MakerBot
$10 million is going to make a lot of MakerBots. I can't wait.

Holy replicating robots, Batman! MakerBot has raised $10 million in venture funding! The New York based startup makes open source desktop scale 3D printers and is helping build a community of enthusiasts to bring the technology into the mainstream. Through sales and open distribution of their designs, MakerBot has put 5200+ of their printers in the world. Now, they’re going to do a whole lot more. Their latest round of investments brought interest from some major hitters in the tech-world: Amazon founder Jeff Bezos (already an angel investor), Foundry Group, True Ventures, and RRE. $10 million is a phenomenal boost for any open source business, but it may serve especially well here as MakerBot is one of only a handful of companies in the world successfully bringing 3D printing out of specialized industrial applications and into the hands of the individual. With this investment we’ll hopefully see MakerBot transform desktop 3D printing from a novelty to a widespread technology we all want to own.

As part of their outreach to spread the word about desktop 3D printing, MakerBot co-founder Bre Pettis recently appeared on The Colbert Report and printed out a copy of Stephen Colbert’s head. MakerBot and the show then made the design for Stephen’s visage public. Soon, Colbert’s fans were uploading a variety of head-themed objects to Thingiverse, the online community forum for 3D printable designs. Not to be outdone, the MakerBot team printed out their own copy of Colbert’s noggin and launched it into space using a weather balloon! Check out Pettis’s appearance on the Colbert Report and the subsequent space launch in the two videos below.

While the venture funding round and Stephen Colbert’s head aren’t directly related, there’s nothing that says “we’re a multi-million dollar company” quite like a space launch. The MakerBot twist is that this launch really demonstrates how tech-savvy and value-minded the company really is. Hacking together a space launch with parts you can buy online isn’t new, but these guys do it well, and they make it look easy.

Which is hopefully something their new (and returning) investors will appreciate. Besides bringing Brad Feld of the Foundry Group on as a member of the board of directors, it looks like the team at MakerBot is staying intact. Their job postings are growing, however, especially in those positions directly related to getting more MakerBots out into the world. “Productors (sic)”, customer support technicians, public relation specialists – this is a group gearing up to put more of their product out there and put it out as fast as possible.

History shows that MakerBot should be able to do this pretty damn well. They started off on the equivalent of a shoe-string budget – just $75k from their initial investors (Jake Lodwick and RepRap’s Adrian Bowyer). Now there are more than five thousand MakerBot machines out there. Their latest 3D printer, the Thing-o-Matic, sells for $1300 as a kit or $2500 fully customized and assembled. It has a three to four weak lead time – a sign that MakerBot needs to expand to meet demand. Another sign of their success is Thingiverse, which has thousands of 3D designs shared openly between users. From nuts and bolts to beanie hats, Thingiverse is a growing depository of stuff that anyone should be able to print out once they purchase (or build) their own Thing-o-Matic. When calculating the value of MakerBot you have to include this vibrant and expanding community they’ve created around their 3D printers. Investing in a $1300 piece of hardware makes a lot more sense when you know it comes with an open invitation to join a group of enthusiasts, small businesses, and wackos that share in your same fascination with 3D printing.

The big question this round of venture funding raises then, isn’t whether or not MakerBot will use the money wisely to expand and grow quickly. What we should be asking is “will MakerBot be the one?” Is $10 million enough to push MakerBot from quirky company in Brooklyn to the brand that will bring desktop 3D printing to the masses. We’ve seen others try to make that move. Stratsys is really targeted towards business applications, they have great technology, but their entry level 3D printer is $15k. RepRap is a phenomenal open source project that, like MakerBot, can print most of the parts needed to build a new 3D printer (we’re getting closer to self-replication every year). Yet RepRap isn’t selling its own printers, so they’re simply not going to get the same kind of investments that MakerBot will. MakerBot may be the only company in the right position to ramp up from five thousand machines to fifty thousand machines in the next few years.

Despite recent advances, we’re probably a decade or more away from 3D printers that every single person on the planet will want to own. When they can produce electronics, fabric, and metal there won’t be a household in the US that wouldn’t crave a 3D printer. Long before we get there, however, we need a company that can get the devices into as many tech-savvy hands as possible so that the technology can be developed alongside a community that will come up with (profitable?) applications as it evolves. MakerBot just received $10 million worth of votes that it’s the company for the job. I really hope they are. Any group that can considers launching celebrity heads into space a fun way to pass an afternoon is a group I want in charge of building the future.

MakerBot space
Kudos MakerBot, and keep up the good work!

[image credit: MakerBot]

[sources: MakerBot Blog]