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MakerBot’s Mixed Messages About Open Source, Their Future

3D Printing & Imaging
Replicator 2 OSHW?

Replicator 2 OSHW?

This article (and its predecessor) is an opinion piece by Rob Giseburt, an active member of the 3DP open source community. It does not necessarily represent the opinions of MAKE. Its purpose is not to prematurely punish MakerBot for their recent decisions and future directions in which they may (or may not) be headed, but rather, to get a reasonable dialog going about the import of such changes to open source hardware in general and 3DP in specific. – Gareth Branwyn

In the wake of MakerBot’s Replicator 2 announcement, there has been a lot of discussion and questioning about the open source status of the company’s offerings. The MakerWare software used to control both the new printer and the original Replicator is available for download now. It is clearly closed source, even though it contains some open source software, and instead of being open source, they are offering a developer program.

When asked if the Replicator 2 will be open source hardware, the response in a post by Bre Pettis on the MakerBot blog never directly answered the question. Instead, the response indicates that they no longer believe that they can have a “sustainable business” with open hardware, citing a lack of “large, successful open hardware companies.”

At one point Bre even questions, “Will we be successful? I hope so, but even if we are not, everyone will find out that either being as open as possible is a good thing for business or that nobody should do it, or something in between.” This doesn’t seem to indicate that they have a clear plan that they are confident of.

The comments on the page are generally critical of the lack of a direct answer, and Bre responded to each in turn with his own comment. He still does not directly answer the primary question, but does attempt to more directly explain why:


Uh, FYI, You posed this question:

“Question 1: Is the MakerBot Replicator 2 Open Source?”

But you do not answer it. You just dance around it and throw out a bunch of happy words about open source.

Bre Responds:

Lasivian – Folks really want a black or white answer, but in my experience, it just doesn’t work that way when combining open source, hardware, and business. There is an open hardware definition, but it’s a far throw from a business model.

Chris B

Doesn’t seem like there are some wildly different issues faced by ‘open hardware’ than by ‘open software’ and there are many examples of very successful and very large businesses doing open software and providing services as a way to make money.

The analogies are there. Innovate and capitalize on services and enterprise features while remaining open with your core like the big boys do.

Bre responds:

Chris B – Software and hardware have some similarities, but it’s really different stuff. But I take your point about service and we are adding a pro-level of support by offering MakerCare. Will people purchase it? We’ll see.

Bre’s statements and answers alternate between confidence and uncertainty for MakerBot’s future, and seems to indicate that they don’t have a definite plan of action.

Adrian Bowyer, founding father of the RepRap project from which MakerBot was born, also comments at length on the MakerBot post. His summary seems to explain his position fairly well:

If you are taking part in the RepRap project, then I hope that you believe Open Source to be a morally and politically good thing, as I do. But if you don’t believe that, you are still welcome to take part, by me at least. When it comes to the success or failure of RepRap, moral beliefs, legal constraints and the flow of money are almost completely irrelevant.

It is the evolutionary game theory that matters.

Zack ‘Hoeken’ Smith, a MakerBot co-founder who is not longer with the company, responded to the post with understandable emotion. He described the content of the post as “a load of corporate double-speak bull****,” and described MakerBot’s move to closed source as “the ultimate betrayal.” He ends the post with an excerpt from the Open Source Hardware Definiton.

In Bre’s post, he also answered some questions about the Thingiverse terms of service, basically reiterating what he said earlier in the year. This is most likely in reaction to Josef Průša’s Occupy Thingiverse, an emotional reaction — shared by many — from one of the most prominent contributors to the RepRap project to the terms of service changes as well as MakerBot’s alleged releasing new products as closed source. (It appears that Josef misunderstood that the terms of service had already been changed, but that doesn’t seem to detract from his argument.)

Since this topic is so emotionally charged for so many people, there have been several in the community who have asked that everyone keep their conversations civil. Phillip Torrone (“pt”) from MAKE and Adafruit, commented on the MakerBot blog post:

thanks for posting this up bre, this is a great conversation that everyone can and should join in, thoughtfully -and- respectful to each other. let’s all be good to each other with our words & actions. there’s a lot of passion here for many. this is a great opportunity to talk about open source and open source hardware as companies like makerbot, adafruit, sparkfun, etc, etc grow. so let’s talk

In this thoughtful post by Tom Igoe of the Arduino team he sums up with:

So: if you’ve got an objection to what MakerBot or anyone in your own community does, speak up. But do it politely. Before you say anything, phrase it as if you had the person you’re addressing in front of you. Check the language with your grandmother, if you need to.

