MakerBot: Trying (in vain) to Centralize Decentralization

MakerBot is an American-based 3D printer company that gained prominence among the maker community with its originally opensource, consumer-friendly machines. Makerspaces, schools, institutions, and individuals around the world enthusiastically adopted MakerBot’s hardware and joined its online 3D model library, Thingiverse.

While MakerBot and the 3D printing industry it was a part of represented a paradigm shift in localizing manufacturing and liberating the masses from consumerism, the popularity MakerBot gained tempted its founders into a more traditional course of action; selling their company out to profit-driven investors who sought to turn the company into the “Apple of 3D printing.”

In reality, there can be no “Apple of 3D printing.” There can be no centralized monopoly of 3D printing because 3D printing itself is a function of decentralization.

3D printers are machines that can make virtually anything out of a wide and ever-growing variety of materials. For now, virtually anything you may buy made of plastic can be fabricated with 3D printing. In the future, everything including ceramics, glass, and even metal will be 3D printed as well with large, expensive machines already doing so, used by automotive, aerospace, and other heavy industrial companies.

With a 3D printer, you have what is essentially a miniature factory on your tabletop. With 3D design software, you are able to create your own designs. With an internet connection, you have access to one of many online 3D model libraries, many of which offer models for downloading for free. With a 3D scanner, you can capture the physical characteristics of real world objects and print them.

3D printing, thus represents the decentralization of manufacturing. 3D printers themselves are subject to their own disruptive nature, with printers being used to turn out the next generation of components for future 3D printer designs.

In such an industry, the notion of monopolizing and dominating the market is irrational, and not just theoretically, but tangibly.

Design-Engineering.com in a February 2017 article titled, “Makerbot announces restructuring and layoffs,” would report:

Makerbot’s new CEO Nadav Goshen announced a significant restructuring of the company in order to meet with growing challenges in the desktop 3D printing market.

The Stratasys subsidiary will be cutting 30% of its workforce in an effort to reorganize the staff into small groups around specific product offerings.

The announcement is only the most recent in a series of setbacks for the company. It has suffered similar “restructurings” in years past.

MakerBot, which began as an opensource hardware and software company, quickly switched over to a proprietary business model, much like Apple. The move was highly unpopular among mainstream 3D printing enthusiasts, and many of MakerBot’s users now are schools and individuals with little to no experience in 3D printing who are attracted to the supposedly consumer-friendly, albeit expensive, user experience MakerBot users receive.

In reality, virtually everything MakerBot does as a company and its printers do as personal manufacturing platforms can be done better by smaller niche 3D printing companies who, as an added bonus, use opensource software and hardware.

Companies like the Netherlands-based Ultimaker have inspired start-ups around the world building machines based on Ultimaker’s opensource designs. While Ultimaker will never become the “Apple of 3D printing,” it has secured its place within the 3D printing community as a valuable cornerstone.

The result of this opensource model is a distribution of wealth through localized entrepreneurship. There is no single “Apple” making billions off of 3D printing. Instead, there is a network of smaller companies filling niches and serving local communities, glued together by more prominent names and platforms globally.

MakerBot attempts in vain to dominate and monopolize what is essentially an indomitable market and it is visibly suffering because of it.

One can only hope that one of the “smaller groups” MakerBot has broken itself down into, considers its roots as an opensource hardware and software company which brought it to prominence in the first place; roots that when forsaken, began MakerBot’s slow and painful slide into the abyss.

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