The New Year brings new ingredients for desktop 3D printer maker MakerBot Industries to work with.
Last week, the New York-based company rolled out new composite materials which mimic the look and feel of metal, stone, and wood, and can be used with some of MakerBot’s desktop 3D printers. The company also showed off the fruits of its recent agreement with Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia to create designs for a set of 3D printing materials that MakerBot distributes.
Overseeing all of these new efforts is MakerBot CEO Jenny Lawton, who took over the job in September after co-founder Bre Pettis took another job within MakerBot parent company Stratasys, one of the largest companies in the 3D printing sector.
Lawton says the new composites are expected to be available late this year—and once they’re on the market, she believes more people will see the capabilities 3D printing has to offer. We chatted last week at the International CES trade show in Las Vegas:
Xconomy: With these new business relationships and materials, have the uses for MakerBot’s printers evolved?
Jenny Lawton: At CES this year, we wanted to show people what they can do with 3D printers. We figured it’s time to start talking about the use cases and how people see 3D printing, so people can see the relevance in the workplace as well as in education. We spent the last five years bringing new products to market. Last year, we brought a platform to market. We want to make sure we spend time iterating on that, and we’re really excited with what people are doing with it.
X: In the early days of MakerBot, desktop 3D printing was seen as something for hobbyists. There has also been the push at the company to get your 3D printers into classrooms. Where are they going next?
JL: If we give kids a new tool, they’re going to use it in the future and use it for everything they do and make. It’s a future play in education.
People see the use cases in our stores and other retail outlets. With Martha Stewart, it’s not just that we make pretty colors. Their designers use 3D printing in their prototyping work. It’s not that GE FirstBuild thinks 3D printers are cool; they ran a meaningful competition for their smart refrigerator and people were able to do real-time prototyping and create new things. GE is really the leader in showing the world how 3D printing changes the manufacturing process.
We really want to make sure people understand how it impacts the world. The auto industry is so impacted by 3D printing, even looking at what Local Motors is doing with 3D-printable cars and parts. If you look at the prototyping for a stick shift, you might do that on a 3D printer first before taking it to the injection molders.
Engineers are able to iterate multiple times in a day, and reduce the time it takes to get to a final product or reduce the number of revisions they have to make on a rapid prototype.
X: Do the new materials mean new objects can be produced through MakerBot 3D printers?
JL: You can make a prototype of a hammer and not only would it look like a hammer, it feels like a hammer. It’s got weight at the head, it’s got a wooden feeling handle … a more realistic, real-time prototype. I love the concept that someone could make ceramics using the limestone [filament]. They never have to have a kiln.
Schools could buy a 3D printer to teach math, engineering, and art. Being able to use materials differently or have access to materials that you wouldn’t have had before—it’s not typical that you’d be able to make an iron vase, but now you can.
X: Are there any new functional items people are able to produce with these materials?
JL: Once we bring things to market, we’ll find out all the functional things people do with them. We came out with new materials because people asked for them.
X: Do the new composites work with all MakerBot printers?
JL: The new materials will be out for sale in the second half of the year, and we’re working on matching custom extruders and materials so you’ll be able to extend the life of your whole platform. Right now, they only work in the Replicator 2. We’re waiting until we have a full product line, working with all of our printers, before we release the new material.
X: Will the future be about creating new materials or new printers?
JL: This year is really about the ecosystem. You’ll see us continue to announce partnerships with application providers. There’s so many people out there making applications I could never make; I’d rather enable them to make 3D-printable results with their applications. So you’ll see more on the applications side and in the materials space. We’ll continue to focus on smart extruders that bring flexibility and accessibility to our printers. You’ll see us drill into applications like MakerBot PrintShop, and expand that so people can have an easy tool to make things on their own.
Scanning is something that people don’t talk a lot about, but it’s going to be an important part of the equation in the next three to five years. We’ll start to see people focus on that also. There’s only a few ways to make things: one is with software, one is with scanning, and the other is with someone who has already made a model. We’re working on all those fronts.
X: Are there any plans to open more MakerBot stores?
JL: We have the three retail locations and for our own brand, that’s probably where we’re going to stay this year. Our relationship with Home Depot, Microsoft stores, and Staples has brought us into over 500 retail outlets. That’s a lot of exposure through retailing.
X: So 3D printers have even popped up on the International Space Station. Are we going to see more of this?
JL: When you look at the application of 3D printing to the government, the military, or R&D at NASA, it brings the concept of just-in-time inventory to life. You’ll start to see a pickup in that. You can have a 3D printer in space that can make a wrench you can do something with. That avenue hasn’t been explored really. Where we are is so new.