We had a rare opportunity to interview two employees of MakerBot on the record about a lot of issues around not just the new printers, but really all the things that are surrounding the 3D printer that are going on within MakerBot to support the user.
When they dove in, they talked about the fact that just upgrading the printer and solving features wasn’t really enough to support the user overall. Whether you’re a prosumer, an educator, a hobbyist, it doesn’t matter where you’re coming in from. It just wasn’t enough and they had to dive deeper into all of these areas, ecosystem and software and other things, to try and really make a more robust system.
I think that in the world today of 3D printing, as a company, if all you’re doing is creating a 3D printer and shipping it and that’s all you want to do, or maybe also sell some filament, you’re really doing a disservice to the customer or you’re leaving it up to the customer to figure out the rest of it on their own. I think they may not have as much success. I certainly admire what they’re doing at MakerBot. We’re going to speak with Mark Palmer, who is Head of Experience Design at MakerBot, which is more of the hardware side of things in the world of MakerBot.
We’ve spoken to Mark before. There’s a previous episode about it. We really talked more about the industrial design process and thinking about that. This is not a repeat by any means of that conversation, this goes beyond that and where MakerBot is today with all of the things they’re doing around the printer to support the users.
We also have Andrew Askedall joining us for the first time. He’s the Senior Director of Product Design. Now, at MakerBot, he’s more on the software side of things and speaks with that knowledge and experience behind him. We get to hear a lot of different aspects today.
Listen to the podcast here:
3D Printer Software and Hardware Development
Andrew and Mark, thank you so much for joining us today on WTFFF. It’s great to have Mark again, and Andrew, it’s great to have you on the show for the first time.
Thanks for having us, guys.
We thought we’d talk to you guys today because you have so many new initiatives and so many things going on. Talk about how just the design and production of a printer isn’t quite enough to get everything going, to get everybody moving, get everybody buying and using their printer day in and day out. Let’s talk a little bit about some of the new digital products you’re working on?
While looking at the printers, just exactly what you said, just printing every day and having the machine that can put out plastic isn’t the most exciting thing on its own. To me, it’s exciting. I’ll still stare at it even though I’ve been here for three years. But anything we can do to make that workflow faster for engineers and designers is what we’ve been focusing on. MakerBot Print is our brand new software. It’s a V1. It’s not like a re-skin of MakerWare or MakerBot Desktop. MakerBot Desktop was actually a piece of software that’s about three years old, which is a really long time in the 3D printing ecosystem and space. Print was a chance for us to really reset and realign. We’re being able to iterate a lot more quickly on it too. We’ve been trying to push an update every three weeks. We see our adoption numbers of people updating to the latest release is super high. That’s been really beneficial than just buying the printer, getting that whole ecosystem together.
I’ve definitely been using MakerBot Print. I have to admit, I’m still using MakerBot Desktop at times because the MakerBot Print, while I really appreciate a lot of what it’s doing and capable of, it didn’t have, at least in the last update that I’ve been using, as much capability as Desktop. Has that now changed?
We’re releasing a few more updates. I can’t really speak to this too specifically because we test everything, all of our builds, with like gauntlet. We basically test that with hundreds of prints to make sure there’re no problems with the update. We’re aiming to get the feature parity very soon. Any of those little things like Advanced settings and stuff like that will be coming. The great thing about working with engineers and designers who use the printers, the mechanical engineers here, they don’t really varnish their opinions. They’ll come over and be like, “Why doesn’t the raft to model spacing work, or why can’t I slow down these certain layers yet?” The truth is, we’re coming and we’re working on it. But since we’re taking three years of work and condensing that into a year, in a few months we have to really do some horse-trading with what features come first.
That being said, about 10% of our users are using the Advanced Settings. This is almost with the whole industry that we talked to or interviewed. They want to just put their model on the build plate and have it come out from the machine like magic. You and I know that it’s a little more complex than that. There are a lot of settings to make your printer and prints come out even better, depending on the print and printer technology. We’re balancing that ease of use versus that under the hood horse power.
I completely understand the intent there. I think that ease of use is critical, certainly with new users or even, as you were using, engineers who would use it on a regular basis who do not want to spend the time to mess around with Advanced Settings. Personally, I always get to some points with certain models where I’m really trying to push the edge of what can be done, and I need some of those Advanced Settings. I like that you have the option for either.
