MakerBot Really Wants You To Like Them Again

For the last couple years, a MakerBot press release has generally signaled that more pink slips were going to be heading out to the already shell-shocked employees at their NYC factory. But just last week something that could almost pass as good news came out of the once mighty 3D printer manufacturer, the unveiling of “MakerBot Labs”. A number of mainstream tech sites heralded this as MakerBot’s first steps back into the open source community that launched it nearly a decade ago; signs of a newer and more thoughtful MakerBot.

Reading the announcement for “MakerBot Labs”, you can almost believe it. All the buzz words are there, at least. In fact, if this announcement came from anyone else, in any other field, I’d probably be on board. Sharing knowledge and listening to the community is essential if you want to connect with hackers and makers. But this is MakerBot, and they’ve dug themselves into a very deep hole over the years.

The spectacular fall from grace that MakerBot has experienced, from industry leader to afterthought, makes this hat-in-hand peace offering hard to take seriously. It reads like a company making a last ditch effort to win back the users they were so sure they didn’t need just a few years ago. There is now a whole new generation of 3D printer owners who likely have never even seen a MakerBot printer, and it’s hard to imagine there’s still enough innovation and life in the company to turn that around before they completely fade into obscurity.

MakerBot in 5 Steps

The tale of how MakerBot managed to go from synonymous with desktop 3D printing to “the people who host Thingiverse” is rather interesting. [Brian Benchoff] wrote an excellent history of the company, and Netflix even made a movie about it. But to summarize quickly, the highlights go something like this:

  1. Take open source ideas and make commercial 3D printer
  2. Iterate commercial 3D printer until it becomes market leader
  3. Decide to take market leading open source printer and make it closed source
  4. Sue community members who gave you the ideas for Step 1
  5. Take printer from Steps 2/3 and run it into the ground

Somewhere mixed in there was a corporate takeover, where MakerBot got bought out by the “old guard” industry leaders they originally set out to undercut. They also produced hardware that not only had rampant vendor lock in, but also planned obsolescence. They really have nobody to blame but themselves for their constantly shrinking market share.

But the story of MakerBot is bigger than just 3D printing, it’s an example of how you absolutely should not operate an open source company.

What is Open?

Reading through the MakerBot Labs press release, the very first line tells us all we need to know about this new “innovation”:

MakerBot is proud to announce the arrival of MakerBot Labs, an experimental platform for engineers and developers to create, build, customize, and collaborate on MakerBot 3D printing solutions. It was born out of the feedback from MakerBot’s advanced users looking to tap their innovative spirit and expand their 3D printing experience.

If this sounds like how nearly every other 3D printer company already operates, that’s because it is. Manufacturers like Ultimaker, LulzBot, PrintrBot, and of course Prusa Research all manage to deliver printers that not only make use of the collected knowledge of the open source community, but actively give back. None of these companies need a press release to tell you that the community is invited to experiment and collaborate, because it’s already a given.

MakerBot’s tone deaf statement here reminds me of a recent video from [Thomas Sanladerer], where he asks representatives from different 3D printing companies what open source means to them, and how it’s integrated into their products and business.

The answers [Thomas] gets back are excellent, and show a refreshing understanding of what it means to be “open” in the true sense of the word. You could argue there may have been some selection bias in who [Thomas] interviewed, but on the whole the video showed that open source is alive and well in the minds of some of the industry’s top players.

Which makes this latest effort from MakerBot to regain some tracking in the community appear all the more hollow.

MakerBot Labs

So what exactly is MakerBot Labs? Well, there’s a GitHub repo that allows you to poke around inside the MakerBot proprietary file formats that perhaps 1 in 100 owners of current generation 3D printers has ever even seen, so there’s that. But the true star of the show is the new “Experimental Extruder”, which under the banner “Designed To Be Hacked” describes the game-changing feature that MakerBot has graced us with.

Think about it, really let it settle in. MakerBot, a company that once set the standard for an entire industry to follow, is now advertising the ability to change your hotend nozzle as an “experiment”.

Look at those gloves! This is serious business.

To double down on how little they think of their users, they even uploaded STLs for the obscenely over-sold “Experimental Extruder Jig” to Thingiverse. It is a rectangle. With a smaller rectangle subtracted from the center.

