Zach “Hoeken” Smith is a co-founder of MakerBot, but he left the company 18 months ago and now calls Shenzhen, China home. In addition to pursuing his own projects he’s the program director for Haxlr8r, San Francisco-based hardware start-up incubator. I recently interviewed Zach about his work in China, MakerBot, open source, and other topics. Our Skype connection wasn’t the best, but he had several interesting things to say.
Why did you move to China?
I just really love China. As maker and a hacker and person who likes to built things, living in the “factory of the world” means that I have access to all these amazing tools that would be really difficult to get access to at home… It’s a huge convergence out here that really makes it so cost-effective. It’s the world’s largest electronics market right in the middle of the city. You come here as someone who wants to make something you’re going to find all these people (and manufacturers) in the same city. And the price is the lowest price around…I’m just enjoying the freedom of making things to make things.
What are labor conditions like in Shenzhen?
It’s definitely something you have to be careful about and you have to put a lot of thought into that coming out here. I’ve seen good factories and I’ve seen bad factories. The fact of the matter is putting components into a PCB board and then soldering it is not fun where ever it happens. You’re paying someone to do a boring job. You can’t change that labor condition. What you can change is (choosing) a factory that is clean, where they’re being treated fairly, where they’re making a good wage…These are questions you can ask when you go and visit. To some extent you can judge it by how friendly they are being to you when you go in and visit… They’ll usually either smile at you or frown at you.
Do makers have reason to fear Chinese clones?
I’ve yet to see a single maker business put out of business by clones. I think it’ a lot of hype. I think it’s a lot of misinformation… a lot of misplaced fear. I think the whole goal of making something open source is so that as many people as possible can have access to it. I bought a cloned MakerBot and I’m actually really happy with it. It was nice because I didn’t have to deal with shipping… Once you’re successful and have all this momentum of being well-known and the market leader behind you is it going to subtract from your sales a little bit? Probably. But the people who are buying clones are not going to be your super customers, your fans who are beating the drum on the street corner.
What do you think of MakerBot’s move toward closed source?
I was not happy about it at all. When I started that company I did it to make 3D printing accessible to as many people as possible and for me that included clones. I knew by doing it open source we were going to get clones, but to me that was just another way of getting the technology into more peoples’ hands. It’s unfortunate that business concerns trump the philosophical, let’s-get-more-3D-printers-into-people’s-hands-kind-of-thing…Unfortunately, I don’t have an active role in that company and I don’t have a say.
What lessons would you pass onto start-ups in China?
You definitely need to plan on how you’re going test your product…. That testing is how you avoid the “poorly made in China problem.” If you have a good way of testing your device that’s how you filter out that problem. If you wait to the very end to do it it’s always going to be some kind of hack that’s your solution… That’s been my engineer’s advice.