MakerBot attempts to embrace the open-source community with its new Labs platform

The topic of open source has been a touchy one for MakerBot over the past decade. The one-time 3D-printing darling was the subject of some serious smack talk among the maker community when it stopped disclosing machine design in 2012 — a departure from the company’s roots as in the open-source Rep-Rap community.

Announced this week, MakerBot Labs doesn’t mark a full return to those roots, but it does find the company carving out a niche for the DIY community that was once a driving force in its rapid growth.

“I understand the history,” CEO Nadav Goshen told TechCrunch during a phone call this week, “This is one step in the direction. It’s a step to understand that there are limitations to openness. Openness for us doesn’t mean we have to compromise on quality or ease of use. We’re trying to take responsibility for both.”

Goshen became CEO earlier this year, the third position to take the position since co-founder Bre Pettis took his leave in 2015. In a lengthy conversation with TechCrunch earlier this year, the executive outlined the company’s new business model, which is primarily focused on the educational market, with professionals in need of prototyping taking the No. 2 spot.

Over the past several years, hobbyists have trickled down into third place, with many departing for more DIY-friendly platforms. In recent years, the company has focused its efforts on making its products more user-friendly, arguably further alienating makers in the process.

“Many small factors need to be tuned together to provide an optimal experience,” says Goshen. “In that way, you do need to have a better closed-loop environment. We are not compromising on that. I think some players in the industry are providing a platform, but giving the heavy lifting of tuning to the community. If we want 3D printing to have wider reach, we need to make sure as an industry that you open the box and it works reliably and you don’t need to do anything about that.”

MakerBot Labs is an attempt to walk that line. The platform offers access to previously unavailable APIs for MakerBot systems through a forum and GitHub page. In fact, the company is looking to build a whole community of makers around the forums and will be helping drive that growth with the introduction of some “experimental” hardware. First up is the Experimental Extruder, which offers interchangeable nozzles and different print modes. It’s not exactly a proper 3D-printer hack, but it does point to a company looking to shake things up a bit.

However, Goshen is quick to point out that Labs shouldn’t be regarded as a crowdsourcing opportunity for MakerBot. “We have our own R&D resources. We have an extensive team for product development here. The mindset for [MakerBot Labs] was to cater to users who want to have a more open and hands-on experience. It’s not an R&D path for us.”