MakerBot Really Wants You To Like Them Again

For the last couple years, a MakerBot press release has generally signaled that more pink slips were going to be heading out to the already shell-shocked employees at their NYC factory. But just last week something that could almost pass as good news came out of the once mighty 3D printer manufacturer, the unveiling of “MakerBot Labs”. A number of mainstream tech sites heralded this as MakerBot’s first steps back into the open source community that launched it nearly a decade ago; signs of a newer and more thoughtful MakerBot.

Reading the announcement for “MakerBot Labs”, you can almost believe it. All the buzz words are there, at least. In fact, if this announcement came from anyone else, in any other field, I’d probably be on board. Sharing knowledge and listening to the community is essential if you want to connect with hackers and makers. But this is MakerBot, and they’ve dug themselves into a very deep hole over the years.

The spectacular fall from grace that MakerBot has experienced, from industry leader to afterthought, makes this hat-in-hand peace offering hard to take seriously. It reads like a company making a last ditch effort to win back the users they were so sure they didn’t need just a few years ago. There is now a whole new generation of 3D printer owners who likely have never even seen a MakerBot printer, and it’s hard to imagine there’s still enough innovation and life in the company to turn that around before they completely fade into obscurity.

MakerBot in 5 Steps

The tale of how MakerBot managed to go from synonymous with desktop 3D printing to “the people who host Thingiverse” is rather interesting. [Brian Benchoff] wrote an excellent history of the company, and Netflix even made a movie about it. But to summarize quickly, the highlights go something like this:

  1. Take open source ideas and make commercial 3D printer
  2. Iterate commercial 3D printer until it becomes market leader
  3. Decide to take market leading open source printer and make it closed source
  4. Sue community members who gave you the ideas for Step 1
  5. Take printer from Steps 2/3 and run it into the ground

Somewhere mixed in there was a corporate takeover, where MakerBot got bought out by the “old guard” industry leaders they originally set out to undercut. They also produced hardware that not only had rampant vendor lock in, but also planned obsolescence. They really have nobody to blame but themselves for their constantly shrinking market share.

But the story of MakerBot is bigger than just 3D printing, it’s an example of how you absolutely should not operate an open source company.

What is Open?

Reading through the MakerBot Labs press release, the very first line tells us all we need to know about this new “innovation”:

MakerBot is proud to announce the arrival of MakerBot Labs, an experimental platform for engineers and developers to create, build, customize, and collaborate on MakerBot 3D printing solutions. It was born out of the feedback from MakerBot’s advanced users looking to tap their innovative spirit and expand their 3D printing experience.

If this sounds like how nearly every other 3D printer company already operates, that’s because it is. Manufacturers like Ultimaker, LulzBot, PrintrBot, and of course Prusa Research all manage to deliver printers that not only make use of the collected knowledge of the open source community, but actively give back. None of these companies need a press release to tell you that the community is invited to experiment and collaborate, because it’s already a given.

MakerBot’s tone deaf statement here reminds me of a recent video from [Thomas Sanladerer], where he asks representatives from different 3D printing companies what open source means to them, and how it’s integrated into their products and business.

The answers [Thomas] gets back are excellent, and show a refreshing understanding of what it means to be “open” in the true sense of the word. You could argue there may have been some selection bias in who [Thomas] interviewed, but on the whole the video showed that open source is alive and well in the minds of some of the industry’s top players.

Which makes this latest effort from MakerBot to regain some tracking in the community appear all the more hollow.

MakerBot Labs

So what exactly is MakerBot Labs? Well, there’s a GitHub repo that allows you to poke around inside the MakerBot proprietary file formats that perhaps 1 in 100 owners of current generation 3D printers has ever even seen, so there’s that. But the true star of the show is the new “Experimental Extruder”, which under the banner “Designed To Be Hacked” describes the game-changing feature that MakerBot has graced us with.

Think about it, really let it settle in. MakerBot, a company that once set the standard for an entire industry to follow, is now advertising the ability to change your hotend nozzle as an “experiment”.

Look at those gloves! This is serious business.

To double down on how little they think of their users, they even uploaded STLs for the obscenely over-sold “Experimental Extruder Jig” to Thingiverse. It is a rectangle. With a smaller rectangle subtracted from the center.

This is after they already encased their hotend in a plastic box to begin with. So now you have a plastic box to hold your plastic box. It’s like one of those Russian nesting dolls, but in the tiniest doll is just the feeling you wasted a lot of money.

Oh, and did I mention that since this new version of the extruder is “Experimental”, that MakerBot will not cover it under their normal warranty? That’s right, if you have the audacity to put a 0.8 mm nozzle on your 3D printer, you are officially persona non grata in the eyes of MakerBot. Interestingly enough, back in 2011 Makerbot used to sell a whole selection of different sized nozzles for their early 3D printers; no lab coat required.

Why Now?

It’s easy to see a press release like this and assume MakerBot is making one final RadioShack-style appeal to the community, one last shot before they’re really in trouble. It could be. But to give credit where credit is due, CEO Nadav Goshen only took the reigns of the company in January, the third person to hold that position since Bre Pettis did his best D. B. Cooper impersonation in 2015.

The wheels of progress turn slowly in any large organization, and perhaps doubly so in one that has gone through so much turmoil in a relatively short amount of time. It could be that it’s taken Goshen these last nine months to start crafting a plan to get MakerBot back into the community’s good graces, and we’re witnessing the first creaking moves of a wheel that’s been rusted up for far too long. Whether it’s the usual marketing department hand-waving or a genuine appeal, this quote from Goshen from the press release certainly hits all the right notes:

After setting high industry standards for what makes a quality and reliable 3D printing experience, we’re introducing this new, more open platform as a direct response to our advanced users calling for greater freedom with materials and software.

Is It Too Late?

Is there still a road back into the hearts and minds of makers for MakerBot after all these years? With stunts like this, it’s hard to see a path forward. MakerBot has lost so much ground to the competition that, short of starting all over with a newly designed and vastly cheaper printer, I can’t imagine who outside of academia would ever give them the time of day.

You could buy two Prusa i3 MK3’s for less than what a MakerBot Replicator+ costs. Open source printers are offering features like multi-material extrusion, high flow hotends, automatic leveling, and filament out sensors, while MakerBot counters by offering a 3D printed block to store your overpriced extruder in.

Jabs at MakerBot aside, of course we would all like to see them return to the open source principles that put them on the map. While the desktop 3D printing market has no shortage of open source success stories, MakerBot’s backing down from their walled garden approach could be the biggest of them all. It would serve as a cautionary tale for other manufacturers; a practical case study in how the open source community can make, and in time perhaps even break, a tech startup.

To be sure, Labs is not the fundamental shift that we would like to see out of MakerBot. But it’s a sign that they haven’t completely forgotten the users who are looking to do more than the bare minimum with their hardware. With any luck, MakerBot will treat Labs not as a destination, but a path forward.

What do you think? With no shortage of hackable printers on the market, what would it take to get a MakerBot back into your lab?

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