When we were developing the Rep + and the Mini +, as well as all the digital products, we were using them internally probably over a year leading up to the launch. I think there is a point in the development where everybody was using the old software, MakerBot Desktop, in the development of the Plus printers. It took a little bit of coaxing of everybody to start to move over to print. It did have some really great advantages as far as the workflow goes, which is the key piece that we’re focused on. It didn’t quite have feature parity. What’s going to be great to see is overtime the adoption internally has completely come around. Everybody is on Desktop now. More features are coming online. They’re really exciting. If you look where we were over a year ago and you see where we’re at today, the benefits are clear in the way that people are working with the software internally, even if they realize it or not. It’s been really exciting.
You talked about that collaboration you have between your design teams and your engineer teams and that everybody is printing all the time, which is an interesting model to go after because it’s exactly what you want your customers to follow as well. How has that taught you a lot of things that have informed the design of the new printers and the new software and the new ecosystems?
I’m more definitely of a hobbyist designer. I design a lot of things on Thingiverse. I think designing for FDM is super challenging and also a lot of fun. Like everyone, working on side projects, doing tons of fun things with it, printing Yoda heads, of course. Also, we’re all power users here, which is really good. It helps shape the features that we’re doing. Basically, sometimes I’ll even come on the weekend to work on projects, because we have tons of printers around. I think I’ve figured out the exact ratio of how much work you get done per printer. If I have four printers running in the background, that means I can be working on one idea, iterate it, send like a 30-minute print off, and then work on the next one and get the print off the build plate.
In noticing that, we put multiple build plates in print. It’s being pretty well received, but when you bring in models it spreads out and generates new build plates. It’s almost like if you’re writing a novel, it’s not one page. It takes multiple pages in Microsoft Word to actually tell your story. Being able to have four build plates and keep the software open is really cool because then I can bounce between them. It’s interesting, it’s still even thinking holistically about how print software and printers react. I don’t think anyone has quite nailed it yet. Do we stick with the traditional preview of a 2D print? Or is it something that’s a little more transient, like there’s always a build plate and there’s always something printing on it and then you’re just queuing things up? It really does open some interesting questions.
It feels like a real shift though, between early on being much more of a consumer retail-focused printer to being much more prosumer design flow type of product now. Is that really a mission change for you guys?
I think this is one of the most important features for us, really the backbone of what we’ve just launched with MakerBot Print and other products in the digital ecosystem. It’s all about connecting. It’s like a ubiquitous activity between your printers, the prep experience and maundering both desktop and mobile. Of course, going forward, we want to see people adopt a more progressive way of interacting with printers and having multiple printers.
There’s a lot of focus on things like print time and talk of things like queuing. I think one of the best ways to breakthrough that and to really liberate the designer and their processes is to take the access question out of the picture. The best way to do that is to have multiple printers and then driving them simultaneously becomes a challenge and I think, from our perspective, really an opportunity. It’s less of a serialized way of interacting with the technology and more of a parallel way of interacting with it. If you look at that overtime, what you’ll eventually see is potentially driving types of printers or different types of tools with different materials, all as part of the same workflow process and all towards the same prototyping goal. There are some immediate short term benefits. But in terms of the long term view, this step forward really opens up some great opportunities. It may evolve into something in the next few years that isn’t quite expected today.
I’ve really enjoyed the new mobile application since getting a Replicator Plus. Obviously using it to set up the hardware was one experience. But then, I do find it works a lot better now in terms of monitoring what’s going on in your printer. I’m never honestly used to, on Desktop, use that Monitor function. It wasn’t something that was super important to me. I often would create a file to print on USB flash drive and put it to the printer rather than have it directly connected. Obviously, it wouldn’t be connected all the time, I wouldn’t see it. But now, just on my phone, it’s really easy to check the status of the printer from anywhere, see what’s happening, especially even if I’m printing to file still.
That is a great point. It also goes back into that, it’s not just about the printer. Since we use the printer so much, there’s a lot of, “Wouldn’t it be nice if we had a camera on the printer?” It’s like a baby monitor for your printer. I think the connected experience is super valuable. Even here, we have people sneaker netting the Flash Drives over, but we’re seeing less and less of that and more prints started on mobile, over WiFi or over our Cloud services for remote.
