The Rise and Fall of the Everyday Tycoon

The Rise and Fall of the Everyday TycoonMakerBot made a bold bet that 3D printers would become as common as microwaves. Just one problem: now one else shared that dream.

By Andrew Zaleski

Dec 1 2016

It was October 2009 when Bre Pettis — his unmistakable sideburns and dark-rimmed rectangular glasses framing his face — took the stage at Ignite NYC, threw his hand in the air, and shouted “Hooray!” two times. A PowerPoint slide lit up behind him, revealing a photo of a hollow wood box crisscrossed with wiring. Bouncing up and down, his profuse mop of graying hair flopping about, Pettis began: “I’m going to talk about MakerBot and the future and an industrial revolution that we’re beginning — that’s begun.”

A former art teacher, Pettis had emerged as a key character in the growing maker movement of the late 2000s, a worldwide community of tinkerers who holed away in makeshift workshops and hackerspaces, equally at home with tools like old-school lathes and contemporary laser cutters. Pettis had begun his ascent in 2006, producing weekly videos for MAKE magazine—the maker movement’s Bible—that featured him navigating goofy tasks such as powering a light bulb with a modified hamster wheel. In 2008, he cofounded the NYC Resistor hackerspace in Brooklyn. By then, Pettis was a star. A year later, he launched a Brooklyn-based startup with friends Adam Mayer and Zach Smith (also a NYC Resistor cofounder) called MakerBot.

“We have a machine that makes 3D objects and it’s freaking awesome,” Pettis said giddily from the Ignite NYC stage. By shrinking the technology inside hulking, $100,000-plus machines into affordable desktop boxes, MakerBot had kicked off a revolution in 3D printing. With a 3D printer, objects designed in computer software are physically formed, in three dimensions, as layers of molten plastic are stacked one upon the other. Now anyone with a MakerBot device could design and print their own objects.

To Pettis, the implications were explosive. People printing objects at home would mean we travel to the store less often and make anything we want. He shared a quick story about “printable happiness”: Someone who planned to propose needed an engagement ring, so he printed one out. For five and a half minutes, Pettis extolled what he dubbed the “Industrial Revolution 2,” with MakerBot leading the way.

“You get to be the tycoon by making things yourself,” he said. As he wrapped up his talk, he implored his listeners to literally “make the future.”

The year before MakerBot was founded, analysts predicted that a global 3D printing market worth about $1.2 billion would double in size by 2015. By the end of 2012, it basically had. MakerBot seemed to be right on time: That year it released the company’s best known, and arguably best-performing, 3D printer — the Replicator 2. MakerBot predicted it would find its way into thousands of homes. Wired declared the Replicator 2 the company’s “Macintosh moment” in its October 2012 issue, with a cover featuring a confident-looking Pettis cradling his new baby and the words, “This machine will change the world.”