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Today, Tracy is going to interview Tom about his visit to MakerBot. They talk about the work environment at MakerBot, what kind of a workplace it is and how things are set up. Tom also discloses an announcement from MakerBot that is just being released today, March 20th. They discuss the new developments that the company are focusing on as well.
Listen to the podcast here:
MakerBot, Behind The Scenes
Today, I’m going to interview Tom. Tom went to MakerBot and he got to go behind the scenes at MakerBot in Brooklyn. I’m going to ask him some questions about his trip.
It was a really fun trip. We certainly talk about with MakerBot once in a while. Their PR people send us information when there’s something new.
We have a printer we’ve been reviewing.
We interview some people there from time to time. Why? Because they make themselves available. We will interview anybody from any company, but MakerBot has been very open, forthcoming and participating in things. We’re trying to bring you as much information as we can. In a recent interview, which hasn’t aired yet, I think it airs in a week or two, after that conversation we said, “Hey, I’m coming to New York.” They said, “If you’re in New York, come by and see us and we’ll give you the tour and show you behind the scenes.” “Hey, why not? Let’s do that.”
We got to do that recently with Wiivv Wearables and that was fantastic as well. Companies just need to reach out. You don’t realize how easy it is to get us to talk to you, to come see your facility and to review your product. It’s that way across the board, I hear this all the time cause I lectured and talk at a lot of entrepreneur conferences, and get this whiny thing about how hard PR is today and how hard it is to get attention and I’m like, “You’re not trying that hard.” Just ask. Go on LinkedIn if you don’t know them, connect to them, ask. I don’t think we’ve ever turned anyone down. There’s been very, very few and it was for really just not a right fit reason, like you just weren’t perfect fit for our audience, which would be a waste of your time anyway. We try to be really clear about that.
There really isn’t any reason to turn someone down, if they’re new and they’re starting up, we want to be on the cutting edge and find out what’s new. You don’t have to be established. If you’re established we want to hear where you’re going and what you’re doing and how things are changing. All in all I think that it is a sign of a more sophisticated and established company, that they have people who do reach out to us. There’s no excuse for all the other businesses out there to not do that to anyone that’s relevant for them as well. Invite someone on a tour, what a great way to somebody to talk about your product for free?
I’m curious, because the only time I’ve ever seen MakerBot’s facility is the little things you see on the videos they happen to run on YouTube and other places or on Print the Legend. What was it like to walk in there? What did it feel like? What was the facility like? Did it have that cool vibe?
It did have a cool vibe. We’re not corporate employees, it’s been a long time since either of us was, and it was a very different time. We all hear about environments like Google and places like this that’s sort of this young hip vibe. When I walked into MakerBot, immediately it have that kind of ambiance of a cool hip vibe. Their reception station and what’s behind it is, this LED lit up, MakerBot sign, as you enter with a Pool table and Ping-Pong table in the background in this big room right behind the reception desk. It felt like it’s a fun environment and had that youthful techy kind of vibe. From what I’ve seen and other things, maybe Google is a bit more extreme in that direction. But MakerBot definitely felt like it was in that same vain.
Cool, I’m glad to hear that. It sounds really interesting. What about the rest of the organization? What was the organization like? Were they separated into departments? How did it work?
They have the entire floor of this building in Brooklyn, 21st floor of I think it’s One MetroTech Center. It actually is the same space that they moved into. If you’ve seen the movie Print the Legend, they started out as a much smaller company with just three of four of them in not a very commercial office space. Then at one point as they got bigger they moved in to a bigger space. This is the same space, so that reception station you can see on that movie and the environment is exactly the same. You sort of do a loop around the whole floor, a circuit. You go through different departments. It’s an open floor plan, there’s not very many closed offices, really I think maybe only conference rooms and the 3D print labs where they have hundreds of 3D printers running all the time are really closed rooms. Other than that and the conference rooms, it’s pretty open. You have different departments. You walk around; you’ve got your sales team that’s taking sales calls. You’ve got the customer service people that you call. This I was actually a little surprised and impressed with, that when you call MakerBot for customer service, you’re not getting somebody in another country that’s just in the call center. You’re actually getting people that are right there on the floor.
24 hours a day?
