The phenomenon we call the maker movement is characterized by many things, among them the ability to cheaply and quickly prototype hardware. Open hardware principles, collaborative design, and crowd funding are contributing factors, but perhaps the most empowering of all is access to inexpensive, computer-controlled tools and software. If there’s someone who embodies what’s possible with this array of tools, it’s Brook Drumm, founder of Printrbot.
I had spoken several times with Brook, but we hadn’t actually met until the day of MAKE’s Hardware Innovation Workshop last year. He was there because we had wanted to feature his 3D printer in our “corral” of maker product innovations. After his record-setting Kickstarter campaign, many of us knew of his product and were anxious to see it in person. However, as I approached his booth, my eyes were drawn toward another smaller printer sitting in the background. After introducing myself, I asked about it.
“Oh, that’s a portable 3D printer I came up with over the weekend,” he said.
He went from concept, to design, to prototype in just two days. That this is even possible is the point of my story.
When I was a student engineer 25 years ago, computer-controlled tools cost millions of dollars. Now, simple versions can be had for as little as a few hundred dollars. Better still, hardware designs are often shared and can be built with cheap (or free) software. The combination is empowering. It means that hardware innovation is no longer just for those with deep pockets and rich experience. Better still, it brings making to a much larger audience. Design software and computer controlled tools exempt us from the prerequisite of years spent learning craftsmanship. It means the universe of people who can effectively design and prototype new product ideas is growing much larger.
Admittedly, Brook’s speed was the result of skill-accumulation and business necessity. The Printrbot Jr. was built based on experiences gleaned from the Printrbot LC and Printrbot Plus, both laser-cut variations of his original Printrbot model. The original Printrbot was based on 3D printed plastic parts. His shift to laser-cut printers had to do with the challenge presented by his success. By the campaign’s closing date of Dec. 17, 2011, he had pre-sold not the original goal of 50 3D printers but 1,400! He blew away his Kickstarter goal of $25,000 with pledges totaling $830,827. Printing plastics for a frame was too slow so he moved to laser-cut wood frames. In under 12 months, Brook brought to market four 3D printer models, built a 3D printer business and sold and delivered 1,400-plus printers.
Take a breath.
A capable person with modern prototyping tools can now do amazing things. While there is much more to his story, this chapter alone makes the point that times have changed. Makers around the world are catching on. They’re buying and using these tools and are creating innovative hardware. The maker movement is gathering steam as creative individuals start prototyping new products. Perhaps your company should, too.
In the corporate world we don’t often take notice of what’s happening at the fringe. Even when we notice, we don’t necessarily see the threat or opportunity that it presents. Hardware innovation is no longer relegated to corporate R&D labs with big budgets. Now, anyone with an idea and the ability to use design software can create prototypes. This means that product innovations can come from throughout the organization, increasing the volume and variety of new ideas, and improving the prospects for your company.
As I was writing this piece I reached out to Brook for an update and I learned that his pace of iteration hasn’t slowed.
“I did knock out the Printrbot Jr. in a weekend and then I refined it based on user feedback over a period of weeks,” he said. “One such example: I delivered the third version of the Jr. to the 3D Printer Shootout at MAKE and after I talked to the people that used it and reviewed it a week or so later, I took their great feedback and had the design revved that night. I delivered the new version to customers a couple days later. There was no reason to continue making the old version – I had a much better version. So I shipped it. The turn around time for iterating is now much faster.”
What’s happening in the maker movement has many facets. Low-cost, rapid hardware prototyping is just one. We intend to cover many more facets and to highlight successful instances of pro makers. Stay tuned.
Bio: Travis pursues projects of interest, currently focusing on innovation and start-up within the maker movement. In his travels he’s visited over 65 makerspaces, co-founded Nova-Labs.org, and spent six weeks full-time honing his maker skills at TechShop. His maker movement agenda is chronicled at make.GoodPursuits.com.