If 3-D printing is indeed going mainstream, it will be in large part because of people like Bre Pettis, co-founder of the Brooklyn, New York-based 3-D printer company MakerBot. The company produces affordable desktop 3-D printers, with a basic unit selling for around $2,000. At South by Southwest this year, Pettis unveiled the Digitizer, a new MakerBot scanner that can scan a physical object--say, a golf ball or a garden gnome--and record its precise physical dimensions so it can be re-created by a 3-D printer. And that, he says, is good news for entrepreneurs.
How has MakerBot changed since you launched it in 2009?
Four years ago, there were three of us. I brought an early version of our printer to South by Southwest and just prototyped shot glasses in bars all day. Now, we've got close to 200 employees, a huge manufacturing facility, and actual offices with desks.
When did you realize that this was going to be big?
Basically, when we started shipping them out. When we first made MakerBots, we knew people would use them, but we didn't know how. That's when I really started thinking about the industrial revolution and what could happen. Putting these tools into people's hands democratizes manufacturing. It's getting to the point where if you have an idea, you can make it.
How does 3-D printing change product prototyping?
Before, if you wanted to manufacture something, you had to have a connection to a factory. That's not easy. With MakerBot, you basically have a factory on your desk. You can iterate. You can keep improving your ideas.
How are entrepreneurs using MakerBot?
One customer made what he called a Square Helper, a device that stops your Square credit card reader from spinning around when it's connected to your iPhone. Rather than going through a three-month injection molding process, he can just print out the orders as they come in. That ability to iterate and move quickly really opens things up for entrepreneurs.
On another level, the payment start-up LevelUp used a MakerBot to create a prototype of its mobile-phone scanner. It saved $30,000 by not taking the traditional factory production route.
What about those of us who don't know how to use 3-D modeling software?
The goal is to make it easy and accessible for users who don't have a CAD background. We created our interface in partnership with Autodesk, which makes user-friendly design tools.
Is the goal to inspire future entrepreneurs?
This technology will help speed up manufacturing for lots of entrepreneurial businesses. My goal is to provide tools that anyone can use to make anything.