The discovery that MakerBot, as early as 2011, filed for and received a patent, only adds more questions to the discussion. It’s unclear how this affects the open source derivatives of their patented technology, such as this Truly Automatic Thing-O-Matic on Thingiverse by user emmett.

Many commenters from both my previous post and Bre’s point to their VC funding as the reason for this sudden move. This seems odd that investors who seem to understand the promise of open source and even open source some of their legal documents, would make such a move.

It appears that MakerBot is confused in its role in the marketplace and the direction it’s heading in general. They seemed to have lost touch with the way that open source is supposed to work, and the core principles that the company was built upon.

Bre sums up with “This isn’t the first change we’ve made to become more of a professional business, and it won’t be our last.”


100 thoughts on “MakerBot’s Mixed Messages About Open Source, Their Future

  1. iaDF! says:

    What’s the relationship of MakerBot and MAKE magazine ?

    1. Sean Ragan says:

      Confusing, isn’t it?

      We are entirely separate businesses, with no common ownership at any level, and though our interests often align, they also frequently diverge. Coverage through MAKE has been very good for MakerBot, over the years, and MakerBot generates a lot of exciting news in the MAKE audience space, so covering them has been pretty good for us, over the years, as well.

      But there’s no denying that our brands are pretty conflated, at this point, due in no small measure to A) the similar names and similar logo stylings, B) the fact that Bre was a very visible staff member of MAKE, from early on until (as I recall) 2008 or so. He appeared on at least one cover of MAKE magazine and was, I think, our first regular how-to video host. C) The fairly close personal and professional social network that persists between Bre, other MakerBot staffers, and MAKE magazine folks. “Old school ties,” I guess you’d call it, but that makes it sound way more conspiratorial than it actually is.

      1. tonyv says:

        You forgot to mention that Make SELLS the Makerbot Replicator in the MakerShed, and, I assume, makes some money off it. There is a direct conflict of interest with the recent Makerbot product reviews and coverage.

        1. Sean Ragan says:

          Yeah, you’re pretty much right. With one exception: I didn’t forget to mention the fact that the Shed sells MakerBot products–I forgot that fact altogether! I’m not sure if that makes it better or worse, but it was not a deliberate omission, or an attempt to gloss over the potential conflict of interest you bring up. Though I would point out that the critical tone Rob has taken in both of these editorials is hardly consistent with an effort on our part to drum up sales.

          1. tonyv says:

            I would agree. I actually doubt this conflict influences Make’s reviews much, if at all. I just wanted to point out how complicated the relationship is.

  2. Sandro Fouche says:

    I wonder how different from the Tangibot project MakerBot Industries has become? The Makerbot gang has benefitted immensely from the Open Hardware movement. Many of the innovations that are included in the Replicator 2 they created, but many more are the product of other open source projects. The fact is that MakerBot Industries has now taken the work of others and is profiting from it. The difference between them and Tangibot is now a matter of degree.

    Tangibot was a pure clone, but who knows what might have eventually come out of that project. It might have led to it’s own innovations in due course. Had the creator of that project contributed new ideas to it’s design from the start, I wouldn’t see him as any different from how I now view MakerBot. In the end Tangibot was an easy project to write-off, but I’m not sure that Makerbot hasn’t started down the same road.

  3. tittytimecarwash says:

    Womp womp. So Bre used Make zine as a platform to get some coin, gather interns to assemble his wares on Dean street? Do tell!

  4. Josef Jo Průša (@josefprusa) says:

    Hi, I knew the TOS changed a long time ago. But was I first who actually read it? I was so disappointed after calling Makerbot support and getting “NO” answer that I looked around what happened.

    I still wonder if they didn’t say anything because Bre is talking on Open Hardware Summit. I even got some info that they expected 3D community to protest before announcement.

