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Bre Pettis, a former schoolteacher (and producer of MAKE’s popular “Weekend Projects” video series), recently sold his 3D printer company MakerBot to Stratasys. We talked to Pettis to find out why he sold his company, and what his plans are for the future of affordable 3D printing.

Tell me about your most recent product, the Digitizer, a 3D scanner that sells for $1,400.

I really wanted to have a 3D scanner — something that would be easy, that would get the job done, and that would be as affordable as possible. What was out there started at about $3,000 and went up. It turns out that the hardware on this is not terribly hard. You have a turntable that moves around. You have two lasers. We use nice line lasers — quality does matter on this. And then you have a webcam and a really fancy filter, which filters for 650nm. The idea is that the camera will only see the color of the laser line. It’s just a beautiful machine. I’m really proud of it. We finished it in July 2012, and it took us that long to develop it from a project into a product. When you’re dealing with big injection-molded pieces, the tooling costs more than $100,000. You can only really justify doing that when you know you’re going to sell tens of thousands of them. If you’re not going to do that, you might as well stick with laser-cut wooden parts. One of the cool things about this is it’s also made for manufacturing. The screws on this are all on the top so that it never needs to be flipped over. There are little tricks like that that mean that we can just crank these things out.

Does it offer the same resolution as the Replicator 2 — 100 microns?

Because a scanner turns an object and the laser fires at it, the resolution is radial. It actually does 800 different points around a circle. While the layer resolution is important on a MakerBot Replicator 2, the radial resolution is what’s important on the Digitizer. It ends up with a model that’s usually more than 200,000 polygons, which is pretty darn good.

In June you were acquired by Stratasys, which was a really nice sale. You now have a great amount of stock in Stratasys. It’s a testament to the company you built and the great products you’ve developed. Could you tell me the reason why you sold it to Stratasys, and how that’s going to help you outpace the competition?

We started MakerBot before Kickstarter, so we had to give up equity in the company to get our original $75K investment. And then, as we grew, we needed more equity so we could continue to develop the machines. I raised $1.2 million from angel investors. Then in 2011, I raised $10 million from the best venture capitalists. But when you do that, you’re making a promise. You’re saying, “You’re going to give me money so I can grow the company, and in return at some point, what you’ve invested is going to be worth more than you put in.”

I had been on track to go around and raise another round, but in the middle of it, Stratasys expressed an interest and because they’re sort of the grandfathers in the space, they were really the only people we would have considered merging with. They’re also just good people. We got into the thick of it, negotiated it, made it work. It’s interesting, we get resources now. Rather than me going out and raising money, I have the resources of a public company to dip into. One of the things that I don’t know if many people realize is that we spent a lot of time at MakerBot routing around the intellectual property of the big companies. There’s probably around eight patents that we couldn’t have that we had to work really hard to route around to be able to have our products. Now we don’t have to stress out as much about it. We actually get access to IP that we didn’t have before.

Is that because Stratasys holds those patents?

Stratasys has about 800 patents in the space.

There are some other 3D patents, such as laser sintering, which are due to expire soon. Are you looking into how you might incorporate them into what you’re doing?

Yes, it’s interesting. From the beginning, we could only do what we did because the original patent expired. But since then, there have been a lot more patents. It’s one of those things where we had to decide early on that we were going to be a sustainable company, that we were going to grow, and we were eventually going to be a big company. So we had to invest in intellectual property because the patent system is really weird — you want to basically have enough IP that you can survive. We have a patent on our automated build platform. We have some networking patents. We have some interesting stuff that basically allowed us to get ready if we ever had to go head-to-head with anybody. But the acquisition sort of solved that as well. It turned out really well for everybody.

Watch the complete interview above.

Ultimate Guide to 3D Printing 2014This article first appeared in MAKE’s Ultimate Guide to 3D Printing 2014, page 20. Check out the full issue for more!

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Comments

  1. Bob@gmail.com says:

    Take your 30 pieces Mr sell out and go back under your rock

  2. josephus says:

    What irritates the crap out of me is that MB *hugely* benefitted from the *gratis* R&D of the broader RepRap community. If you’re asking for examples of this, you haven’t been paying attention.
    But then they turn around and patent many of these innovations. Their extruder design, the ABP, etc. And while it is *absolutely true* that these patents are likely to be held as unenforceable and invalid, there simply are not any groups of Makers in the RepRap community with the financial wherewithal to actually litigate the point – which is what’s required to fix this garbage.
    Moreover, to build a business manufacturing items in bulk by using FDM machines betrays such monstrous ignorance of the actual import and impact of 3D printing (it breaks economies of scale, stupid! if you’re going to manufacture units in the thousands, INJECTION MOLD – faster, cheaper, better part tolerances) that under no circumstances should anybody be surprised when another maker (or group thereof) comes along and *LEGALLY* uses Open Source designs to actually manufacture these devices the *intelligent* way.

  3. chuck says:

    Of all the companies in the 3D printing and scanning arena, Makerbot gets the lion’s share of coverage here. I understand that Mr. Pettis is a Make alumni, but what gives? Every one of these threads opens a flood gate of hate. Why are they getting so much coverage and why is he still the spokesman? Whether Makerbot was right or wrong in the path they chose, someone has to realize that maybe Mr. Pettis isn’t the best face going forward.

  4. Steve says:

    Are there any other companies that produce a consumer priced 3D printer that will grant interviews to Makezine? I’m sure given the history of Mr. Pettis that Makezine feels that this is an easy source for information on stories.

    If Makerbot now has the corporate resources of their parent company they would be well served to contact their corporate communications department to come up with a strategy to mitigate this PR disaster.

  5. bob says:

    After the Stratasys (Makerbot parent company) lawsuit of Afinia people should not buy makerbot. Support open source, stop patent trolling!!!

  6. Pat says:

    I had enough of this guy face. A sellout trying to justiefy selling out. He does not represent MAKER he represent big BUSINESS stepping on the little people (makers). crushing creativity / compertion & choice. I rather see more story about Adrian Bowyer and reprap now there a person who you can call a MAKER