In 2008, perennial tinkerer Bre Pettis was toiling away in a warehouse-turned-hackerspace in New York City when he ran into a wall. He and a few friends were participating in the RepRap project, which aims to build a self-replicating device capable of printing all the components needed to duplicate itself. But Pettis and his friends couldn’t make it work with the tools they had on hand.
The point of RepRap is to get 3-D printers diffused into communities around the world. “It’s a holy grail for tinkerers,” Pettis says, “the potential to be able to make anything.” In the end he and his friends threw out the self-replication requirement and started from scratch, this time to see if they could at least make a cheap but functional 3-D printer. They soon realized they could. Consequently, MakerBot was founded in January 2009, with Pettis as CEO.
In various forms, 3-D printing has been part of manufacturing for decades. Most 3-D printers apply material—often molten plastic—layer by layer to create prototypes or even finished parts. But these industrial machines tend to be expensive and large. Even a basic model can cost upwards of US $100 000 and be the size of a refrigerator, Pettis says, well out of reach for hobbyists.
With some angel investing, Pettis and his friends introduced MakerBot Industries’ first printer kit in March 2009. The tabletop device could make small structures out of plastic—or pretty much any material that could be made to flow steadily through a nozzle onto a moving platform. “We created a tool head for the machine [we] called a frostruder, which was an extruder for frosting,” says Pettis. “It worked really well with Nutella.” The kits started selling briskly. What started as a small hacking project has ballooned over the past four years into a small empire, fed in part by Pettis’s energetic media presence and his plethora of photogenic printed plastic gewgaws.
Pettis now oversees more than 250 employees at MakerBot’s New York City headquarters and production facility. The company has shipped nearly 20 000 printers (now as finished units instead of kits), and in November 2012, it opened its first retail store. Earlier this year, Pettis debuted a 3-D laser scanner that could be used to map physical objects, creating a digital model suitable for printing. That’s in addition to the company’s website, Thingiverse.com, a compendium of user-submitted files that has expanded to include more than 80 000 designs for 3-D printed objects.
Pettis got his start as an art teacher in Seattle before leaving to make how-to videos for Make magazine and the craft-selling site Etsy. He sees few limits to the market for 3-D printers. In 5 years, he says, you’ll know someone who has a 3-D printer; in 10, you’ll likely have access to one—if not in your home, then at the local library.
The increasing availability of 3-D printers has already turned up some surprises. In May, for example, a project called Robohand uploaded designs to the Thingiverse for 3-D printed fingers, which could be used to build inexpensive but functional pulley-driven prosthetics. “We’re going to see all sorts of superinteresting things happen as the technology shifts from being something just for the elite to something that’s the price of a laptop,” Pettis says.
Update: After this article went to press, MakerBot and 3-D manufacturing company Stratasys, based in Minneapolis, Minn., announced on June 20th that they were merging in a deal worth U.S. $403 million. As a subsidiary of Stratasys, MakerBot will continue to operate under its own brand and management