MakerBot’s technology of the future grapples with its rocky past

Seated in a chair a few feet away, you still have to strain to hear Nadav Goshen speak. He’s quiet, but thoughtful. And, from the looks of it, slightly nervous. It’s clear that the serial executive isn’t used to the spotlight as he sits down for his first interview since being appointed the CEO of one-time 3D printing savior MakerBot back in January.

Goshen has a small stack of papers sitting on a table beside him, should he need to consult any notes. He never actually looks over, however. After months of behind the scenes meetings, he’s got the company’s new line down, pat. His voice rarely raises above a whisper during our conversation, but he speaks thoughtfully and pragmatically. He speaks of a company that’s humbled. One that has learned from its mistakes.

After a few minutes, it’s impossible to miss the stark contrast with Bre Pettis, the mutton-chopped, co-founder whose bespectacled face became as synonymous with the company as any mascot or logo. He was a one-man manifestation of the MakerBot spirit, and by extension the desktop 3D printer revolution.

He held a Replicator printer aloft on the October 2012 cover of Wired, flanked by the bright orange words “This Machine Will Change the World.” He yucked it up with Stephen Colbert on Comedy Central, before sending a 3D printed bust of the blustery faux right wing talk show host into space. It was all very 2011.

MakerBot opened up storefronts in strategic locations across the country, announced ambitious plans to begin manufacturing 3D printers in the US and opened up a sprawling office space high up in a downtown Brooklyn office space overlooking a huge swath of lower Manhattan. The stores were quietly shuttered and manufacturing moved to Shenzhen, “where things should be manufactured,” one employee off-handedly remarks.

The office remains. And we’ve lucked out, having chosen what feels like the first real day of spring in New York City. The view is stunning with the sun streaming through the lower Manhattan skyscrapers, and Goshen is quietly chipper for a man who three months before was tasked with what must feel like the weight of the 3D printing world. He brushes off the suggestion that he inherited a difficult position. “No,” he answers softly, but defiantly. “MakerBot is in a great state.”

Goshen highlights the moves the company has made over the last several months. In September of last year, then-CEO Jonathan Jaglom unveiled the Replicator+ and Replicator Mini+. But the new printers were only a piece of the conversation, pointing to a larger cultural shift for the company, a move away from attempting to predict or control the conversation.

“We were under the assumption of trying to aim for growth patterns,” says Goshen. “Trying to aim for a specific time and place where everything will meet and I think this trying to pinpoint a point in time and space is not healthy. Much more healthy is to look at customer needs, grow with the market.”

Build platform

MakerBot’s humble beginnings were precisely what made the company the perfect poster child for the desktop 3D printing movement. The team was an off-shoot of sorts from RepRap, a project founded in 2005 by University of Bath professor Adrian Bowyer, with the goal of creating a self-replicating machine – or at the very least, one that could build a majority of its own parts.

In 2007, Pettis and fellow makers Zach Smith and Adam Mayer holed up in New York City makerspace NYC Resistor and set out to build their own machine based on RepRap’s open-source schematics, fueled by, the way Pettis tells it, ramen, caffeine and a $25,000 laser cutter members of the space had chipped in to buy. Bowyer was an early-stage backer, helping to fund the creation of the company’s earliest kit.

More than one press outlet noted the parallels between it and early Silicon Valley success stories like Apple, and Pettis seemingly, was happy to fill the role of Steve Jobs. A former middle school art teacher and employee of Jim Henson’s Creature Shop, he spoke with the unabashed confidence of a man ready to change the world.

“We’re out to fuel the next industrial revolution,” Pettis told the crew of Print The Legend, a Netflix documentary that charted the beginnings of MakerBot and desktop 3D printing, “by putting the power to manufacture things in your hands.” That statement wasn’t an outlier.

It seems like a million years ago now, but the sentiment is indicative of an overall feeling in the tech community toward 3D printing. We were in the midst of a third industrial revolution. 3D printing was about to change everything, and MakerBot was smack dab in the eye of that storm.

