Abram Olmstead  | February 14, 2014

How MakerBot is Printing a Better World

As a leading 3D printing apostle, Bre Pettis still confronts the image of his burgeoning industry as little more than a font of curious gizmos.

Daniel Omar could silence such critics with one wave of his new arm.

While tending his family’s cows in the war-torn Nuba Mountains of Sudan at the age of 14, Omar had to hug a tree for safety when his own government dropped a bomb in his pasture. His quick action saved his life, but he lost both arms, leaving him feeling that he was a burden to his family.

Two years later, just before this past Thanksgiving, an intrepid “technology-for-humanity” group from California — Not Impossible Labs — purchased a couple of MakerBot printers to take to Sudan to print Omar a new arm. Soon he was able to feed himself for the first time since the bombing.

“It’s one of those things where people talk about 3D printing — that it’s just going to make a lot of kitschy things. But talking about prosthetics definitely snaps people out of that,” said Pettis, CEO of MakerBot Industries, a leading manufacturer of desktop printers.

Not that Pettis is particularly fazed by talk of kitsch. He is convinced that 3D printing will revolutionize manufacturing and play a key role in America’s economic future — a sentiment shared by the U.S. president.

Pettis has effectively been on this mission ever since helping to co-found Brooklyn-based MarketBot in 2009. And since becoming a part of Minneapolis-based Stratsys last year, Pettis has a bigger, more potent evangelical platform.

Ralph Resnick, founding director of the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute, said he reached out to Pettis when the institute was launching a campaign to unify the nascent 3D printing movement with the growing additive manufacturing industry.

When announcing the institute’s rebranding as America Makes, Resnick made sure to have the face of desktop 3D printing by his side.

“That has a lot to do with this charisma, his passion and his dedication,” Resnick said of Pettis. “He is an inspiration and he bridges the maverick DIY movement and also has a lot of respect in the industrial community — he is a remarkable individual.”

Last November, MakerBot teamed up with America Makes to start a new effort in that mission — putting a 3D printer in each of America’s tens of thousands of schools. Autodesk and DonorsChoose.org, a crowd-funding site for teachers, are also involved.

“We’re coming up on around 1,000 (schools), and we’ve got another push this spring that we’re going to make,” said Pettis, who once taught art at a Seattle middle school. He regards 3D printers as “a manufacturing education in a box.”

Each participating school gets a printer, service for a year, and an initial supply of the filament that printers heat up and then lay out to cool in new forms.

“When you have a MakerBot Desktop 3D Printer, you see the world differently — instead of waiting for someone to create a product for you, you can create your own,” said Pettis, who has taken on the task of seeding MakerBots in Brooklyn schools. “It can change the whole paradigm of how our children will see innovation and manufacturing in America.”

One early beneficiary, Tom Curanovic, the senior mechanical engineering instructor at Brooklyn Technical High School, says shifting away from traditional computer-controlled machinery to 3D printing really enhanced student learning and excitement.

Almost any industry that can possibly use 3D printing and its ability to rapidly prototype and build models is using them — and in the process changing the industry itself.

“There’s no real limitations on it,” said Pettis. “It’s really just a matter of taking anything and adding 3D printing. It just increases the rate of innovation when you have a MakerBot, because instead of taking weeks to iterate, it takes hours.”

He points to doctors who use models of body parts before operations, saving the time it takes to operate, and thus potentially lives. “It’s better to hold a brain tumor in your hand and look at it and see it in three dimensions before you cut into the gooey stuff,” said Pettis.

Though not currently supported by Makerbot, Not Impossible Lab’s work in southern Sudan — now called Project Daniel — has continued in the hands of locals, who have been making a new arm roughly every week. Just across the border in newly independent South Sudan, there are an estimated 50,000 amputees — a legacy of the long civil war.

Pettis is also heartened by the fact the MakerBot’s first prosthetics — Robohand, which was developed by a South African carpenter Richard Van As after he lost four fingers in an accident — has been downloaded more than 77,000 times.

“Just like with music, you never know if they actually listen to the thing. But I think it’s a good number that definitely says there’s a lot of interest and a lot of people working on these projects and supporting it,” said Pettis.

As for how he defines his mission: “I’m in charge of MakerBot, so I’m responsible for making sure that we’re successful and empowering people to be creative in using our tools to change the world.”