3D Printing The Void

by Evan Malmgren


Nine months ago, MakerBot’s future seemed tentatively optimistic: the company had just opened a 170,000 square foot factory in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. Brooklyn Borough president Eric Adams spoke at the factory’s grand opening, holding up a 3D-printed nut and bolt as he waxed philosophical on the virtues of “a technology that will move the entire globe.” The press release for the event proclaimed, “‘Made in Brooklyn’ will continue to be inscribed on the back of MakerBot Replicator 3D Printers for years to come.”

Last week, the company announced that it will begin closing that factory, with future production outsourced through Florida-based manufacturer Jabil and most likely offshoring to China. Johan Broer, Director of Public Relations at MakerBot, gave the transition an expected timeframe of roughly six months, saying, “we need to embrace a more flexible manufacturing model that allows us to more quickly scale production up or down.” Current trends suggest down as the more likely of the two directions: MakerBot’s parent company, Stratasys, recently released a financial report that revealed a fifty percent drop in MakerBot’s sales from 2014 to 2015.

This comes on the heels of a difficult year for the company, which severed its relationship with maverick co-founder and former CEO Bre Pettis, cycled through a revolving door of top-level leadership, and suffered two rounds of massive layoffs. Johan Broer cast these changes in an optimistic light, saying that the company had “reshuffled the team […] to position us better for the future.” It’s not difficult to read between the lines: the future looks worryingly uncertain for this once-spunky Brooklyn startup.

As the longtime poster child and one-time presumptive standard-bearer of small-scale “additive manufacturing” — the technical name for the process of 3D printing, which adds rather than strips away material — MakerBot’s rapid rise and equally blistering crash has mapped closely onto the public’s expectations of the technology. The desktop 3D industry is far from dead, but MakerBot’s difficulties are rooted in a broader contraction of the consumer market. The gatekeepers of viral tech-hype have largely stopped trumpeting consumer 3D printers as a revolutionary technology. Now that the dust is beginning to settle on the MakerBot saga, it seems like a good time to ask: what was all the hype about?

For a time, the allure of the desktop 3D printer seemed inescapable. Painting our social feeds with techno-utopian blog posts, a wave of optimistic journalism heralded the devices as a personal tech solution to the crisis of productive alienation. This noise owed no small credit to MakerBot, which rolled out the first consumer-grade 3D printers seven years ago. Pettis spoke in ideological terms of owning the power of manufacturing and being able to make “anything you want;” of “[putting] an interrupt switch on consumerism.” He saw open-source production as a way to make things competitive manufacturing would never incentivize, like DIY solutions to interfacing non-compatible hardware systems. His favorite example was a small converter that could snap Brio tracks onto Duplo blocks. Personal 3D printers would become a freely available catalyst to, in turn, make everything else freely available. It was going to redistribute global production; capitalism was undoing itself!

MakerBot’s Cupcake CNC, the first-ever consumer 3D printer, was released to a messianic overture in 2010. Shortly before its commercial release, Pettis gave a talk about the significance of the technology at IgniteNYC. Bouncing onto the stage with an adorable gawkiness, he introduced his new company: “I’m going to talk about MakerBot, and the future, and the second revolution that’s beginning — that has already begun.” He skipped to his next PowerPoint slide: a photograph of the world’s first commercial desktop 3D printer, under a bold white heading: “INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION 2.”

The technology was still in its swaddling clothes, but many chose to take it as a proof-of-concept for small-scale, open source production. With the Cupcake’s source files available for download, anyone could make it, and once they had it, they could make anything else. This wasn’t just another nifty gadget for the DIY enthusiast, but a practical tool to democratize the material economy itself. Sure, the Cupcake required religious maintenance and couldn’t produce anything more impressive than monochromatic, granular Yoda effigies, but it was a promise of more to come.

MakerBot delivered on that promise for a few years, releasing successive generations of 3D printers — the Thing-o-Matic in 2011 and the Replicator in early 2012 — that improved upon the technology, simplified its use, and brought the cost of the cheapest at-home 3D printers from over $20,000 to around $1,000. The MakerBot tide rose, carrying a buoyant new startup ecosystem with it. The long-awaited sequel to the critically acclaimed industrial revolution seemed like a plausible sell.