I believe on the Rep +s, more than half of prints are actually started in the software without getting up and putting it on an SD Card, which is liberating to be in your living room and you have your printer in your office at home or your printer in your office at work, and just being able to kick off two prints and know in the next morning that it will be ready. It’s just so cool. You could start one on your boss’ printer and then also in your home printer. If only we had a robot to remove the print, then we would be set.
In using the printers for product development purposes, I think confidence is a big piece. We’re doing everything we can to make this technology as user friendly and predictable and as reliable as possible. But it can still be quirky at times. What I find myself doing with mobile is really just checking my prints periodically while I’m on the go and having a sense of confidence that the prints are either going great, or if there’s an issue, knowing about it ahead of when I need that print to be ready so I can intervene and do something about it. Even if it means coming into the office to fix something. Knowing what’s going on is really important.
One of the things that’s great about our new connected ecosystem is that we have the ability to understand usage patterns a bit better, and therefore we can really optimize and prioritize the things that we develop and the new improvements that we roll out. Understanding when and how people are connecting to the software and how they’re using their printers really gives us the ability to further develop and refine that experience for them.
I think that’s really interesting, that you guys call yourselves power users. But the reality is that there are a lot of newbies adopting your machine. How do you balance your drive with power user, “This feature’s not working, we want to try this, we want to do that.” How do you balance that against what really is driving the new customer, someone new to 3D printing?
I think table stakes for us is that we’re always trying to be the easiest to use in class of professional desktop 3D printers. I think you mentioned on the mobile phone, getting started, we actually tested that with people off the street. We got anonymous testers about six months before the printers were shown to the press. We were assuming that connecting to your printer via the phone and connecting to the internet would be the hardest part because we’re all power users, we understand how to load filament.
Those were some of the most painful things to watch; filament being put in backwards, what’s an extruder. We realized there’s actually a lot more learning that we have to do and that led us back into refining that mobile application. At first, we tried just photos or infographics, like IKEA furniture. Then we actually wound up just filming one of our support tech’s hands actually going through the motions. From the beginning of that, we have most people, out of the box, failing to setup to about 90% success rate and get them going. Giving people that confidence of showing someone to do it.
If you or a teacher or a professional, this shows up on your desk and you really don’t have much experience to it, it can still be a bit intimidating. It is an expensive machine and it’s new to a lot of people. I’ve had testers ask where the paper goes because they assumed it was a 2D printer that also printed in another dimension. It’s true for the Emcor printers but not the FDM or FFF models. It is a constant battle.
It sounds like you’re also capturing a lot of data though, because like you’ve mentioned before, that only 10% of your users use Advanced Settings. You’re capturing a lot of data to support whether or not this is really a valid concern or not.
It always goes back and forth. We have some power users on senior levels and they will sometimes push a little harder. There’s always some horse-trading in what someone wants versus what you want. That’s just something with product management. As you guys, I’m sure, know, working with big clients and things like that. Who’s the loudest voice in the room and who gets their shiny object versus something that will really actually affect a lot of people.
It’s a constant battle. Collaboration sounds like a nice theory, but in practice it’s a lot more complicated. I have to know, what is putting filament in backwards though? What is that, you put it up through the nozzle first? What is backwards? I’m curious.
I’ll be a little more specific. When it gets mounted in the +, it is counter-clockwise. This tester managed to put it in clockwise, which our filaments spools are designed with a little blocker on it to prevent you from doing that because there’s a lot of resistance in it. She just put her shoulder into it and snapped the filament spool and then fed the filament up into the guide tube in a very strange angle. The ironic thing was it still actually pulled through the extruder, but it just made a terrible noise. I guess it wasn’t really a fail. It’s a testament to improve drive gear in the SE +. That filament was at a 90 degree angle. It was pretty impressive.
Now I understand. They put the filament spool on backwards. That makes sense.
I think the notion of a power user is interesting. It’s something that we think about quite a bit. You could easily say that somebody who has a lot of experience with 3D printing professionally and maybe has used a Dimension or some higher end system or even a desktop printer for a lot of years is a power user. They might have the knowledge of how the printer works and so on. It’s still something that we want to try to cognitively offload from them in their day-to-day.
Anything we can do to make the software easier to use or let layers of complexity reveal themselves overtime or different depths in the software is helpful. Just letting the designer or engineer focus on their work and making printing as seamless and transparent as it can possibly be.
I think that’s an interesting idea. You start out new and you want it really simple because you want it new. You hit in power user status and then you go beyond and you go, “I don’t want to be doing this stuff anymore. This is repetitive. I want it to be simple again.” You go full circle with that.