    Many ppl contacted me since my post and I got info that since VC is in, the company changed a lot. And this comes from former employees.

    Good god, even Zach was thrown out “Fast forward to April, 2012 when I was forced out of the very same company”.

    I feel very sad.

    1. pepe says:

      Makebot should cancel the talk in the Open Hardware Summit, since they not open anymore. They should go to corporative fairs if other corporate business. This last post is enough to see that they not open hardware anymore: .

      1. Colecoman1982 says:

        Another way to look at it is that, since he obviously doesn’t seem to have the character or ethics to do it himself, Open Hardware Summit should drop Bre from the event…

  5. pepe says:

    Bre Pettis in Mar 19, 2012 in makeTV: “We learn as kids that share is good and we forget when we are adults” What has change? Is millions of seed investment what make change a soul of this company. Replicator 2 is amazing machine, but I think they made a huge mistake by close source soft and hardware design. Community of makers will not forgot this game of today I am open, and tomorrow close to get the big profit.

  6. Remmar Gorpa says:

    Hey Pettis, I am not sure what makes you think that this low road you’ve adopted will give you a better chance at avoiding the fate that has befallen countless businesses in this globalized world of slave labour fuelled manufacturing economy. Sorry, wishful thinking aside, you are simply not in a “sustainable business.” China will kick your ass, one way or another. Your only hope was to build something lasting on top of the good will and support of the community. People who would pay extra for your printer simply for the sake of ideals, and out of loyalty. That could have been sustainable. I think you just singed — possibly burnt — that bridge. Now you are appearing like just another business man. There is no shortage of those. Well … at least you have a well charted path before you. Let me predict the next couple of “sustainable business model” choices you’ll have to make. (1) Whether or not to get your product manufactured in some sweatshop in one of those “sustainable business” countries. (2) Whether or not to lay off a good chunk of your current work force, so that you can “sustain” your bottom line. (I was saving up for a Makerbot, but will now just go out and get a cheap Chinese version instead. If I can’t change the world, I might as well save some money. “Sustainable business” you know. Every man for himself.)

    1. bobster says:

      Remmar Gorpa,
      If you want to help the open source community you can still buy an open source 3d printer, you don’t have to buy that chinese crap. There are tons of OTHER reprap derivatives that are still open source like prusa, or printrbot.
      Good luck

      1. HW Guru says:

        We will be introducing a new model next year that will offer a locally made low cost option. Actually, we would like to see rural communities in China building clones for themselves too. After all, the people who live there are 99.999998% victims of desperation, misplaced nationalistic isolation, and “big companies” are usually owned by political party relatives.

  7. Tom says:

    This whole thing confuses me.

    Is the Makerbot a derived work of RepRap. and both were open source? Both hardware and software?

    Are the only portions that are going closed source those portions of the hardware and software that have been developed in-house now going to be closed source?

    If that is the case I could support that. Having a percentage of the product open with some proprietary portions.

    But if you are saying now that you (as an entity) are the creators of the total project (due to some patent on an open source project – slick Apple tactics) and not using any contributions from the community that helped get it to the stage it is at currently… then that is just wrong, That I find it hard to support..

    At a minimum track down ALL those who have contributed to the open source of this project and give them credit for their contributions.

    1. HW Guru says:

      Unfortunately, it is not possible to track down all of the contributing developers, engineers, and hobbyists. Some people prefer to stay anonymous for various reasons….

      For what the ‘bot costs now, I have to say there is zero chance I will purchase a closed-source version while 6 other companies have similar products.

  8. Lynne Whitehorn says:

    I’ve thought all along that MakerBot was part of Make magazine, and until today didn’t know otherwise. This whole thing seems more than a little disappointing, especially given MakerBot’s approach to business that seems to consist of using Open Source to bootstrap a closed source business model. At the very least I have a hard time understanding the ethical justification behind it, but will admit that Pettis’ answers are a bit weasel-y, IMO. I’d like to see some articles with more depth, especially insofar as the history of the underlying software is concerned..

    Maybe you could have them change their name and then stop doing puff pieces for them now, please?