This is after they already encased their hotend in a plastic box to begin with. So now you have a plastic box to hold your plastic box. It’s like one of those Russian nesting dolls, but in the tiniest doll is just the feeling you wasted a lot of money.

Oh, and did I mention that since this new version of the extruder is “Experimental”, that MakerBot will not cover it under their normal warranty? That’s right, if you have the audacity to put a 0.8 mm nozzle on your 3D printer, you are officially persona non grata in the eyes of MakerBot. Interestingly enough, back in 2011 Makerbot used to sell a whole selection of different sized nozzles for their early 3D printers; no lab coat required.

Why Now?

It’s easy to see a press release like this and assume MakerBot is making one final RadioShack-style appeal to the community, one last shot before they’re really in trouble. It could be. But to give credit where credit is due, CEO Nadav Goshen only took the reigns of the company in January, the third person to hold that position since Bre Pettis did his best D. B. Cooper impersonation in 2015.

The wheels of progress turn slowly in any large organization, and perhaps doubly so in one that has gone through so much turmoil in a relatively short amount of time. It could be that it’s taken Goshen these last nine months to start crafting a plan to get MakerBot back into the community’s good graces, and we’re witnessing the first creaking moves of a wheel that’s been rusted up for far too long. Whether it’s the usual marketing department hand-waving or a genuine appeal, this quote from Goshen from the press release certainly hits all the right notes:

After setting high industry standards for what makes a quality and reliable 3D printing experience, we’re introducing this new, more open platform as a direct response to our advanced users calling for greater freedom with materials and software.

Is It Too Late?

Is there still a road back into the hearts and minds of makers for MakerBot after all these years? With stunts like this, it’s hard to see a path forward. MakerBot has lost so much ground to the competition that, short of starting all over with a newly designed and vastly cheaper printer, I can’t imagine who outside of academia would ever give them the time of day.

You could buy two Prusa i3 MK3’s for less than what a MakerBot Replicator+ costs. Open source printers are offering features like multi-material extrusion, high flow hotends, automatic leveling, and filament out sensors, while MakerBot counters by offering a 3D printed block to store your overpriced extruder in.

Jabs at MakerBot aside, of course we would all like to see them return to the open source principles that put them on the map. While the desktop 3D printing market has no shortage of open source success stories, MakerBot’s backing down from their walled garden approach could be the biggest of them all. It would serve as a cautionary tale for other manufacturers; a practical case study in how the open source community can make, and in time perhaps even break, a tech startup.

To be sure, Labs is not the fundamental shift that we would like to see out of MakerBot. But it’s a sign that they haven’t completely forgotten the users who are looking to do more than the bare minimum with their hardware. With any luck, MakerBot will treat Labs not as a destination, but a path forward.

What do you think? With no shortage of hackable printers on the market, what would it take to get a MakerBot back into your lab?

76 thoughts on “MakerBot Really Wants You To Like Them Again

  1. That Tom’s video is really great. It really tells what Open Source is about. I recommend it to anyone that wants to know what Open Source is about. I had to watch it twice (but not twice in a row) just because it was so good. And it also helps that XYZprinting replies are so entertaining (although very much wrong).

    1. I had debated mentioning the responses he got from XYZprinting, especially since they were really so similar to what MB is saying in their Labs announcement. But I thought it prudent to only call out one manufacturer a time.

      Perhaps in the next installment!

    1. “Fool me once, shame on you…. Fool me twice, Shame on me” …. Seriously these companies need to get it through their heads that once you screw over a community you will never get it back.

      I worked for Local Motors for a little white and they basically did the same thing, build up a community that supports you, then crash it into the ground an alienate everyone.

    1. Their new owners are probably trying to salvage a terrible cash-out business move — as they mistakingly thought poor people would suddenly have money to buy 10 year old $40k printers.

      It is called getting screwed in both holes, and the shareholders are not amused.

    2. I work at MakerBot and the marketing department sucks so bad. Everyone and their mother knows it. They dont want to do any social media and the videos all had to not have comments since everyone at the company believes people hate them because of jealousy

  2. Lulzbot is doing it right – STLs for every part, every line of code, everything is on their website. I bought their printer because It is really well designed and reliable. Now I buy their filament because I want to support the company.

