Bre Pettis was the first kid on his block to get an Apple II computer. The device was intriguing, and all his neighborhood friends tinkered with it endlessly even though it served little practical purpose. Pettis went on to start 3D-printing company MakerBot Industries (SSYS), and he sees its products in the same light: They may seem silly at first, but the kids will figure them out.
To get kids playing with 3D printers, Pettis is emulating Apple (AAPL) in another way. On Tuesday the company announced an ambitious plan to get MakerBot starter kits into classrooms. Apple has always been good at getting into schools: It sold 1.1 million iPads to educational institutions in the quarter ended in June. These contracts represent a lucrative business opportunity for tech companies—and explain why everyone from News Corp. (NWSA) to Amazon.com (AMZN) is scrambling to get their tablets in front of children.
Selling a 3D printer to every school would be a boon to MakerBot, of course, but the company hasn’t lined up any public contracts. Instead, its education initiative is based on crowdfunding. The kits MakerBot sells, which include its Republicator 2 printer, some of the raw material needed to make objects, and a service plan from the company, cost about $2,550. Teachers who want one can log on to donorschoose.org, a crowdfunding site for schools, and describe what they would do with the printer. Big donors will hopefully chip in most of the price, with teachers raising the last $98 on their own. This kind of not-quite-fully funded grant lessens the chances of the printers going to waste, according to Pettis.
MakerBot and DonorsChoose describe this as a plan to get a 3D printer in every school in the country, but the chances are slim it can reach that scale without help. DonorsChoose estimates it raised $48 million last year. Even if donors gave all their money to 3D-printing projects, that much money would buy about 19,000 printers; there are about 100,000 public schools nationwide. Further, the average project size was $600, or about a quarter of what a 3D-printing kit costs.
Pettis hopes corporate donors will fund individual schools. He announced one company that has already signed on: Autodesk (ADSK), which makes 3D-design software, is funding 500 projects. He also said he’ll be “taking care of Brooklyn” by funding projects in his home New York borough. While Pettis declined to discuss the dollar amount, DonorsChoose said his donation was one of the larger individual commitments it has ever received.
This is clearly a labor of love for Pettis, who once taught at a public school in Seattle. He said he has always wanted 3D printing to become part of school, especially at a time when the idea of shop class is fading and students rarely make anything with their hands anymore. He’s recently flush, after MakerBot was acquired by Stratasys (SSYS), the closest thing 3D printing has to an old guard, for $403 million in June. And while a nation of students learning how to operate 3D printers is certainly in the company’s interests, Pettis didn’t really want to talk about how the program would increase revenue, or even how it would hasten the mainstreaming of 3D printing.
“That’s not the focus,” he said.