Everybody in the engineering team knows intimately how the printer works inside and out. But there are things they just don’t want to have to deal with because, at the end of the day, they’ve got to get their work done. Printing is a tool, just like a pair of dial calipers or a pen, for instance. It’s just got to work, even if you don’t have to take the pen apart to clean it and fix it so that it writes well, you don’t want to have to do that all the time.
When you think about it, it’s got to be really difficult to try to please everybody, from the new user who’s just starting out, to professional design and engineering teams that need to communicate effectively with each other and move a product development process forward, to students in academic settings that are learning. How do you reconcile that? Do you really try to please everybody?
We’re trying to please as many users as possible with the resources that we have at hand. It is quite difficult, but since we’re all under one roof, all of our developers and engineers and they’re people using the software. Also, our interns, our office assistants, they’re all printing constantly. It’s like a battle of storage here with how many prints we have going. I think that really does help, because there are those friction points where we’re like sandpaper, and you will feel those if you keep going over and over again, but eventually it will smooth itself out.
I would love to be a fly on the wall and see how many prints are kicking around in your office. Are you tripping over them?
We have the Z18, so there are some big prints going on. At my house, I have a four foot tall Codsworth from Fallout that I’ve printed out, and my wife loves it. It’s the best.
Speaking of getting people to print every day, what are some initiatives that you’re doing to really help spur that? I think that’s the biggest problem for a lot of us that it’s not our day job. The printer is sitting there and we’re a little guilty, we spent so much money and we want it to be printing and we wish we could get to it but we just don’t have enough time to design. What do you guys doing to help that move along?
I think Drew was on a podcast earlier, our education guy, and Thingiverse, the amount content on there, I think there are several million designs on there. There’s just so much useful stuff to go through. Even getting people out of that mindset, that designing for 3D is really hard or it’s not worth my time. “This hinge is broken,” instead of buying the part at Home Depot that had to be manufactured overseas and then built here and then market it and then sold to me, maybe I’ll just try to fix it myself. But there’s always a lot of push on the Thingiverse side. There are just so many amazing things. I can see this coming. There’s a point where you could not not have your printer running. There’s too much stuff that people are designing that you want.
I think on the professional side, a lot of people have come up understanding 3D printing as something that’s a little bit exotic and it’s tucked away and you have access to it but you’ve got to do it through some other systems. It’s one step removed from your direct process and designing. Obviously, desktop printing starts to crack that notion a little bit. They bring it closer to where the design work is happening. I think our long term view is that the closer we can really get the printer to the person using it and reduce the lag and them wanting to print something and actually getting it in-hand, the more we can collapse the time chain or the sequence of events, the more it becomes an indispensable tool, to use the dial caliper concept again. It just has to support the work in a way that shifts the paradigm in the way you perceive the technology.
I think things like running multiple printers start to collapse the time crunch and definitely open up bandwidth in a team. Speeding up the workflow goes a long way as well. Improvements in print time, obviously. Making the printers more livable too, working on reducing the noise, environmental disturbances, all those things encourage you to interact with the technology differently and more repeatedly. It helps it disappear in the process.
We’re hopeful that as adoption of 3D design and learning and education around design and technology keeps ramping up and as the printers get more refined and the way you use them becomes more refined, all those things start to converge at a point where printing just happens a lot more frequently and a lot more seamlessly.
Also, professionals and educators and stuff, when they go home, they usually also have a 3D printer. There’s something when you use it and you experience it. It’s almost like Promethean, the power just to create things out of thin air. You see this on YouTube or in Thingiverse or on Reddit even, the people who start to get into 3D printing, it’s a nice slope. You see people get one printer, then get two and then three. I think more exposure really helps, then you just understand how great it is and all the things you can do with your machine.
They must be some serious power users. Getting two or three at home. Probably mostly single guys. I don’t know if your spouse would be all in to converting that guest bedroom into a printer farm. Maybe some people do it.
I’m an outlier, I have that.
We have a mini print firm here but it’s dormant, honestly, most of the time. This is going to come across as a little snobbish, but after you’ve printed a bunch of things on Thingiverse and then you see what you can do and you’re capable of doing, especially if you’re good at the design side of things, then it’s no longer satisfying to just download designs and print them or download them and make minor modifications and print them. Then it’s a time gap of just not having enough time in the day to actually spend doing the designs that are in your head. That’s really the biggest area, I think, we’re struggling right now. There just isn’t enough time in the day to do the design part of what we want to do. It’s not about the printers. We feel the printers are fine in terms of speed and time, and we run them 24 hours when we run them anyway.