  9. Ronan says:

    Quite the storm in a teacup. It resembles the overblown hype around 3D printers in general. I presume Makerbot are realizing there is no real money in low-end open-source and are trying to fix that. I believe 3D printers will remain a niche product and, as such, won’t be widely sold enough to justify the open source hardware model. At least, not enough to satisfy whoever is investing in Makerbot.

    1. Sean Ragan says:

      That, I have to say, is an interesting and unusual opinion. We often reason about the future of technology by analogy to the past, and, of course, history offers no perfect analogies. But it seems almost inescapable, to me, barring apocalyptic scenarios, that desktop 3D printers are someday going to have at least as much impact, and be just as ubiquitous, as desktop 2D printers. The desktop publishing revolution was simply huge, today paper printers can do an amazing number of things, and pretty much everyone with a computer owns one or has easy access to one. And there’s a heckuva lot more you can do, potentially, in 3D…

      1. Rob Giseburt says:

        I’d also like to point out that there is more at stake here than simply 3D printing. The open source technology that has been developed aggressively over the last few years for 3D printers — a specific type of CNC (Computer Numerically Controlled) machine — can easily be applied to any other sort of motion-control. This includes other types of devices for desktop manufacturing, such as CNC routers and laser cutters, as well as other, less obvious physical automation devices like household robots, toys, and assistive devices.

        In fact, this is industrial-quality motion control that is freely available both for use and for learning about motion control from an embedded environment.

      2. Sam Juvonen says:

        You may be right, but I think there is still a long way to go to rival the beginning of desktop printing. I actually remember how awesome it was to design and print a magazine on one of the early Macs, with horrible typographic choices and all. It was a rush.

        So far, the community has produced a bunch of dot-matrix printers, to extend the desktop printing analogue. Or maybe those early printers that needed special paper. Which is a great accomplishment, and future developments will stand on the shoulders of these great hackers. But I think the hype has gotten a little far ahead of reality. How many items do you have in daily use that you printed on a 3D printer? No, not the Yoda head. Was the investment in the printer worth it?

        I remember when VRML was going to take over the web. 3D for the masses!

        I do want to encourage the hackers working on 3D printers though – but it’s not for me at this point. I don’t want to twiddle with extruder temperatures any more than I want to twiddle with my laser printer innards. I have come very very close to ordering a Shapeoko though – I think the bang for the buck of making actual usable objects is way higher with CNC now.

        It does seem that Makerbot hooked up with a wrong VC.

      3. Simone Sacchi says:

        MAKE: is pushing the 3d printing like no others, basically a good 60% of the articles here are about 3d printing (sometimes printing the silliest things).
        MAKE:blog has reader from all around the world and I’m wondering how many of these people have the opportunity to even see a 3d printer.
        From what I’m seeing it, MAKE: is mainly trying to create a market for the 3d printing.

  10. erik says:

    I’m left with more questions than answers, as usual. :-)

    1) So, if you abandon the Open Source Goodwill, that makes you just another vendor. Stratasys has been getting cheaper, Makerbot has been getting more expensive, and Stratasys’ quality makes Makerbot look like some sort of garage kit-bash. No offence (not really) but once you see 3d printed parts on real, professional gear, well, you’re going to wonder what the Makerbots are for. It’s like buying real plastic parts versus carving something out of dried toothpaste. Makerbot got points for being a cool hacker toy, but once that goes away, you’re faced with a Yugo-versus-Toyota decision.

    2) CNC Machining and 3D printing share a lot of motion control, to be sure. And this has brought down the price of CNC machining. Professionally, I have a hard time justifying 3D printed objects at $35 per cubic inch when I can have them machined, hardened, and tempered in 4140 for $45/hour, and that’s basically independent of size up to about pumpkin sized. How’s that for mixing my units? Sure, I can have parts printed that are almost impossible to have machined, but in reality that has never actually been a problem, and if it was I’d just design the part in laminations.

    3) Very little of the world’s manufacturing capability is now located in countries where US IP law applies, and if you can ship it, someone can clone it. You can slow down imports when they reach the millions, but for a product sold in the thousands? Utterly impossible. To go down this road for a low-volume product, you have to release new versions faster than you can get yourself cloned, which is roughly every two months. That fast a turnover cycle makes it tough on your customers. Hard to make a business out of a product sold in the thousands to begin with, and when you alienate your customers, well, you’re kind of toast.

