Ever wished you had that missing little part to fix your car, your dryer, your lawn mower? No? Well how ‘bout this… Ever wished you had an endless supply of Cracker Jack prizes without having to consume the stale carmel corn and peanuts to get them? And how ‘bout if you could actually redesign said whistle or ring… and print them out at your desk? Well, with the help of the MakerBot, you can.
Two years ago a former Seattle school teacher determined that he and two other capable friends could create a 3D printer that would be desk-top in size, affordable, and capable of “printing” your objects of design in plastic. Making the printer from pieces that were laser cut and not molded, the creators were able to keep costs down to retail at $2500 — a real deal when compared to the 3D printers on the market that start at $20,000 and take up the space of a Viking refrigerator.
I caught up with Keith Ozar, the enthusiastic promoter of this new invention, to make sure I should believe my eyes. (Recently Keith had shown me a tiny plastic key that he had printed on the Makerbot.)
KR: That key you showed me… it was cool, but who really is the end user of this machine?
KO: It’s like a paint brush. Anyone can use it and the results depend on what you decide to do with it.
KR: Give me some examples.
KO: A group of boy scouts are using it to create robots for their robotics badge… people are creating model railroads, parts for their boats, latches for doors, customized chess sets. One woman has built a whole business around the jewelry she creates from what she has “printed” on the MakerBot. Others have used the MakerBot to create molds for jewelry pieces. People are saving tens of thousands of dollars by using the MakerBot to print prototypes of new products they’ve come up with.
KR: Wow, I guess this gizmo’s got legs. Has anyone said it looks like one of those things stuffed with toys that you have to drop a metal claw in to get one?
KO: People say it looks like a popcorn machine. It actually is very similar to the first Apple computers and that isn’t by accident.
KR: Was the MakerBot an instant success? Or did it take a while for people to “get” it.
KO: At first we thought we’d sell 20 in a month. We’ve sold five thousand in two years! In fact, at one point we weren’t able to keep up with demand and we appealed to our community of Bot owners to “print” the parts we were missing so we wouldn’t have to hold up production. They did! And we were back up and running and filling orders.
KR: So what do you get when you order a MakerBot?
KO: You get the printer and two pounds of plastic which comes in spools and lots of tech support.
KR: So after I’ve used up my initial poundage of plastic, you guys sell supplies of plastic?
KO: Yes, and the great thing about the MakerBot is that two pounds of plastic yields two pounds of product. It’s not like your ink cartridges in traditional printers where you have no idea how much ink is in there to start with or how much is actually left in the cartridge when the printer tells you that you’re out. The plastic comes in lots of colors including fluorescents. And there are two different kinds of plastic available… ABS which is like the plastic used in Legos; and PLA, a corn-based plastic which is translucent.
KR: Is there competition out there? Have other similar 3D printers entered the market?
KO: There are a few but they don’t have the community and support that we’ve got going. We have a website called Thingiverse where people post designs and photos of their creations. There are over 10,000 designs on the site that anyone can download and print. While someone may be the originator of a design, someone in the community can improve on the design or change the design and post it and things start to evolve. There are even mash ups where people combine designs of different products.
KR: What’s one of the most unexpected products to “print” from the Bot?
KO: Well, this guy contacted the community to ask if anyone was interested in making a grandfather clock. He didn’t have a Bot but had the design all worked out. People started to respond to him and a group formed and they are now almost finished with the creation of this clock all from parts printed out on the Bot. We sent the designer of the clock a Bot of his own for initiating such an impressive community-involved project.
KR: That sounds incredible… a moving, working clock printed at your desk.
KO: Come by our office when you’re in Brooklyn… we have a working Bot farm… a room filled with Bots all printing things out.