MakerBot: A robot that makes things

Jenny Lawton, president of MakerBot, and Bre Pettis, CEO of MakerBot, at the grand opening of the new MakerBot store on Greenwich Avenue. Ms. Lawton says that the product is becoming more user friendly by the day.  —Louis Seigal

Jenny Lawton, president of MakerBot, and Bre Pettis, CEO of MakerBot, at the grand opening of the new MakerBot store on Greenwich Avenue. Ms. Lawton says that the product is becoming more user friendly by the day.
—Louis Seigal

With the recent arrival of MakerBot on Greenwich Avenue, residents can now make their 3D printing dreams a reality.

Now nearing its 2 month anniversary at 72 Greenwich Avenue, MakerBot’s owners say they hope to inspire individuals to embrace technology and cultivate their creativity. The Greenwich location marks the third brick and mortar MakerBot store, in addition to locations in New York City and Boston.

The reasons for opening in Greenwich are several, according to Jenny Lawton, the President of MakerBot, who was formerly a town resident. Prior to joining MakerBot, Ms. Lawton worked in the tech sector for 20 years owning the popular Greenwich stores Just Books, Just Books, Too and Arcadia Cafe in Old Greenwich. Ms. Lawton said she knows the Greenwich community well, with a dual insider’s perspective as both former resident and local businesswoman.

“Greenwich is an interesting market that has a unique demographic,” Ms. Lawton said. “It’s not too far out of the city and it’s a good market for looking at a demographic. While it’s not necessarily a tech hotspot, Greenwich is a place that likes to be on the cutting edge, a part of what’s going on in the world. It has the accessibility and the ability to access technology and is passionate about learning and education.”

MakerBot has been providing people with reliable and affordable desktop 3D printing and scanning since 2009. Prior to its establishment, 3D printing was largely exclusive to the realm of industrial, large-frame printers targeted towards skilled professionals. Now, with the user-friendly and accessible MakerBot products, 3D printing is now a real and distinct possibility for every level of enthusiast.

“To some people, 3D printing is still science fiction. We were the first company to take this technology to an accessible level,” said Jenifer Howard, director of public relations at MakerBot.

The company caters to a diverse audience of engineers, architects, educators and even hobbyists. The product range is versatile, with varying levels of complexity. The product line, initially consisting of two desktop printers and one scanner, has received accolades from tech titans and awards such as Time Magazine’s Best Inventions 2012, and Popular Mechanics 2013 Breakthrough Award.

MakerBot makes it possible for anyone with a computer and some creativity to create 3D art, ranging from the wildly bizarre to the incredibly functional. People can create everything from bracelets to prosthetic hands with the technology.

How to use it

The MakerBot Replicator 2 3D printer, now in its fifth generation, essentially works as an inkjet printer that works with plastic filament. It effectively brings a digital model to life and is capable of creating virtually any shape. From detailed architectural models to colorful action figures and even clothing, 3D printers can render nearly anything out of plastic.

Users sketch out a 3D model on CAD design software and the model is then printed with the MakerBot device. This is not exctly user friendly softwear and the process may require some finesse, but a simpler, alternative method is available via Thingiverse, an online hub created by the MakerBot founders that houses a plethora of free 3D models for people to simply download, customize and print.

In March 2013, a scanner was also added to the product line. Called the MakerBot Digitizer, it allows users to scan physical objects to be digitized and printed in 3D, essentially converting real life objects into 3D models. This process, seemingly out of science fiction, is completed with the help of two lasers and a webcam. Within minutes, the Digitizer can render a full, waterproof model.

Compared with industrial printers, with prices falling in the $25,000 spectrum, the MakerBot printers, averaging at $2,000, are far more cost effective and accessible. The scanner’s retail price has now fallen to $949, a significant drop from its original price of $1,400. At the at the annual Consumer Electronics Show earlier this month in Las Vegas, three new printers were added to the line with added versatility as a feature.