I don’t think they’re open 24 hours. I think you have to call tech support between certain hours of the day. They may be extended hours because East Coast to West Coast, but I don’t think its 24 hours a day. But you’re calling people at MakerBot. So if you have a question and they don’t really have an answer, they are going to be able to go get help from somebody right there who knows more than they do. I like that aspect of it.
What company was it that their customer service, where they don’t have phones? There was this one company where you called in and they’re like, “I’m sorry but I can’t reach this person by phone. We can only send them emails.” I can’t remember, it was like a software company.
That happened, where their only way of communicating internally with other people was to email another department. They admitted that they could’ve walked up and gone to the next room but they’re not really allowed to.
Which is a weird culture, obviously here they’re encouraged to do that. They’re encouraged to get help.
I don’t really remember. It’s been a long time since I’ve ever called MakerBot customer support and maybe they’re doing it differently now than in the past, but my point is they’re right there. They weren’t using cheap labor in another country. For what that’s worth. Continuing around, you come across the software group, which are people that are working just to advance all their software. I think that’s a big effort for MakerBot right now. This year in particular is their MakerBot Print software which is new, they used to have MakerBot Desktop and they’ve migrated to MakerBot print for new capabilities and modern stuff. Software is a big focus. Actually they have an announcement that today, the day this is airing, March 16th, that we’re allowed to share with all of our listeners. You’re hearing just it as soon as anybody else is in the industry. We weren’t allowed to talk about it till the 16th.
They’ve been doing a great deal of research into infill and different kinds of infill. For the purpose of, not only achieving better quality prints, but speeding up those prints. Because it takes a long time, especially if you have a tall print, to print all the infill. They’ve been working on something called the Minfill. I don’t actually know if that’s what it’s going to be called in the software.
This Minfill, it’s incredible. There are lots of different patterns and things they’re doing but it’s interesting because it has less of a geometric order than you would expect. There are pros and cons to it. A traditional infill, let’s say, you’re going up in the Z-axis vertically. Infill gives strength to the side walls, your perimeters of your part. Minfill, a lot of times there’s very little contact with the outer walls. Certain kinds of models are going to be worked better on than others. It depends on what you’re doing. Let’s say you do three or four shells on the outside, you’ve got a pretty thick perimeter wall but you just need something to help you form the top of your model and you want the minimum possible, then you might consider Minfill.
This is what I learned, MakerBot is really working hard on their slicing software and infill in particular to really improve the user experience and the capability. I think they’ve been highly criticized for in the past of having their desktop software that didn’t allow users to make certain changes to the parameters or you had to be a very advanced user to either hack it or to find a way to change it. They’re trying to provide more and more options and they’re listening to their community of users, which I was also surprised to learn. They shared the breakdown of how they see their market, which is 60% education and 30% prosumers, professionals who are using them for prototype and whatnot, and only 10% consumer, that’s how they see it. They continue trying to advance all of those users and provide things for all of them, but you can imagine education and professionals are a bigger focus for them because that’s where a lot of the market is. This Minfill I think has a lot to do with, especially that prosumer customer, in getting speed and being able to achieve prints that you need without all that. Minfill is the big announcement going on there.
Continuing in software, like I said, software development is a big focus this year. They have new hardware products they are developing but they didn’t even share that with me because that’s for later in the year in 2018. I’m dying to know what’s coming and trying to pry it out of them but you could only get them to say so much. Hardware then too, you couldn’t believe, they have their engineering department and there were like an electrical engineering department too. All of this different meters testing electrical consumption, electrical flow, all sorts of different things about new products they are developing and also I think some of their existing products, always trying to make improvements.
They had their design department for the machines and products themselves. Then they have departments that are doing nothing but testing prints. They had two big labs or printer farms, if you will, with not just the new printers but even their older printers that are just running prints all the time. It was quite a sight to see. Racks of 3D printers. We have our printers set up and we’ve got our filament hanging above the shelves on the wall. We don’t put filament on the filament drawer, we just pull down filament and stick it in the extruder. It’s because you don’t want to have to mess with it. I don’t us the drawer that’s in the back of the MakerBot. Truth be told, neither do they. I have a picture of that.
