MakerBot, the one-time darling of the oh-so-Brooklyn "maker" movement, announced this week it is outsourcing its 3D-printer manufacturing to a company with facilities in China. This will likely result in the shuttering of the company's massive manufacturing facility in Industry City, a growing destination on the Brookyln waterfront for artists and hackers. If layoffs follow, this will be the third round for the company in two years.
Simply put, things are not looking good for MakerBot, which is now owned by the publicly-traded 3D-printing giant, Stratasys. The company has become the latest cautionary tale for yet another category where a breakthrough technology promised a revolution--but instead, delivered a startup that fell almost as quickly as it rose.
MakerBot was once the face of the democratized 3D printing revolution. Born in 2009 in a downtown Brooklyn hackerspace, it aspired to make 3D printing tools typically relegated to research universities and large corporations accessible to the masses. It promised to accelerate the prototyping process for startups and creators everywhere, and it didn't hurt that its founder and CEO Bre Pettis was a charismatic artist-turned-quirky-entrepreneur-turned-missionary setting out to simplify the world of manufacturing forever.
MakerBot made its first splash at South by Southwest Interactive in 2009, unveiling a for-the-masses 3D printer by printing out shot-glasses. As the tiny upstart started to grow and get lines of 3D printers out to market, the category began heating up. A much larger competitor, publically-traded 3D Systems, went on an acquisition bender. MakerBot staffed up and unveiled a string of innovative 3D-printing products--including, in 2013, a device that could scan anything and translate it to an actual 3D-printed replica. Then, in June 2013--to the chagrin of the maker community--Minnessota-based competitor, Stratasys, bought MakerBot for a startling $403 million.
Many assumed the sale would snuff out the startup's rebel spirit, but at the time Pettis claimed MakerBot would remain autonomous. However, within a year Pettis left.
With its founder gone and the Stratasys machine behind it, MakerBot made a run at reaching general consumers by opening retail stores and partnerships with chains like Home Depot. But that gambit didn't last long. By mid-2015, its stores and showrooms were shuttered.
Last year, it began to come clear that the utopian maker dream of an inexpensive, accessible machine that any hobbyist could have in their home was not translating to reality. Consumers were hardly clamoring to for a $1,400-to-$6,500 prototyping gizmo. Not only were they expensive, to run one required serious computational power and programming skills. It turns out educational institutions, museums, prototyping facilities, and research labs were still MakerBot's primary consumers--a tiny customer pool. The reality was, building a MakerBot was still incredibly expensive. Without a sprawling set of customers, the company couldn't drive the price down. According to The Motley Fool, MakerBot's sales have not grown since the fourth-quarter of 2014.
By 2015, MakerBot laid off 20 percent or more of its staff--twice--and reduced its Industry City footprint by half. As I wrote at the time, MakerBot's new CEO, Jonathan Jaglom, conceded that the company needed to do some soul searching. "In order to lead our dynamic industry, we need to get back to our entrepreneurial spirit and address our fractured organizational structure," he wrote in a blog post.
It appears that deep reflection resulted in, well, offshoring to China. In a blog post earlier this week, Jaglom seemed optimistic about the company's new plan. "Leading analysts predict significant growth for the 3D printing industry, and we at MakerBot believe that we need to position ourselves today to be able to grow in the future," he wrote.
But that growth is more than uncertain. The industry as a whole is not growing--and the democratization of 3D printing, well, never really happened. Machines are still pricey, and the learning curve is steep. Perhaps the move to Chinese manufacturing will enable MarkerBot to push its prices down and make its machine more accessible. But cost-cutting your way to a technological revolution--one that it's not clear many consumers want--is not an enticing prospect, or one anyone foresaw back in Makerbot's glory days.