Believing the hype

Over the next couple of years, MakerBot’s growth was downright explosive. The company expanded its staff from 40 employees to around 600-plus by its own account. It added several new printer configurations to its line, along with a turntable-style 3D scanner and an online store, aimed at selling premium prints alongside the company’s longtime free Thingiverse database. The unveilings took on the air of small scale Apple keynotes, complete with new products hidden beneath black cloths.

In 2013, industrial 3D printing heavy weight Stratasys purchased MakerBot at the height of its powers and hype cycle for $403 million. It was a healthy sum for a company that, less than half a decade before, was selling wooden kits built in a local makerspace. In 2015, Pettis left the company he’d helped found, taking his Bold Machines workshop with him.

Pettis and Stratasys both declined to be interviewed for the piece, though the latter offered up comment from CEO Ilan Levin,

In addition to Stratasys’ commitment to the ongoing development of the professional rapid prototyping segment, we believe that there is strategic value in capturing entry-level users within the desktop segment where we can provide differentiated value.

We remain confident in the long-term opportunity in the desktop segment, and will continue to invest in products that serve the entry-level professional and education markets. We believe MakerBot maintains the leading desktop brand, with the most developed software ecosystem within the industry.

To many, 2015 felt like the beginning of the end for MakerBot – and, perhaps, desktop 3D printing as a whole. The company underwent a massive contraction shuttering its flagship store and laying off 100 employees, a massive chunk of the company’s overall staff. Citing expenses and the industry “volatility,” MakerBot closed down its massive 175,000 square foot Brooklyn manufacturing facility less than a year after its much ballyhooed grand opening.

3D printing’s promise of hyperlocalized manufacturing and a third industrial revolution would have to take a backseat to the affordability of Chinese labor. And the fallout hasn’t stopped. This February, the company announced that it would be laying off one-third of its staff, leaving the current number at around 100. Things have proven equally volatile up top. Goshen is the third person to fill out the CEO role since Pettis’s exit.

With four years under his belt, Engineering VP Dave Veisz is a downright veteran. “It feels like I’ve been in this role for five years or so,” he says with a laugh about the 13 months he’s spent in his current position. “With the hype on the way up, too, there was always constant change,” he adds. “The people that have been here for three to five years are used to almost like a new company every six months, every year.”

Shifting gears

Goshen hardly mentions the consumer space during our conversation, unless prompted to do so. Like the executive himself, the company is dramatically different from the one that graced the covers of mainstream tech publications half a decade ago. Changing the world is a bit further down the list of the company’s goals.

“I don’t think that right now there is a consumer 3D printing successful product offering,” Goshen admits. The company’s current strengths are primarily in education — making potential professional users comfortable with 3D printing techniques. “This is not exactly 3D printing hardware as it was before,” Goshen tells me. “It’s looking at the customer needs and trying to figure and to address that wider need.”

MakerBot certainly isn’t alone in that thinking. 3D Systems, one of Stratasys’s chief competitors, has exited the space altogether. “I don’t think the consumer business is real, because there’s no use for it,” the company’s CEO Vyomesh Joshi told TechCrunch in an interview late last year. “I have no interest right now in going after the consumer business. You buy the printer and you’re using it once a year. That’s not exciting to me.”

Veisz admits that part of the issue around MakerBot’s inability to transform industry hype into widespread adoption is the technology’s failure to live up to mainstream needs. “You expect to buy that and not have to call up customer service. Plug it in and go. The technology, everywhere from the software workflow to the hardware, has to work seamlessly. You have to have really high percentage print success. It has to be easy to use for the general public.”

Of course, rumors of the death of desktop 3D printing have been greatly exaggerated. Over the last few years, the conversation in the tech press has shifted seemingly overnight from talk of a consumer manufacturing revolution to a space obliterated by its own hype. For many pundits, 3D printing has become the ultimate tech cautionary tale, used to warn against overhyping technologies like virtual reality.

The fact is, the 3D printing market continues to grow – albeit at a much more modest pace than many extremely bullish pundits initially speculated. The target audience, however, has shifted dramatically. A company spokesperson noted during our conversation that consumers/hobbyists only existed as the primary market for the company early on, while it was still selling wooden kits. By the time the Replicator arrived on the scene in 2012, consumers were no longer its key driver.