    Complete opposite of Makerbot, which has the Yahoo stink of death on them.

    1. “Manufacturers like Ultimaker, LulzBot, PrintrBot, and of course Prusa Research “…
      Exactly. Makerbre was first to take it big to market, but today there are several better printers out there that don’t carry the baggage of those arrogant closed minds. MB has been left in the dust and is structurally too wrong to ever make it back in.
      And (again) I say – “good riddance”. Bre screwed it up and he can go play in the street now.

  3. I don’t get it. Why did Stratasys buy Makerbot in the first place? What was it’s value? They had already ran their name down into the mud. Surely Stratasys already had the manufacturing resources to put out a decent little consumer-grade desktop printer. Why didn’t they just do so?

    They could have made up some new name to sell their consumer grade stuff.. I’ll call it X-Bot for the moment because I don’t feel like putting much thought into the question of what their name would have been. Then they could have marketed it as “X-bot by Stratasys”. That way they could have lent some of their existing name recognition to the new brand without diluting their original Stratasys brand for the 10s-100s of k$ printers.

    I would have thought that burning their money to heat their factory would have been a better use than buying out Makerbot!

    1. Probably to remove a competitor from the market, since Makerbot had a name. I bet they never really wanted their business anyway, but got tired of customers asking why they should pay a 3D printer a few thousand dollars when they could buy one of these cheaper printers instead.

      1. What’s Makerbot’s name worth? That’s like an energy company buying Enron for it’s name or Ford buying the right to name their next car Nova from GM..

        And why remove them as a competitor? They were a dying, nearly dead competitor at a time when 1000 new, lively competitors were coming into their own. How much better did the market look to them after competition from Makerbot was removed? By that logic perhaps Comcast should consider buying AOL or maybe Prodigy or Compuserve because it would eliminate a competitor.

    2. They tried to buy a customer base, then move them upmarket, away from DIY into spendy more profitable closed boxes… kinda like how BMW bought Mini and turned it into a generic douche mobile clone and pissed off all classic mini fans.

    3. Market. They wanted to buy themselves into this new market of cheap printers. As their machines started at 50k with service contracts, they had no clue on how to enter this market quickly, so they bought the market leader.

  4. “What do you think? With no shortage of hackable printers on the market, what would it take to get a MakerBot back into your lab?”

    Something like one of those cable printers we saw last week. Me-too doesn’t work very well, just look at the smartphone market.

  5. The community is still trying to pull the knife that makerbot put there from their backs….. No way they will get a second chance there, they have burned that bridge to the ground. Too bad Colorfabb seems to be jumping on their bandwagon. Hopefully they won’t get burned.

  6. Makerbot is still around? Hmmm.

    Why do programmers get Halloween and Christmas mixed up?
    Because 31 in OCTal is 25 in DECimal.

    (Sorry for the lame joke. I felt it more significant than an on-topic comment).

  7. Tom,
    Thanks for a well written and thoughtful article, some very good stuff here. I appreciate it and also appreciate that you didn’t do what Brian did with his last Makerbot article and say what he essentially said “Bre’s not a bad guy, other people (or documentaries) just paint him that way. I know he’s not bad but I’m not going to release the evidence why, even though I have that evidence”

    These open-source articles are the kinds of articles we need to see, not articles teasing us about info you decided you weren’t going to release before you even mentioned you had it, Brian.

    I’m not name calling or bashing anyone, I’m simply pointing out that teasing about info does nothing to help the community, release it or don’t mention it. If it’s bad info, people can attempt to test it like they did here (another example of something that is helpful to the community):
    but without info to test, it’s similar to vaporware: all talk, no testable evidence.

    Keep up the good work and hopefully you can get an article together with the info from the Local Motors commenter above.

  8. Their only hope is to do something dramatic. Dramatically change their values, their prices and leadership. The infrastructure is there, the brand identity is arguably ok to newbies. This article is inside baseball news directed at engaged makers… whom I love, btw. But consumer 3d printers dont exist yet so when they do some big company w rcoeriencecand deep pockets stands a good chance. I don’t want to believe it’s makerbot but, they have all the pieces.

