shopping. If a MakerBot Operator needs a doorknob, they can check Thingiverse to see if someone else has made it. (There are 22 things tagged ‘knob’ on Thingiverse. 1 ) If you don’t like the knobs made available by the community of digital designers, you can download the designs and modify them if they are shared under an open licence, or you can design your own. This idea of sharing and being able to customize and modify other people’s designs is a powerful force in the universe. It goes beyond doorknobs to all sorts of practical and beautiful objects.

Designing things for 3D printers is still at an early stage. The programs have traditionally been set up as CAD programs, with a learning curve similar to Photoshop. Only recently have we seen programs like openSCAD that are designed for programmers who are interested in programming dynamic and parametric objects. Software engineers are now able to transform code  AESTHETICS: 3D into real physical objects.

MakerBot operators report that fixing things around the house is a point of pride for them. Thingiverse user Schmarty created his own shower curtain rings when his local store was out of stock. He shared the design on Thingiverse, and now nobody with a MakerBot
REPRODUCTION will ever have to buy shower curtain rings again. On the thing page for the curtain rod rings, Schmarty says:

“It’s a story that can happen to anyone. You move to a new town and leave your shower curtain behind. ‘No problem,’ you think, ‘I’ll just pick up a new liner at the pharmacy down the street.’ So, you trek to the local pharmacy and find the shower curtain liner you were looking for, only to discover that they are out of shower curtain rings, hooks, anything made for holding up a shower curtain! Facing down defeat and the very real possibility that you will have to take a dirty, inefficient bath, you come to a stunning realization: You’re a MakerBot owner. You live for these moments.”

Schmarty made his curtain rings in openSCAD and shared the source files, so you can download them and make curtain rings to your own specifications. One Thingiverse site user has already uploaded a design for a derivative variation with spikes. 2

When we made the MakerBot, we were limited by the size of our laser cutter.  AESTHETICS: 2D That meant that the first model, the MakerBot Cupcake CNC, can only make things that are 100x100x120 mm. That size is big enough to make things that are slightly larger than a coffee mug. Architects in particular complained about this, until Thingiverse user Skimbal created an amazing modular cathedral. 3 There are 10 different cathedral pieces that can be modularly connected to make your own customizable and expandable cathedral! This print pushes the limit of what a MakerBot can do. One of the limitations is in regard to overhangs. A MakerBot can do overhangs of around 45 degrees. It will still print things with overhangs, but they’ll turn out ‘fluffy’ and require cleanup and trimming after printing.  AESTHETICS: 3D

The MakerBot is open source. You can download the schematic and board files, the DXF laser-cutter files, and the software, firmware and parts lists. This allows MakerBot users to truly own their MakerBot inside and out. Charles Pax was one of the first to take advantage of this. He wanted to put the electronics on the inside of his MakerBot, so he modified the DXF laser-cutter files to accommodate an alternative power supply and gave his MakerBot a clean form factor. Unsatisfied with having to reset the machine after each print, he developed the MakerBot Automated Build Platform. Charles now works in the R&D department at MakerBot Industries, pushing the technology of personal fabrication forward.

Because it’s an open platform, you can swap out the tool heads easily. Besides the MakerBot plastruder, which extrudes plastic to create a programmed 3D shape, we’ve launched the MakerBot Unicorn Pen Plotter, which artists can use as a drawing tool. We also created the MakerBot Frostruder so that anyone can use their MakerBot to decorate cupcakes or print with anything that you can fit inside a syringe. This opens up a whole new range of possibilities for artists, chefs and DIY bio-experimenters. MakerBot operators have also used the stepper motors to create beautiful music. Bubblyfish, an 8-bit artist, has composed music for the MakerBot; many others have converted midi files to play their favourite music on the MakerBot.

MakerBot Operators are a great community for each other. When Cathal Garvey (creator of the DremelFuge 4 ) had a mouse problem, he wanted to catch the mouse without killing it, so he put a bounty out for a better mousetrap. He said that he would pay $25 to anyone who could make a MakerBottable mouse trap that actually caught his mouse. The day after he made the call for a MakerBot operators to design a better mousetrap, eight new designs for a mousetrap showed up on Thingiverse!

2010: Thing-O-Matic

Throughout 2009 and 2010, we have constantly updated both the software and the hardware of the MakerBot Cupcake CNC. Now, in autumn 2010, we’ve launched our second machine, called the Thing-O-Matic, which incorporates all the updates. This new machine has a new way of moving the print bed, which moves down along the Z axis as an object grows in height during printing. All the tolerances are tighter, and we have increased the build area to allow users to make bigger things.

At MakerBot Industries, we are excited about the future. This new industrial revolution is still in its early days.

At MakerBot Industries, we are excited about the future. This new industrial revolution  REVOLUTION is still in its early days. Ordinary people are taking up the tools of manufacturing, fabrication and production. I love to check to see what new possibilities have emerged during the night. There are so many opportunities for anyone who has the passion and interest to explore the frontier of personal manufacturing. With the tools at hand and the community of sharing that has developed around the MakerBot, the future is bright. Exciting innovations and amazing things are emerging.

2011: 2,500 MakerBots

When we first started MakerBot, we would wonder, “What will people do with it?” We knew that anything could happen; sure enough, we’ve shared the excitement as people shared their work. Now, with 2,500 MakerBots in the wild and more shipping every day, I am curious what the community will do together. What kinds of problems can 2,500 MakerBots solve? What kind of projects can we, as a worldwide community of sharing,  SHARING do together?

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