Pulling back from open source hardware, MakerBot angers some adherents

What happens when a prime example of the open-source hardware movement locks down its products?

Rich Brown Former Senior Editorial Director - Home and Wellness
Rich was the editorial lead for CNET's Home and Wellness sections, based in Louisville, Kentucky. Before moving to Louisville in 2013, Rich ran CNET's desktop computer review section for 10 years in New York City. He has worked as a tech journalist since 1994, covering everything from 3D printing to Z-Wave smart locks.
Expertise Smart home, Windows PCs, cooking (sometimes), woodworking tools (getting there...)
Rich Brown
4 min read
MakerBot's new, closed source Replicator 2 3D printer.
MakerBot's new, closed source Replicator 2 3D printer. Rich Brown/CNET

You likely know MakerBot Industries as the poster child for the new era of 3D-printing. You might not know that, until last week, the company and its CEO, Bre Pettis, were considered shining lights in the open-source hardware movement.

Think of open-source hardware, OSHW, as the physical equivalent of open source software. The Open Source Hardware Association, founded just this past March, offers an extended definition for OSHW. Its Statement of Principles sums things up thusly:

Open source hardware is hardware whose design is made publicly available so that anyone can study, modify, distribute, make, and sell the design or hardware based on that design. The hardware's source, the design from which it is made, is available in the preferred format for making modifications to it.
Ideally, open source hardware uses readily-available components and materials, standard processes, open infrastructure, unrestricted content, and open-source design tools to maximize the ability of individuals to make and use hardware. Open source hardware gives people the freedom to control their technology while sharing knowledge and encouraging commerce through the open exchange of designs.

Until last week when MakerBot announced its new Replicator 2 3D printer and new Makerware 3D-printing software, the company's products thus far have all met the purest definition for open source hardware. With these new products, MakerBot has veered away from open source. In a recent blog post, Pettis says, "For the Replicator 2, we will not share the way the physical machine is designed or our GUI because we don't think carbon-copy cloning is acceptable and carbon-copy clones undermine our ability to pay people to do development."

By cloning, he is likely referring to the Tangibot, a project that attempted and failed to raise money to produce a discounted, part-for-part clone of MakerBot's original Replicator 3D printer.

RepRap project member and MakerBot critic Josef Prusa.
RepRap project member and MakerBot critic Josef Prusa. Josef Prusa

But according to Josef Prusa, one of MakerBot's chief new critics, community loyalty can protect you from clones. As Prusa explained via e-mail, "The Makerbot community a few weeks ago totally smashed the Tangibot. We all saw that as huge win for open hardware and consumer loyalty. So there is no need to fear clones that much. Makerbot was a beloved brand back then, now it is changed. As I've seen on Twitter 'They Tangibotted themselves.'"

Prusa is a developer on the RepRap project, started by Adrian Bowyer from the U.K.'s University of Bath. With RepRap, Bowyer and his team have developed much of the core 3D printing technology underlying the MakerBot Replicator and Replicator 2, the Solidoodle 2, and Prusa's own Prusa Mendel printer, among many others. The technology has spread because the RepRap project is open source.

Pettis has responded to Prusa's and others' criticism in multiple, lengthy blog posts. Further, he has also promised to address the issue at the Open Hardware Summit, today in Manhattan.

In his own post and over e-mail, Prusa remains skeptical. So does Zach "Hoeken" Smith. Smith is also a member of the RepRap project, as well as a founding member of MakerBot. He founded the company with Pettis and Adam Meyer in January 2009, but says on his blog that was forced out this past March.

"The move to closed source was not made because of any real, concrete failing of open source. Instead, it was made as an anticipatory, fearful move. I feel that this is a lack of vision, and a lack of confidence in the very ideals that made MakerBot a great company in the first place," said Smith, via e-mail. "I truly believe, and have staked my reputation, my career, and my financial security on the idea that the new model of openness and transparency are more competitive than the old model of secrecy and control. I believe MakerBot can be both fully open source and grow at a rate that will satisfy investors and the community alike."

From left to right, MakerBot co-founders Adam Mayer, Zach "Hoeken" Smith, and Bre Pettis.
From left to right, MakerBot co-founders Adam Mayer, Zach "Hoeken" Smith, and Bre Pettis. Wikipedia

At the beginning of Pettis' most recent post, he alludes to MakerBot's competitive position, which helps put his thinking into some perspective. "We have to stay nimble to face the increased competition from both the bottom and the top of the 3D printing market," he says.

The "bottom" likely again refers to cloning efforts like the Tangibot, as well as the seemingly dozens of other companies offering RepRap-based 3D printers. At the top of the market are large, established commercial 3D printing firms, like 3D Systems (makers of the consumer-focused Cube 3D printer), and Stratasys, both of which have extensive libraries of 3D printing patents, and financial resources far beyond those of MakerBot.
An image from MakerBot's patent, U.S. No. 8,226,395 B2, for a conveyor-based 3D printing build platform.
An image from MakerBot's patent, U.S. No. 8,226,395 B2, for a conveyor-based 3D printing build platform. U.S. Patent Office

And although Prusa points out that MakerBot has received a patent of its own (which Prusa also argues came from a RepRap design), Pettis suggests that MakerBot isn't abandoning open source entirely. According to his post, MakerBot will continue to distribute the design of the original Replicator 3D printer, and that despite a few tweaks for manufacturing, the core technology of the Replicator 2 is the same as that of the original model.

Pettis closes his post by saying "Despite all the drama, we believe in the power of sharing to change the world. Please understand that our shift to become a more professional company does not decrease the amount of love and support we have for the sharers of the world."

For Josef Prusa, Zach Smith, and the other open hardware purists, that sentiment won't mean much. Regardless of the competitive reasons behind MakerBot's move to a closed hardware model, Pettis will likely face a challenging Open Hardware Summit audience when he delivers his talk.