I find myself bumping into that recently. I’ve been trying to take on some more projects. I just finished one recently where I used Onshape to model something. It took me a couple of weeks to build this thing. I think what occurred to me with something like Onshape is it’s a Cloud-based modeling program. The access to it is ubiquitous. I was working on stuff, I’d work with it. I’d go home and just open the browser and there’s the work again. It took some friction out of the process there.
I have a long commute, so I found myself on a train doing something. Of course it’s a little bit difficult to get into it and engage with the software deeply in your phone. But I can spin the model around and think about some things and take some notes. That hit me as, “I’ve got all this time in the day that I can’t really use.” I can’t use that time to use my laptop or a big computer. Maybe I would have sketched during that time. Now, I can access this piece of technology through my phone and do some modeling on the go. I don’t know where that’s going to go, but there’s something really intriguing about it.
I can see there being some aspects of model creation and manipulation and preparation and things like that that you could do mobilely to take advantage of that time. I agree, it’s hard. We lived up in Providence, Rhode Island and we’d have to go to Manhattan for a meeting and we’d take the train down and have a few hours on the train to concentrate and work. Even in that train environment, it’s constantly shaking back and forth a bit. It’s not the best environment for precise work. I don’t think I worked at my best doing that. But I still, like you said, want to make use of what would otherwise be downtime.
I feel the same way. I used it as a little bit of an excuse. It also feels silly to whip out a laptop on a train. The phone breaks that barrier. It’s hard to work in a train or a car. I’m standing on the train, and next to me, there was a guy in a Surface tablet doing this off the wall, fully rendered comic book illustration. I couldn’t believe it. He was just banging this thing out on his commute. It guilted me a little bit. It definitely changed my perspective. It’s possible.
It is getting more possible. I think apps are getting more sophisticated and developers of the user interface for those apps are coming up with more and more ways to be able to do more precise work or at least to have more features and functions than they used to. I’ve just been testing out, for another review of a software, this new CAD app called Morphi or Morphi app. It’s only available for iOS and Mac operating systems right now. They say Windows and Android are coming. I was really impressed in testing this out. It’s meant to be a gateway CAD program for more of the beginner, but it goes far beyond what a typical Tinkercad can do if you’re a new user. You don’t have a lot of those same limitations. It is a touch screen interface. It’s made to be used that way. It really impressed me. I think things like that are coming and will make it easier to do more on the go.
I think there’s a general theme in what we’re talking about. The ability as a creative user or professional to tap into time in your day that you wouldn’t be normally be able to use for design. Designing things in the go with the mobile CAD program is one thing. Then I think there’s also a parallel into printing throughout the day. Where you may have previously printed in the evenings, on your way out the door at work, now you can have the ability with a desktop printer or multiples to print during the day and capitalize on that time that may not have been previously accessible before. There’s something to that, it’s evolving.
All you need to do is get in your home printer farm, you need to get your child to remove prints for you. It’s easily trainable and it gets them excited. If you promise them print time and design time later, they are more than happy to help you out, and then you can be productive all day long.
That’s good to know. I should start having kids for that reason.
Let’s talk a little bit about some of the education initiatives you guys have going on. There are some new things that have just been announced recently.
We just launched our new program that’s focused on teachers and promoting teachers as ambassadors of 3D printing and technology. The MakerBot Educators Program is really an extension of the work we did earlier this year around Thingiverse Education. We’re basically trying to build the right conduit and backbone for a lot of the goals that teachers have had all along to become more successful. Thingiverse Education gives a platform to not just share the content but what to do with the content. Then, MakerBot Educators Program helps promote teachers who are doing great things with those tools and really getting the word out and setting a great example for how to leverage the technology.
Thingiverse Education has been really successful so far. I think we’ve got over 200 lesson plans on there now. We’re getting great feedback. We’re just seeing it grow. We’re excited to see where it goes. I think one of the things that’s always interesting for us and we’re eager to see bloom as we go forward is how the conduit looks between things happening in education and things happening in the professional design world. We see kids doing amazing things, learning about design at an early age. To see what they’re going to be doing in a couple of years if they go on to become professional designers is going to be really humbling. It will make some of us nervous. I don’t know when exactly that point will happen. Maybe it’s ten years out where kids that are using a printer now in third grade start to approach college or a professional usage. But there’s something really cool that’s going to happen there.
