Bre Pettis looks like a throwback. He’s got an Elvis Presley-meets-Buddy Holly thing going on with his chunky sideburns, thick-rimmed black glasses, and sculpted salt-and-pepper hair. He talks a bit yesteryear, too, in that he’s abundantly polite and laid back to the point of being folksy. How odd then, that he seems to live in the future.
Pettis, 39, runs MakerBot Industries, which produces the world’s most popular consumer 3D printers. The latest MakerBot machine—the Replicator—takes up about as much space as a small microwave. It receives 3D images from a computer and then sets to work turning them into real objects by melting plastic and squirting it out of a nozzle. The Replicator lays one layer of super-thin plastic on top of another until the object—a toy castle, an LED flashlight, a Windsor chair—is done.
Founded in 2009, MakerBot used to specialize in selling hobbyist 3D printer kits that people would need to assemble on their own. Hardcore types can still go the kit route, but in a bid to make consumer 3D printing mainstream, MakerBot now sells pre-assembled machines. The Replicator just hit the market and has two nozzles so you can print with different colored plastics at the same time, a bigger surface to print on, and a sleeker overall design. It costs $1,749.
A few months ago, I stopped by the BotCave, the gritty Brooklyn headquarters of MakerBot. It is an underground lair full of electronics gear, shipping paraphernalia, and even a vending machine that offers up spools of plastic, instead of candy bars. Workers like Colin Butgereit, a onetime aspiring welder, grab parts from various boxes and lay them out on a work surface to bring the Replicators to life. It takes Butgereit about six hours to make a machine by hand. “I believe I am the fastest,” he says.
Pettis boasts about bringing some manufacturing chops back to Brooklyn. “These streets used to be lined with manufacturing companies,” he says. “Show me another one now besides us.” Fair enough. But Pettis does not exactly ooze “titan of industry.” “We like what we are doing and are having a good time,” he says. “We treat our customers as our friends. They are the coolest people in the world, and we’re supporting them being creative.” Meanwhile, the manufacturing floor at the BotCave seems more reminiscent of a college dorm room than a Toyota production line, with its barely controlled chaos and super-funky startup aesthetic.
During my visit, Pettis, a former school teacher, douses my hair with cornstarch and then uses a laser to make a 3D scan of my head. After the scan, he points me toward the bathroom so that I can rinse the cornstarch out in the sink—a process that, as it turns out, leaves my hair goopy at first and later a dusty mess. Still, I receive a printed version of my head soon enough and I got to tap into a bit of the grassroots aesthetic that has helped MakerBot sell more than 10,000 of its machines.
MakerBot has received more than $10 million in venture capital from a huge variety of sources and has put that money to good work so far. Pettis is just about the only 3D printing celebrity—holding his own, for example, during an appearance on The Colbert Report last June. Using a hand-held laser scanner, Pettis captured a three-dimensional image of Stephen Colbert’s head and then printed it on the spot. “We no longer have to rely on the Chinese for our plastic pieces of crap,” Colbert said. “Because what’s cheaper than a Chinese worker? A robot.” Pettis also presented Colbert with a chimera, fusing Colbert’s head to the body of an eagle, perched atop the dome of the Capitol Building.
Moving forward, though, MakerBot will face much stiffer competition. 3D Systems, one of the commercial 3D printing giants, has just come out with the Cube, a pre-assembled consumer 3D printer that looks flashier than the Replicator and costs about $400 less.
“The way I see is that we’re just at the beginning of this market,” Pettis says. “In technology circles, people know about this stuff and maybe know someone who has a 3D printer. The next step is moving to where you go to a neighbor’s house to get a new doorknob printed or something like that. We will get there in the next year or two. In 10 years, having a MakerBot will be so normal. It will be like having a microwave.”