At the end of 2012, though, a new Kickstarter project took the company’s open source faith to trial. The Tangibot was proposed as a cheaper clone of the Replicator, designed from freely available and non-proprietary source files. It was technically legal, but broke an unspoken rule. The Tangibot never went into production, but the threat taught MakerBot a difficult lesson: open-source tech might be good for the public, but it didn’t guarantee a competitive business model. Shortly after the Tangibot failed to secure funding, MakerBot released the Replicator 2, its first closed-source printer. All subsequent models would follow the example.

In the years that followed, MakerBot lost most of its ideological identity along with its profit margin and the goodwill of the maker community. Amidst a slew of patent applications for open-sourced designs and failed closed-source innovations, Pettis sold MakerBot to 3D printing giant Stratasys in 2013, stepped down as CEO in 2014, and left the company altogether in 2015.

The demands of private competition sapped the magic out of MakerBot. Other open-source 3D-printing startups folded — RepRap Professional Ltd. and Solidoodle each ceased operations altogether in early 2016 — and the bulk of the industry shifted to the closed, outsourced model that MakerBot has now fully adopted. Techno-utopian hype gradually abandoned the technology in favor of newer toys like VR and drones, and personal 3D printing went from a revolution to an industry. The maker movement was demoted from a force of social transformation to a geeky subculture; open source had failed to take hold of material production.

The false expectations plaguing the state of 3D printing have been well documented. Broer made this much clear in reference to the troubles facing MakerBot’s Industry City factory: “In 2014, there was a lot of hype around 3D printing and the consumer market, and many people in the industry thought that the consumer market would take off very quickly.” But the saga of the desktop 3D printer is more than just an instance of overbuilt faith in underdeveloped technology. The inevitable failure to meaningfully disrupt global production rests on a radical misperception of the relationship between machinery and production.

The maker movement — including Pettis and the MakerBot of 2009–2012 — has something of a manifesto in The Maker’s Manual: A Practical Guide to the New Industrial Revolution, a book produced by Make magazine. Andrea Maietta and Patrick Di Justo outlined the “magic” of the personal 3D printer:

Today, thanks to the 3D printer, you can create a three-dimensional object just by downloading a ready-to-use file from sites such as Thingiverse or YouMagine and printing it with a specialized device, just like we do with any paper document through a traditional printer.

According to Maietta and Di Justo, 3D printing was going to completely reverse the historical subdivision of mechanized labor. This view was parroted elsewhere in the media, jumping from tech outlets like Motherboard and WIRED, to mainstream publications like The Economist and The Guardian; a feedback loop of industry hype was quickly established. The 3D printer was presented as a universal tool: it could build almost anything, including itself, and it appeared to do so without the need of any human labor. “If only everyone could keep a small-scale 3D printer in their living room,” the logic goes, “then everything would be free!”

It was an appealing idea, but it’s also a fantasy. 3D printing is far from autonomous or labor-free; in fact, in most cases it’s not even very efficient when compared with traditional injection-mold techniques. Global productive forces are already powerful enough to deliver goods in just as large a volume as 3D printers could ever hope to match; the problem is in the distribution, not raw production. Even the most sophisticated 3D printer would need materials to build with, and those materials would need to come from someone, somewhere. Did you really make that Yoda figurine, or was it built by the workers in the factory where the plastic was synthesized, the assembly line where the machinery was arranged, and the warehouses where it all shipped from? 3D printers don’t replace this labor; they simply hide it behind a network of physical space and currency transactions.

In this sense, the 3D printer isn’t part of a “second industrial revolution,” but an extension of the first. The real impact of industrialization wasn’t due to the invention of power machines like steam engines, but the onset of tooled machines, which removed the tools from the hands of workers. 3D printing doesn’t represent an inversion of the subdivision of mechanized labor, then, but an intensification of it. The appearance of mechanical autonomy is an illusion.

Not many technologies have so thoroughly infiltrated the public imagination, on the back of so little demonstrable functionality, as the 3D printer. MakerBot sought to “open source” material production through private enterprise, and Pettis’s vision failed precisely because of that contradiction — it was an attempt to graft a collectivist approach on top of an aggressively private one. “Private production will be completely equitable,” again goes the logic, “if only we can find a way to make everything labor-free.”

Techno-utopian prophets — and the journalists who feed them an audience — speak like science-fiction writers: their promises of tomorrow often project today’s insecurities. In the meantime, sadly, all of our material goods will need to be made somewhere. And in the case of MakerBot Industries, it looks like “somewhere” will be moving from “Brooklyn” to “China.”

GIF: Tony Buser