If you connect that to what’s happening with some of the things that our parent company, Stratasys, is doing with additive manufacturing, there’s something really interesting. Essentially, you could send an STL file to your MakerBot Mini + in a classroom and you can also send that STL file to a $2 million additive manufacturing system in a factory. As the design knowledge grows, it will be really great to see what some of the kids coming up with it do in the future.
I totally agree, but for right now, there’s a huge design gap. There’s a significant talent gap. Companies like GE and others are developing their own internal training programs and everything. We’re really not seeing that happening in the gen role industrial design profession. We’re certainly not seeing that in a lot of more of the professional level where you’re not within a large corporation.
I think it’s going to take time. I think it’s difficult in the design education world for people to spend a lot of time teaching design for additive manufacturing as a mass production method without having a real mainstream production method in place. I think we’re on a growth path right now with the high end systems, and Stratasys is building to eventually get there. But until that becomes a little bit more common, it’s going to be difficult to spend time teaching about it.
I think one of the challenges is that the software packages that we use today to design are still anchored in somewhat of an industrial revolution era, cutting and chamfering and fielding and all these things that echo what machines of the past have been able to output. I think we’re on a slow steady curve towards this future state where the CAD tools get better, they get easier to use, doing complex exotic things with them becomes easier, and then having output methods that can capitalize on that. It’s just going to take some time.
It’s also hard because in the education system, whether it’s in college educations or younger educations, we don’t really have the kind of model for education that is required here. It’s more of an apprenticeship style training. You have to learn by doing. The reason why we can create products that are efficient and can be sold at Target and Walmart and those kinds of places is because we’ve been doing it so long. We understand where to cut in that 5% box size change and being able to make your product 5% smaller means 60% savings in landing cost. Those kinds of things, you can’t teach them in the traditional model. You have to cross-functionally teach them.
I completely agree. Exposure to the technology really helps. You learn by doing. I think by having a lot of 3D printers in the classroom, whether it’s K through 12 or through college, it really allows them to see what they can actually build with the technology. The other thing too is I think augmenting existing classes. Some people get these 3D printers and are like, “I’m going to make a new curriculum” and they get worked up because teachers, we all know, are very busy and have a lot on their plate. My 3D Design class in college, we would use clay and things like that. Just slightly modifying it and bringing the 3D printing into it, it will allow you to think differently versus manufacturing.
That’s the great part about the future. It will be second nature for them.
I am so jealous of kids these days. Just having some contextual awareness of the technology and how it complements other ways of designing and building I think is really important. Just like not everybody is super deeply versed in the ins and outs of certain manufacturing processes, like investment casting, I don’t know that every student needs to know the ins and outs of really deep additive manufacturing technology, but they have to know how to apply it. I think it makes sense still in the future that a bulk of the time spent in design school is focused on understanding how to see things and solve problems and work through challenges. Knowing enough about the technology to apply it successfully but not really necessarily master every one.
I think that’s great. It’s occurred to me there’s just so much that you guys are doing beyond the printer. There’s really a lot to it. I think if you’re any other company out there considering creating a new printer, I think maybe that’s just step one of a hundred of things that maybe you ought to be considering. You really are to be doing a lot to support different kinds of users out there, whether education, profession, software, prototyping, whatever. There’s a lot to it. It’s eye opening to me. Thank you guys so much for coming on the show and sharing with us your latest thoughts.
Thanks for having us. Always a good time.
3D Printer Software and Hardware Development – Final Thoughts
I think it’s really an interesting idea to think about, that a multi-printer environment is what they want to go for. That says an emphasis in the prosumer world and in education, you can clearly see that. But are hobbyists and home users really going to have multi-environments? Certainly, a lot of hobbyists, weekend warriors in the 3D printing world, most of them probably have families, have kids, they have other responsibilities. Can you really justify having three or four plus 3D printers. I’m sure you can justify having one, maybe two for different functions. Is the multi-printer aspects of what they’re doing at MakerBot, the true benefits that their software and workflow is meant to help in that regard, really applicable to the home user? I think it’s applicable to the educational environment where you may have several printers and a farm there, and certainly in the professional environment. I don’t know if it really applies as much there. I guess, I just don’t see that being practical for a lot of home users.