  11. Sean Ragan says:

    I take issue with the first comment on Bre’s post, from Chris B, quoted in this editorial:

    “Doesn’t seem like there are some wildly different issues faced by ‘open hardware’ than by ‘open software’ and there are many examples of very successful and very large businesses doing open software and providing services as a way to make money.”

    The essential difference is in per-unit manufacturing costs. With software they are slight or nil; with hardware they are significant. Small open-source startups can compete with closed-off gorillas in software, where the gorillas don’t have much advantage with respect to manufacturing costs. But when it comes to hardware, the big guys have economies of scale, vertical integration, and cheap foreign labor all working in their favor.

    1. HW Guru says:

      With the exception that RepRap’s core philosophy is to create copies of itself.

      1. Sean Ragan says:

        Yes, very good point. When/if 3D printers achieve complete or near-complete self-replication, all bets are off; I have a hard time imagining all the implications of that change, when it comes.

    2. Remmar Gorpa says:

      Yes, hardware is different. There is substantial marginal cost involved. But nobody is asking Makerbot to sell their printers at a loss.

      1. Sean Ragan says:

        No, indeed, but if the manufacturing giants can beat them to death on end-user prices because they can manufacture them cheaper, their business will not survive.

  12. John says:

    The more I think about it, the more I realize that open source hardware is a lot like organic agriculture. It’s a weird comparison, but I’ve worked around a few farms, so that’s just how my mind works. The organic ideal is something I believed in, still do really, just don’t believe it works for large farms. You see, you have organic crops, and then you have “organic” crops. The former are grown in backyard gardens and on small holistic farms where the soil has a biodiversity higher than the Amazon. The latter, well, they’re these large players who use organic sprays and maybe some beneficial insects, but that’s about it. Are they better than conventional? Honestly, I think they are, or at least they try to be in a cost effective manner, but they’re nowhere near as good as the small guys, that’s just too hard at that size.

    Likewise, open source hardware really is a noble ideal pursued by ambitious garage hackers and small kit companies, but once you get larger, well, you’ll likely have to move from open source to “open source”.

    There are differences though. To be frank, most organic farmers do things organically for the money, otherwise the regulatory hurdles wouldn’t be so rough. With open source though, there honestly isn’t enough interest in it to do it for the money, if you make open source hardware then you’re likely doing it because you’re crazy, like the rest of us. With Makerbot, well, they’re a little saner now then they used to be, having 150 “children” will do that to you, but they’re still pretty crazy, and they make one hell of a good desktop 3D printer at a reasonable price. That’s good enough for me.

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  15. Bill Griffith says:

    In large part, in my mind, anyway, the problem is hugely complicated by that recent infusion of VC money. When it’s not your money, you answer to someone. Surely, the VCs and Bre (and co) have a comfort level with the risk they’re willing to take. I’m guessing here that Bre’s apparent prevarication is rooted somewhere in the realm of pleasing the money people by moving ahead in a business-proven justifiable way. Perhaps Open Source presents more risk than the VCs realized initially. I don’t know. I DO know how Bre approached things in the past. and I have a hard time believing that he’s not fighting a battle behind the scenes that we don’t get to hear.

    Just sayin’

    1. Eric says:

      Fair enough, but actions _do_ speak louder than words. Or past actions, for that matter.

  16. Alan Dove says:

    I remember a few years ago some folks were drawing parallels between Makerbot’s founding and the early days of Apple. That analogy seems to fit pretty well now.

    1. Ronan O'Driscoll says:

      Bre Pettis seems to nice to be Steve Jobs…

      1. Ronan O'Driscoll says:

        *too* nice

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    Haven’t read all the comments, but just b/c Makerbot releases a “closed” (or at least not fully open) machine doesn’t undo all their previous open work, imo.

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    I am a CNC Lazer Operator and I always wanted a 3d printer, Now since I did not want to place it together and what not I have pre ordered my own makerbot rep 2, Ive seen alot of the open source ones and I would perfer a nice and tidy machine. But take that in mind I can still use the makerbot to make other 3d printers.

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