3D printing was among the industries at the nexus of CES 2014, and Brooklyn-based MakerBot stole the show. Onstage Monday of last week, during MakerBot's first-ever press conference in five years of attending the event, CEO Bre Prettis unveiled not just one but three new 3D printers. While many ohhed and ahhed at the mini-fridge-size Replicator Z18, the crux of the announcement was MakerBot's most inexpensive device to date, the $1,375 Replicator Mini.
It's certainly not cheap. But the Mini's price tag is low enough to rouse the ever-present speculation looming over 3D printing: the timing and form factor of the one product that will be first to encapsulate the potential of the entire industry and hand it to everyone in an understandable package. When will we see that device, the one that matches an appealing price point with enough functionality to unlock the mainstream market?
In an interview with CNET on Thursday, Pettis provided an answer to that question without skipping a beat. "Four days ago," he said, referring to the press event. "We made the leap that's a similar leap from a flip phone to a smartphone. This is like when people finally saw the first iPhone or BlackBerry -- when those were cool -- and made that leap."
Normally, one would have already swallowed the grain of salt before reading to the end of the line, especially given the sea of hyperbole CES is known for. But Pettis is not one to take lightly, especially with respect to the sweeping movement to make a maker out of everyone, kids and parents and teachers alike.
In the course of a few years, the MakerBot CEO has become more or less the face of the blossoming 3D printing industry. While larger corporations have been strategically laying claim to the space for decades -- including Stratasys, which bought MakerBot for $403 million last year -- Pettis quickly earned his company, founded in 2009, a reputation as the friendly 3D printing firm, all with the intent of hitting every product tier possible.
Using a mix of proven Apple strategy -- clean design with more premium prices -- and enough charisma to make anyone start subconsciously reaching for his or her credit card, Pettis has fused his company's mission with his own visionary road map for the industry. It's one that would see 3D printers (Pettis hopes MakerBots in particular) in every classroom and in the homes of even the most design-illiterate, not just something that has large industrial applications or provides value only to established designers.
What remains to be seen however, and what will be the true test of MakerBot's role in the maker movement, is whether Pettis' marketing gusto surrounding the Mini can match the reality when the product goes on sale later this spring. The Mini is far from the cheapest 3D printer out there; XYZprinting announced this week the da Vinci, for $499, a price point that some anticipate will need to accompany the true breakout 3D printer.
However, the Mini is powerful, and tied into one of the most user-friendly and robust software ecosystems in the industry. It's a suite that now includes a cross-platform desktop application and iOS app, announced alongside the new printer lineup.
"Same electronics, same software behind it, same applications, same camera, same smart extruder. Everything is powerful, but in a tighter package," Pettis said of the Mini. "We've got the early adopter market, but now the early adopters aren't the geeks -- it's ordinary people wanting to jump and get into it."
But even if any hurdle seems surmountable to Pettis, he's quick to recognize the more-obvious trials ahead. "We just made the jump to light speed and it feels good to be on the other side of that. The big challenge now is that everybody still thinks of 3D printing as something other people do," he said. "The same way that people were like, 'I don't need a smartphone. Why do I need the connectivity? Why do I need to take pictures with my phone?'"
Convincing people they need a 3D printer is indeed similar to explaining the importance of the smartphone, though it didn't take long for Apple to cease having to convince the public to buy the iPhone when it first hit the market with few true competitors. So from a business standpoint, its a bit more appropriate to see the current 3D printing landscape as analogous to the early days of personal computing (during which Apple obviously still played a defining role) as numerous companies released increasingly affordable products with the goal of making computers mainstream.
As those similarities grow, so do the comparisons between Pettis and Steve Jobs, and MakerBot and Apple. It's something Pettis said he finds flattering, as someone who grew up with an Apple II Plus. But it's also helped tremendously in shaping the image of the company as an industry leader that sets the ground rules for appropriate design, necessary build quality, and the required functionality to make a true entry-level product.
Apple is in MakerBot's DNA on purpose. And the evidence is mounting. Onstage at MakerBot's press conference, Pettis used both the word "magical" and the phrase, "it just works," and the MakerBot Digital Store sells toys -- like an iTunes song or album -- for 99 cents a piece and $9.99 per set. There's no need to point out the inspiration for the company's flagship NYC store.
And not so much a tip of the hat to Apple's closed garden as much as a serious business decision, MakerBot's controversial choice to go closed source in 2012 by locking down the physical design schematics of its Replicators and their GUIs has forced it to weather some severe criticism.
But while Jobs may have had his detractors, made controversial decisions, and made hyperbolic claims about Apple's role in the future of technology, his affinity for guiding the release of market-defining products is now Silicon Valley legend. Pettis has yet to sell us completely on the idea that his device is truly the revolutionary one in a sea of competitors. Whether he can convince not just CES attendees but also the general public on the Replicator Mini will involve more than his superb marketing; it also calls for a product that's hassle-free and readily accessible.
"Our whole goal is to make it [3D printing] friendly, superaffordable, and low stress. Then people just do it. They're not held back. They can unleash their creativity," Pettis said.
"And you don't have to wait. You don't order it and wait three weeks and iterate multiple times a year. You can iterate multiple times a day," he said, commenting on competing business models like the service platform. For instance, Shapeways -- a company that uses industrial, enormously expensive 3D printers to help mass produce designers' uploaded products that anyone can then buy through its marketplace -- is less interested in MakerBot's goal of pushing printers, opting to monetize the market for objects instead.
Given his championing of the individual -- combined with his education-focused crowdfunding platform, MakeBot Academy (Pettis is a former teacher) -- it's easy to see why he and MakerBot have become emblematic of the movement. MakerBot's true strength, Pettis says, is democratizing design and production, not just making cool things out of plastic. "You can screw up, and fail as many times as you need to to make the ultimate thing," he says of the philosophy behind a consumer-grade 3D printer.
We'll find out this year whether the Mini turns out to be one of MakerBot's own failures on the path to making 3D printing mainstream. Though the ultimate thing-maker is no doubt on the way, it's unclear if the Mini's still-premium price of $1,375 is too Apple-like in its exclusivity to urge the public to take the leap just yet.