I think it’s admirable to try to design a printer that is basically used all day, all the time, every weekend. We always try that. One of our ultimate goals, something that’s been a mission throughout every iteration of our product design business that we’ve come in, every mission, it’s about products getting bought and used again and again. When you’ve bought a printer and it sits around the shelf and it’s not used, to me that’s a travesty. It says you did something wrong, not necessarily that somebody chose the wrong printer. Maybe it was marketed wrong and they chose the printer because it was featured in Make Magazine and it was great but it really wasn’t a good fit for them. There’s something wrong in the buying process that you’re not screening through that. It can happen in all sorts of areas of it, that there’s some mismatch there. But that’s such a shame. How can we get people printing?
It is the hallmark of a great product that gets bought and used again and again. 3D printers, I think, are very much for home users, like sewing machines. Your sewing machine sits in the closet maybe eleven and a half months out of a year and it comes out for a week or two over the course of a year, in general as a hobbyist. Now, some people are serious quilters and they’re into it, and some people are hyper users and are going to use it a lot more. But the vast majority of sewing machines sit unused a lot of the time.
Now, our 3D printers, we’ve got two of them here, when they get used, they’re used 24/7 for a couple of months at a time when we’re in that mode. At other times, in order to design really good models that are worth printing and worth showcasing, it takes a lot of time. It’s not our full-time job to do that right now. There are times where a month or two goes by and the printers are sitting here and not doing much. I don’t think that’s a fault of the printer or the design of it or their ecosystem necessarily. I think it’s more a function of us as a user.
But, sewing machines are a few hundred dollars. This printer is a couple of thousand dollars. There are a couple of thousand-dollar sewing machines, but the people who use those are serious quilters and they have them set up all the time. They’re serious seamstresses. They use them all the time. That’s not the printer you buy if it’s just, “I’m going to hem some pants.” That’s where the mismatch is. If it’s not right for you, you need to know that. If it is right for you, then great. Somehow in the marketing and buying process, you have to filter through that as well.
That’s one of the reasons why we do our reviews the way we do. In the review episode, you’ll hear them they say about first run experience, FRE. That I think is one of the most critical factors. We know this from designing chairs. People will go buy and they’ll sit in all the chairs in Staples. They’ll go down the row and sit in the chair and sit in another chair. They will be like, “This one feels comfortable,” and they’ll take it home. The chair that feels the most comfortable on the floor at that moment will likely be the least comfortable when you get it home. But how do you educate a consumer on that? How do you educate someone in buying that? That may be the same exact thing that happens here.
The printer that has best first run experience may not be the best printer for you in the long run. That’s really where you need to dive deeper into understanding. What is this ecosystem? What is this print program? Is this what I want? Do I want to have this mobile application? When you start to think about all of those things in terms of the experience you want from a printer, then maybe you’ll be able to make some more informed decisions about choosing one.
They certainly hit on a formula that works really well when you have this high print multi-printer uses or you have a high reliability need in an environment, such as in education where you just need these things to run because your class is at this time of day and if it’s not running, we’re in trouble. You want those things. They’ve really done a great job at dialing in those user-important items. They’re paying a lot of attention to those really fine details that make a big difference in experience that way, and I appreciate that. I think they’re to be certainly recognized for that.
While I thoroughly enjoyed that interview, and I enjoyed talking with Andrew and Mark and hearing everything that they had to say, there was something there throughout that entire interview that I kept thinking as I’m hearing the way they’re talking about their customers and the ways in which they’re trying to help their customers. What I heard from them, they seem to be speaking from a perspective of a company that really believes that their products are meant more for education and prototypes than they are for end-use products.
If you noticed, Mark at one point was talking about, “You can make a test and use it in your design process and iterate on this desktop 3D printer and then prepare it to be run on a $2 million additive manufacturing machine that maybe Stratasys is more working on, their parent company. I wonder if that’s an influence of the parent company where they have commercial machines that are meant for true “additive manufacturing” versus MakerBot that maybe their parent company has put them in the box of prototype and education.