    In short, they need a new leader, a new vision and to divorce from the company they are tied to… Apple did it and dominated. But they had the beloved leader w the vision willing to make bold moves. And they had the timing, luck and the love of people wanting to be a part of a Cinderella story. Makerbot has none of that. It may be over.

    CEO of Printrbot

    1. Common Brook! Step up and buy Makerbot. PrinterBot + MakerBot = 3D Printing story of the decade.

      Brook Drumm could breathe life back into that dying corpse!

      Ok. Sorry. I confused you with Frankenstein. This could easily birth a monster as well.

      1. I don’t think Printrbot or any other FFF technology company will get the same opportunity to go large scale anytime soon.
        Being CEO also means having to balance whats new and cool with budget realities.

        I never regretted canceling the full-color printer project after watching Markerbot misrepresent the current technology to disappointed consumers.

  9. The only way that this company will survive is to open source every last part of the machine. No proprietary hardware, weird chips, and lack of debugging interfaces that are easy to access (except to those of us with 36 AWG wire and a microscope).

  10. As someone with only passing interest in 3D printers, I’d be interested to hear (politics aside) what the status/quality of their current products is – are they even trying to make decent stuff despite everyone hating them?

    1. If someone manufactured a 3-D printer as stable as a laptop computer, then even a closed-source one would be acceptable to much of the public. If the user doesn’t have to open it up, then it can corner the market. However they aren’t yet stable, and that’s where the problems begin.

      Makerbot makes fine enough printers — “decent stuff”, as you asked. However they make it hard for you to fix them. Since you are as likely to fix theirs as you are to fix anyone else’s, then you’re hurting yourself to buy one. If I have to use some special extruder that will break in a new way and require me to buy a replacement, then I may as well buy something with a less interesting extruder make from hardware store parts.

      If Makerbot wants to overcome its bad name from its mistreatment of its customer base, then it has to make the most reliable printer ever. If I gotta open it up, then I’m merely paying the bad guys when I could be paying the good guys.

    2. We have a Replicator + at work and it is a decent machine. We also have an Afinia & a Form 1 in our engineering dept. The Makerbot is quite fast, and you can monitor the build from your office. We finally have place a high end printer on order and plan a metal printer next year.

      I personally didn’t order the Makerbot (I did recommend the first two based om Mark magazines annual 3d Printer review), but again we have been happy with it so far. As I write this my current print is 90% done.

  11. Wow, really good article. And good comment by Brook, we are resellers of both Makerbots and Printrbots (as well as Lulzbot, Tiertime, Type A Machines and Z-Morph). After we tried the 5th Gens we decided not to sell them, we didn’t want pissed off customers. My channel saleslady is trying to convince us that the new plus machines really are better than the 5th Gens. I offered to pay shipping so we could test drive one for a couple weeks, she never took us up on that or even acknowledged it. FWIW, in 2015 Stratasys lowered the price of the Mojo from $10k to $6k, reportedly Rep 2s were taking all the sales of that machine.

    Jeff Zepp, Owner
    American 3D Printing

  12. I own a MakerBot Replicator Mini and I have had quite a few problems keeping it going including three extruder replacements. MakerBot is very hard to communicate with when there product fails. Seems nobody knows enough to diagnose it over the phone and then charge me 186 dollars for an extruder. Wish I would have bought another brand.

  13. Ummm asking for a friend… if a hypothetical local library got a hypothetical makerbot, hypothetically how much of a scab would a hypothetical person be if they used it, hypothetically.

    1. The greater good to achieve is expanding knowledge and enlightening minds. Your friend should utilize the tools provided to benefit the local community that serves the library. Excite and enthrall minds in the S.T.E.M. And when someone says “Hey can I build one of these 3d printers?” your friend should say “Yes. Here are the names of some great 3d printers that are opensource. l do not recommend this printer, due to x,y, and z.”

  14. This is really a great piece of journalism. I learned a lot about the history of the company. But more importantly, you express great skepticism towards MakerBot’s efforts, but are also open to giving them the benefit of the doubt on their new direction. It’s refreshing to read an author that’s honest about his biases and willing to entertain alternatives. This is something that has died in American journalism.

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