In these printer farms, they have this steel racks and they’ve rigged up this, it was some kind of hardware, places they stick a spool that’s completely separate from the printer and they’re just pulling the filament down and putting it into the extruder. Even they do like we do. I can imagine if you are single or user single printer in a home environment, maybe you do want to use the drawer because it’s certainly nice and neat and compact. But you certainly don’t need to.
It sounds to me like they have silo focus so like everyone is doing their own little thing and you’ve got each little engineer working on each little thing, there’s a section of it. Is that how it’s really working like that?
What was really impressive is they really have a lot of significant departments and a lot of people there. I think there must have been 120 people there on that floor, my estimate. I didn’t actually ask them how many employees they have so don’t hold me to this, but it was easily 100-120 people there in all these different departments.
That’s after the 30% reduction in workforce, right?
They recently cut a bunch of jobs. I actually asked them about that and there’s no official word on why that was. Obviously they’re right sizing their staff for their needs, that must be what they’re doing and a lot of speculation as to why. I don’t get the sense that the company is in trouble or going away anytime soon. I think that’s the natural reaction when somebody lays off like 30% of their workforce.
They’ve laid off a lot more at the top. There was like a little upper management heavy there and that’s where they seem to have laid off from some of the articles that I’ve read. That would be more of a right sizing and reorganizing your company and getting you’re balance sheet in a better place.
Certainly. Any good company is going to look at their overhead in proportion to the business that they’re doing and where they are putting their emphasis on their manpower. I think they’re doing the same thing. Initially, I heard that and like, “They’re in trouble,” that was my first thought.
It certainly didn’t look like there was a bunch of empty desks or anything when you’re there?
They’ve got some room to grow now certainly, but it didn’t look like a ghost town either. There’s a lot of people there. Here’s the thing that it really impressed upon me, as a company, in any 3D printer company, when you think about it, we’ve seen some 3D print companies even here in Southern California that are relatively young companies. The number of people they have, you can almost count on the fingers of two hands and on some them maybe they have two dozen people. Not a lot of people. When you think about the complexity of a 3D printer, not only selling them and providing customer service but even just properly developing them, there are so many different aspects: hardware, software, electrical issues, content issues, they’ve got Thingiverse they’re supporting and then they have education curriculum that they’re supporting and all these different things. You’ve got to have a lot of people to really concentrate and do a good job on those things. It was impressive to see how much goes into putting out these products and supporting them.
You brought a little care package back with you. What did you bring back?
They sent me back with a tough PLA kit or bundle, which they’re selling now. I haven’t tested it yet, I will be testing it and doing a review on it, just like we did a review on the Smart Extruder+ when it came out. This is a significant product for them. It’s the first real material development project we’ve seen them or any 3D printer manufacturer company do in quite some time. What tough PLA is, it is a new resin, a new plastic filament material that has the properties of ABS. From what I understand in reading about it, even beyond the properties of ABS in certain aspects of it, that it out performs ABS. But it is a PLA resin, that means you don’t have issues with fumes in your indoor air quality environment. I’m very excited about that.
What does tough PLA really mean? We saw a little bit of it at CES and we talked about it. It was not a remarkable object but a little box with a lid. If you think about a lot of children’s toys or anything plastic that is sort of a two-part object that has a vessel with a lid. There’s no actual moving hinge but it’s just plastic hinging the two parts together, that’s called a living hinge. It’s a very, very thin amount of plastic and it just bends back and forth. In conventional product in design and engineering, there’s two major plastic materials that you would use for something like that: polyethylene and polypropylene. I think typically more polypropylene but both are used, because you can bend that plastic back and forth tens of thousands of time and it won’t break.
Apparently, as I understand, and I’ve experienced it but not for thousands of cycles, and they’ve cycled it a ton, this tough PLA has the same kind of property and you can 3D print that thin section, make a product, build a living hinge right into it. Which is going to help more things come straight of the build plate ready to use that don’t have to be assembled or joined with a mechanical hinge of some kind. That’s cool. It has elasticity, it has some real spring force to it. They’ve provided me a model they created internally. I’m going to print it herewith when I do that tough PLA test. Somebody who we’ve interviewed and is in an upcoming interview named Mark Palmer, who unfortunately was one of the people that was cut in that 30% employee cut back there. We are allowed to talk about that, I did ask MakerBot, and they said, “Yeah, you can mention it.” I think it’s important for our listeners to know even coming up with his interview in a week or so when we air that one, he’s a great guy, they still respect him and wish him the best. But for whatever reason his position was eliminated.
