Perhaps the biggest controversy in the history of 3D printing erupted this past week when an excited MakerBot community took a deeper look at the company's new personal 3D printer, the Replicator 2.
What did they find so upsetting? It seems that they've noticed en masse that MakerBot is changing much about how it runs its business, and some don't seem to like the change. The trigger for the controversy is the revelation that MakerBot likely won't be completely open-sourcing the Replicator 2, as they had done on every previous model they've produced. Some view this change as a significant departure from their understanding of MakerBot being an open source hardware company.
It's no surprise to us the MakerBot community is upset; this move is a strategic one for MakerBot, as they now focus more towards the mass market and less so on their traditional market of advanced makers who expected MakerBot to continue supplying user-modifiable hardware designs and software.
We see this scenario as a classic example of what's known as "Crossing The Chasm", a business situation in which a company, seeking to grow, must transform itself into something compatible with a much larger - and more conventional - market. That's precisely what MakerBot is doing, and its existing customers may feel abandoned, as typically occurs as the chasm is crossed.
The community voiced their strong feelings by commenting on two very explanatory MakerBot blog posts written by CEO Bre Pettis. Pettis not only wrote the rather difficult posts, but also bravely responded directly to many of the comments, many of which were quite incendiary or insightful.
We thought commenter neoteric said it best:
Bre. Here is what you wish you could say out loud:“I built a business that included utilizing open source hardware and software.I did that very well, probably better than anyone else.I had a great philosophy of open source in my business model.I built a brand.I now have a brand, employees, responsibilities, and shareholders.I am now between a rock and a hard place, as being an icon of open source might be dichotomous to protecting my brand, employees, responsibilities and shareholders.Nothing I say today is going to make anyone happy, least of all me.”
To which Bre responded:
You very eloquently said what I wish I could have said in this post. Thank you.
MakerBot's switch was inevitable, particularly given the major investment they received a year ago, and especially after the emergence of a lower-priced Replicator clone based on the open source design. (In fact, there are more than one of them!) There is no way a heavy R&D company like MakerBot could survive and evolve if their market is taken away by clones. They had to do something, and they did.
Is this the end of MakerBot? Certainly not. It's merely another stage in its growth; they're taking actions they feel necessary to become a big player in the space. Remember, they're competing against 3D Systems and other mega-sized commercial companies that have literally hundreds of millions of dollars, research scientists, labs and major cash flow at their disposal. It's a turning point for MakerBot that could lead to high-quality, inexpensive 3D printing for all in the future, and we like that.
Good luck, Bre.