Two pillars

There was still a demand for the company’s product, but as MakerBot’s offerings morphed into more mainstream products, interest from outside the hobbyist space overtook that initial core. The company’s new model marks a shift away from that initial consumer focus. It’s an implicit acknowledgement that the category simply didn’t shake out as quickly as the company had expected/hoped.

“The 3D printing industry is fascinating,” says Goshen. “There are so many possibilities that can come out of this, and we know that it will change people’s lives. It will eventually change the way we design products, we teach at schools, and many other things. We were under the assumption of trying to aim for growth patterns, and trying to aim for a specific time and place where everything will meet and I think this trying to pinpoint a point in time and space is not healthy.”

The executive refuses to make predictions for the growth of the consumer space. He remains bullish about its future growth, but addresses it like some distant possibility. It’s a marked change from the company’s early maverick approach, and perhaps more in line with the larger corporate framework in which the company currently exists.

The desktop 3D printing market has matured since those early post-RepRap Wild West days. And for MakerBot, maturity as a company means catering to markets where the need has already been clearly defined, rather than attempting to define a new category.

“Trying to predict need is very hard,” says Goshen. “The question is, ‘How you get it with a wider reach?’ I think the way to do that is to learn to the customer needs, not speculating on it. That’s the difference. I don’t know what the actual needs are, but by growing with the market and by providing the right threshold and adding to it more and more, that’s the right way to go.”

Education is currently the largest play for the company. The company has found success getting its printers into the hands of K-12 educators as a piece of a larger STEM curriculum. The professional category, too, has proven something of a surprise hit, as more companies opt for the affordability and portability of a desktop printer for rapid prototyping over their Xerox machine-sized brethren designed by the likes of Stratasys and 3D Systems.

“We have a very strong offering for the education market,” says Goshen. “We have a reliable, easy‑to‑use product, and we also solved trying to increase the content and curriculum that is available to that space. This is not exactly 3D printing hardware as it was before. It’s looking at the customer needs and trying to figure and to address that wider need. For professionals we have the hardware which helps to prototype, but also CAD to print.”

The company laid out its newfound mission statement at an event at its Brooklyn offices in September – its first major product reveal in some time. MakerBot launched two printers, but for once, the news out of the event wasn’t the hardware. It was a flag planted in the ground by then-CEO Jonathan Jaglom (who held the role for roughly a year and a half), acknowledging that the dream of consumer 3D printing was just that: a dream.

“We have gone through a cultural shift here at MakerBot over the past year, where listening and understanding the needs of our customers are cornerstones of our company,” Jaglom said in a statement tied to the news. “As a result, we’ve gained an in-depth understanding of the wider needs of professionals and educators that has informed our product development process.”

A slice of the pie

“We always talk about the story of wanting to replace a knob on my oven. Everyone tells that story,” explains Tony Buser, an engineer who helps run MakerBot’s Thingiverse database. “Up until now, communities like Thingiverse are really generating all of that content, but I’m hoping, in the future more companies start releasing…Whirlpool releasing replacement parts for their dishwashers. I think that will help, as well.”

Buser is still hopeful for a future where desktop 3D printing is the norm. The ability to print up broken oven knobs and other specific proprietary parts is often floated as the answer to the inevitable question of why a normal consumer would want – let alone need – a 3D printer in the home. And while Thingiverse has transformed into, essentially, a massively useful Wikipedia of 3D printable objects, the reality of ubiquitous at-home 3D printing on demand doesn’t seem any closer than it did when MakerBot was founded nearly a decade ago.

And while accuracy and usability have come a long way since those days, machines like the Replicator still have a long way to go before they’re anywhere near the plug and play operability most consumers expect from home appliances. “People just expect a household object or most like office printers we make, just to work with minimal, minimal intervention. You expect to buy a 3D printer for an office and have it work like your Xerox copier. At the home it’s even more so. You expect to buy that and not have to call up customer service.”

The failure for a true consumer market to materialize has significantly truncated the potential short-term desktop 3D market. In 2012, the company also engendered significant ill will with the maker community when it announced that it would no longer be sharing its hardware and GUI designs, marking a break from the open-source spirit of the RepRap project on which the company was built.