When they were talking about the design process, design training, they clearly said that the additive manufacturing for FDM is not defined yet. I think that’s scary. We are seeing it though, in little pockets of things, like with Weave and Feetz. We’ve been hearing about other types of products that are coming up that are being done, some eyewear and other things like that. I really think that to not have that manufacturing piece defined is actually a disservice to the industrial designer and the prosumer customer that they have there. The reality is that if we can design anything with any form and any shape in an additive method, and the software is not supportive of that, the software is still designed for old world technology and old world manufacturing. The manufacturing process isn’t defined so we don’t know where we can cut cost, save time, do all of the things that make us design for manufacturing, which is what you and I practice. There really isn’t a way to get it to that stage of which we are doing on demand products.
As one company, MakerBot, and then maybe the bigger company, the umbrella of Stratasys that is the parent company, I can understand that mission and intent and focus. This episode is really quite a bit of a contrast in many ways to some other ones we’ve done recently, especially with Feetz and Jump Start CSR and some of these other companies that are really working on FFF end-use final product manufacturing, not just prototyping. That’s been very exciting to me in a lot of these recent interviews. While I was no less excited talking with these gentlemen today, I think, is there a part of the market that they’re not addressing or conceding to other players or just ignoring, really?
But maybe that that’s their place. I think that if Stratasys could have figured out on demand manufacturing, they would have done it already. They certainly have had long enough. Are they conceding it as well? Are they figuring it out? If they’re not, then this is a wide open arena.
I thoroughly enjoyed the conversation and I love the view of a power user going from needing simplicity when you’re a newbie, getting to be power user and then demanding simplicity at the other side of it because you don’t want to keep doing those anymore. I love that idea of that being a circle. We think of the simplicity being more for the newbie than the experienced person. But there may be a place for it. They’ve been working on this for quite some time, both of them have three to four years with MakerBot. When you look at that, you think about the amount of things you know you don’t really need to know. Do users really need to know this? If they don’t really need to know it, then why are we making it a complication? Let’s simplify it. In order to get to simplicity, you almost have to push through having complexity. Simplicity is actually the hardest thing to design. I think it is harder to make something simple. It’s much easier to keep adding more features and benefits and cramming in functions. That’s why you have certain electronic devices that have every little setting in the world and they’re so hard to use.
We see companies like Voodoo Manufacturing, who’s an end-use product manufacturer of FFF, and they’re using MakerBot 3D printers. Certainly, people are doing it. We’re doing it with some of the things that we do. It’s just interesting to see their perspective. I think they’re just waiting for it to be defined and then, will they make their ecosystem and their whole community and how they work work for it? I guarantee you, they probably will support that. It’s certainly something that’s of importance.
I think there’s more of a focus certainly in the prototype world right now for them and the educational world, which makes a lot of sense. I do agree with what Mark says. In ten years, the kids that are using these printers, even our own kids who are using these printers, what are they going to be making? It’s going to be amazing and I can’t wait to see it. All the more reason, because of the forms that they’re going to create and the ability that they know they have. They’ll just be really frustrated with the manufacturing process if it doesn’t catch up. “Why can’t it do this? This is ridiculous.”
I really hope that we can push that earlier than that. Having good machines to work from and good companies who are working really hard on the whole process makes everything a difference. I’d like to thank them for being so open and sharing all that information with us. I hope you all enjoyed that too. This is really a look under the hood or peeling back the curtain a little bit on this company, that whether you love them or not, they are a leader, no question, in the desktop 3D printing industry. It’s always great to be able to get some insight from them on WTFFF.
If you have anything or want to find links to Mark and Andrew or anything else we spoke about in this podcast, you can find that on 3DStartPoint.com. We always look for your messages and your shares and other things that you’d like for us to know, at @3DStartPoint on Facebook.
- Mark Palmer
- Andrew Askedall
- MakerBot Print
- MakerBot Desktop
- MakerBot Educators Program
- Thingiverse Education
- Jump Start CSR
- Voodoo Manufacturing
About Mark Palmer
Mark Palmer is MakerBot’s Former Head of Experience Design and currently resides in Queens, NY. Previous to MakerBot, Mark worked for Motorola for 8 years where he led the design of rugged mobile devices for public safety and industrial workers, and developed his skills in digital design and prototyping methods. In 2014 Mark joined MakerBot to lead industrial design efforts.
About Andrew Askedall
Andrew has been making things at MakerBot for the past several years. Currently he is the Senior Director of Product Design, working on all things digital. He is also an avid Thingiverse user and designed the most widely downloaded 3D printable Millennium Falcon.
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