While he was there, he modeled what is really a shock and spring kind of a model for what might be used on a bicycle, like for a mountain bike or something. You’ve got a big spring and shock situation maybe on that front wheel. This is an actual working functioning assembly. I haven’t printed it yet but when I do the review, certainly. I’m going to build one myself. I’m going to print one and use it so it will be in that review when we do it. It’s a real working mechanical part that has threads that are 3D printed so you can compress the spring more or loosen the spring more. If you wanted more resistance or less resistance in your shock. You can really see how much spring force there is in this thing. It was impressive. Tough PLA does require unique extruder. That’s why it’s a bundle, you buy the material and it comes with a special Smart Extruder+ that is configured to print that material properly.
That’s one of my favorite parts actually about the machine. It has this interchangeable extruder that you can just really easily take in and out. I found it to be giving us a lot more longevity with the machine.
It was really one of the key features that attracted us to the original machine in the first place. We figured that it would mean that you could upgrade things in the future when they came out with more capabilities and that ended up being true.
I really like that because every time something new comes out I don’t want to be getting rid of my machine and getting a new one. It just doesn’t make sense to me. Being able to test it and go, “Wow! This is really great and now we’re really going to use tough PLA all the time for all the stuff we’re doing, great, wonderful.” But to not to be able to experiment with it because you don’t want to totally change your machine out completely, that’s ridiculous in most cases. Here they’ve made it so easy. It’s one of the smart design things that I think they’ve really done that’s great.
I agree. I don’t know if they told me or if it was designed or developed more for engineers who are making functional test parts or more for the educational community. To me, it has value in both places because even teaching students about the properties of materials and the principles of a living hinge and the flexibility in spring force and things like that, I think is very useful to both of those communities that make up the majority of their customers.
Or even if they don’t know about it but you’re teaching them about physics and you’re teaching them about these kinds of things. You just switch it all out and you’re using tough PLA and the students don’t even know or don’t even care because it’s just a different part of your lesson plan.
To me, the environmental aspect is what I like the most because we intentionally don’t print ABS here in our home office because of the fumes. I don’t believe that’s healthy for us and I don’t want to put in a serious ventilation system. I just have not printed with ABS.
We also haven’t had a need for it. The objects that we print for our clients and the prototypes that we make, they’re all going to end up being in production so the material is always going to be different in the future. We’re really just testing out fit, form, design, the style or its function. We’re just testing that out and it really doesn’t matter what the material is because it will be different when we produce it.
True, but I do think the ability to create a living hinge is really a novel feature for a 3D printed object.
For a 3D printed one, not for a prototype.
Not for production. Living hinges have existed for a very, very long time. It’s not new. It opens up some new opportunities.
I’m glad you had a good time. I wish I had come with you because I would’ve loved to have seen it.
You would’ve enjoyed it there. They’re really fun people. I was hosted by their head of PR, Josh Schneider, a little shout out to him and thank you. Andrew Eskidal, the software guy was there. There was another gentleman I met. Mostly three of them spending a good hour plus with me. I even gave them my two cents on things I’d like to see in the future for 3D printers and hoping that they’re going to work on it. I was kind of preaching to the choir because they want a lot of the same things too. They have to prioritize what they do to fit their business model. But they’re always thinking, always pushing things forward, and it’s good to see. For all the criticism that they get, and some of it is very fair criticism, I think they’re doing a good job and it was fun to go and check it out. I look forward to visiting them in the future and seeing how things change going forward. It looks like a fun environment to work in, a good place to be.
One of the things that I want to say is they had shared with me also sort of their master test print. They have this one model. We were talking about the Make Magazine thing yesterday where they have all these different individual prints that they test to review the capabilities of printers. They have one master test print at MakerBot they print that covers all of that, so rather than doing multiple prints
Thanks again for listening. This has been Tracy and Tom on the WTFFF 3D Printing Podcast.
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