At the time, cofounder Zach Smith also exited MakerBot, stating “I do not support any move that restricts the open nature of the MakerBot hardware, electronics, software, firmware, or other open projects.” The company was also hit with claims of IP theft surrounding its open-source Thingiverse community. For many makers, this was all a bridge too far, causing the MakerBot name to fall out of favor with a hobbyist community that helped foster their growth.

And while there’s still a modestly growing market for desktop 3D printers, MakerBot’s dominance has been shattered by a new crop of super cheap devices, produced by companies like XYZ. The Taiwanese manufacturer has dominated unit sales in the space over the past couple of years with multiple machines priced at under $300 – a fraction of the cost of MakerBot’s $1,200 Replicator Mini. Granted, those machines are far less sophisticated, but it’s an undeniably appealing price tag for those looking to dip their toes in the water.

The manufacturer has also begun making an aggressive push into the education sector that has proven an essential pillar of MakerBot’s current business model. But MakerBot’s approach is once again not dissimilar to Apple, insisting that a more premium experience for students is worth the considerably higher cost of entry.

“If you go to a market, and you bring an immature and unreliable product, you will risk potentially losing the confidence of that market,” Goshen explains. He’s careful not to mention any specific competitor by name, though XYZ is currently the industry’s 800 pound gorilla. “That’s a risk in any industry. Some players in the whatever industry are less sensitive into that. We are very sensitive not to overflow the market, not to oversell and set expectations, which are not met.”

For MakerBot, that means limiting the size and scope of its product line as the company adjusts to life after the implosion of the 3D printing hype cycle. It means curbing the industry’s expectations and its own and settling in for, it hopes, the long haul through careful, measured steps forward.

Printing the future

MakerBot, predictably, still believes that 3D printing will change the world. It’s just no longer interested in projecting the goal posts for when such a revolution occur. The new MakerBot is less flashy and more conventionally corporate than the company that came before it, a byproduct of by acquired by a more industrial-focused parent company and natural ebbing of the 3D printing hype cycle.

Stratasys has thus far made good on its promise of keeping MakerBot operating as its own entity, though the lines have been blurred somewhat between the two brands over the past couple of years. For one thing, executives have bounced back and forth between the two, like Jenny Lawton, who moved from interim MakerBot CEO to Stratasys EVP.

But Goshen says he believes that MakerBot still has value for its industrial printing parent. “I don’t think there are regrets about the purchase,” he explains. “I think we are fully aligned with Stratasys. There is very good communication between me and [Stratasys CEO Levin] and I think we operate very aligned. As I said, MakerBot has its own unique approach, has its own combination of the brand, go to market and the solutions and things.”

Goshen adds that in its current form, the company benefits from a combination of Stratasys’s resources and what he calls “the MakerBot DNA.” What precisely the latter means in the wake of seismic shifts to the company and industry has yet to be determined. It’s an unenviable position. The company that tasked itself with helping to build the future finds itself in the midst of one it couldn’t anticipate.

I don’t think that right now there is a consumer 3D printing successful product offering.

In spite of everything, however, what the company does have is a solid foundation of desktop 3D printing hardware and software, along with IP and other resources from its parent company. And in spite all that has happened, there’s still some cachet to the MakerBot brand among the professionals and educators it now targets.

The next step of MakerBot’s evolution will be a waiting game, as the company works to garner good will among a new generation of builders and designers weaned on its products in the education sector, much like Apple’s K-12 play before it. Through continued and measured tweaks to its platform, perhaps will be much closer to an ideal mainstream product by the time those students graduate.

“We are a leader in this industry,” Goshen remains confident, but still understated. “We are the market leaders. We are, I would say, the largest in that industry. We don’t need to surprise you. You need to understand the growth and understand what is the next level.”

It’s a marked difference from the MakerBot that graced magazine covers promising to change the world. It’s reflected fully and clearly in the quiet speech of the company’s new CEO. The new MakerBot is taking a wait and see approach with regards to future. And hopefully the future will wait for it.