MakerBOt replicator2

MakerBot Replicator 2 (press photo)

MakerBot has put out a new model of 3D printer called the Replicator 2. Which ought to be good news, as it's a sleek machine with some of the best resolution yet (100 microns per layer), and also prints bigger objects than the brand's previous consumer model. Mainstream news outlets and the press release tout this model as "prosumer" and "the most affordable tool yet for making professional-quality models."

Why, then, is there an angry community of Makers who are removing their models from Thingiverse (MakerBot's community-driven digital model bank) and uploading "Occupy Thingiverse" images in a protest against MakerBot?

occupy thingiverse

Screenshot of Thingiverse taken Sunday September 23 2012

The new model of MakerBot was released on September 19, 2012, and already by September 20th it was necessary to post on the company blog to clear up apparent "misunderstandings" about two issues. First, it appears that the new machine is not Open Source Hardware (OSHW), although MakerBot has not gone out and said so directly - rather, they are trying to figure out "how MakerBot can share as much as possible, support it’s 150 employees with jobs, make awesome hardware, and be sustainable". Second, Thingiverse's terms of use changed to include a clause granting the Company right to use, in any way they see fit, user-generated content uploaded to this site. These two elements did not happen at the same time (the Terms changed last February), so the "Occupy Thingiverse" movement, which ought to have more to do with the terms and conditions change, appears to be related to the discourse around open source or not (or at least magnified by this).

For anyone interested, we are trying to get the story straight because the question of Open Source is at the heart of the Maker movement, and this move (and subsequent polemics) may put this value at risk.

Josef Prusa is a Czech Republic-based developer in the RepRap project, open source information that allows anyone to build a self-reproducing 3D printer... community information upon which the MakerBot is based. Prusa's pretty seriously into open hardware: he has tattooed its logo onto his forearm. He has also been one of the first to call out MakerBot on not being open source.

Prusa open source tattoo

Prusa's open-source tattoo, freely reproduced from http://josefprusa.cz/open-hardware-meaning/

While not all Makers have the guts to tattoo their values on their bodies, open source is at the core of the Maker movement. Without open source, there would be no consumer 3D printers at all, and probably no "movement" to speak of.

These values were at the very core of MakerBot Industries when Zachary Smith (Hoeken), Bre Pettis and Adam Mayer founded the company in 2009. Smith, however, was "forced out" (his words) of the company last April, and has now posted his profound disappointment about this move towards closure on his blog:

If they close those doors, then it would give people who would say OSHW is not sustainable ammunition for their arguments. It would also discourage new OSHW companies from forming. That is a sad thing indeed.

Rob Giseburt takes up this question in a good analysis on Make Magazine's blog, where he essentially concludes that Makers will not put up with this closure. While agreeing (as we do) that the new machine is complex and surely expensive to produce, he does not see how not revealing its code will protect it against competitors. Rather:

...it doesn’t appear that being closed source and using patents and licensing will free any company from competitors, but instead will only open them to a different form of competitors. A form of competitor that really, truly is only there for the profit, and doesn’t have the ethics of open and community driven innovation.

So let's get back to word prosumer that is being used in reference to the Replicator 2 (which, did we not mention, costs 2,199 USD and the super duper version, expected next year, will cost 2,799 USD). A rich word that could be interpreted as professional+consumer or producer+consumer. Makers are producer/consumers, and the MakerBot is a product that has been generated by them, thanks to many many hours of feedback and community work. But the price and the closure of the product makes it look like this company is selling out just to consumers, doesn't it? How can it be possible that they did not anticipate this backlash? Could it be that someone doesn't think the community is necessary now that the technology is at the top of its hype?

MakerBot is one of the better known names in the 3D printing industry, but it is far from the only one. Will this change the values of the industry, or just cause a shift towards those who still value openness?

We're interested in your opinions on the matter, and expect this story to unfold further this week.

 

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