“We’re really excited to have a product line that has something for everyone, and at the same time, we are very excited about the entire surrounding ecosystem, with its applications and software. It’s awesome to have a product we can take to the consumer that is both easy to use and reliable,” Ms. Lawton said.

Among the products introduced is the MakerBot Replicator Z18 ($6,499), which is armed with the revolutionary capability of creating 10 small objects simultaneously. While the other printers are limited to printing relatively small objects, this new industrial-sized model easily prints large-scale items and can even be used to make pieces of furniture.

The other items introduced at show include the MakerBot Replicator ($2,899) and the Replicator Mini Compact ($1,375) which currently boasts the lowest price tag to date and is hoped, therefore, to be the most accessible to the broader market.

All three products tout major upgrades from previous models, with new features such as mobile/desktop app and cloud access, Wi-Fi, Ethernet and USB connectivity, in addition to increased speed and effectiveness. While the Replicator is available in stores and online next month, the Mini and Replicator Z18 will be available for purchase in the spring.

In schools 

Despite all of this progress, many remain unconvinced of the everyday utility of 3D printing. MakerBot’s larger goal is to eliminate this disconnect and to make 3D printing as affordable and accessible as possible. While tech enthusiasts and design professionals have been early and vocal adopters of MakerBot, the company is seeking to win the hearts of  average consumers through a focus on public schools.

MakerBot printers and scanners are being incorporated into Greenwich schools, both public and private.  Currently, Greenwich High School and Eastern Middle School, Julian Curtiss School and the International School at Dundee as well as Brunswick School, Whitby School, Greenwch Academy and Convent of the Sacred Heart have MakerBot printers. Ms. Lawton  said they can be extremely useful as education tools for immersive learning.

“They can be used in shop class, for students to see the virtual things they can create, and in art and music education. It’s a natural fit for math and science; it allows kids to actually see and feel what’s going on, instead of just reading about it,” Ms. Lawton said.

The push to bring MakerBot products into Greenwich schools is also part of a larger education crowdfunding initiative called MakerBot Academy, launched in November 2013. A collaboration with education nonprofits DonorsChoose and America Makes, MakerBot Academy is an effort to put a 3D printer into every public school classroom in the U.S., within the next three years.

“The goal is to get the printers into the schools, along with curriculum that teachers can immediately use. We’re confident that they could really bolster education initiatives,” said Ms. Lawton.

In order to request a MakerBot Academy 3D printer, the process is simple. Full-time public school teachers create an application with DonorsChoose detailing their reasons for the printer, how they’ll plan on using it in their classroom and what impact it’ll have on their students. The requests are crowdfunded by the generosity of the community. To date, more than 225 classrooms have been financed and more than 100,000 students reached.

In Greenwich

At the Greenwich Avenue location, people can witness firsthand the machines printing 3D objects and receive tutorials on how it all works. Printers, scanners and an array of brightly colored filament are also available for purchase. There’s even a life-size 3D photobooth that can take a 360-degree scan of a person’s head and shoulders and provide a finished model in less than a minute.

The store also offers a variety of instructional classes and workshops for MakerBot enthusiasts of all levels. In addition to occasional lectures with architects and engineers. On Fridays there are maintenance classes for MakerBot users and on Saturdays workshops for kids. Whether as a supplement to previous use, or as an introduction for novices, these events offer an accompaniment to the MakerBot experience.

When the company first began, it was a pioneer in desktop 3D printing. Though the competition has now begun to ramp up, Ms. Lawton is confident that the company has a strong and promising future ahead.

“There’s a lot more competition. I think that there has been a healthy growth of companies, more in the low end. So as we’ve grown up, and professionalized, there’s continued to be a lot of growth. We are an innovation company. As long as we’re innovative and bringing these ideas out into the world, that’s our goal, that’s what we’re doing, that keeps us moving,” Ms. Lawton said.


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