It’s the first day of SXSW 2013 in Austin, Texas, and the Austin Convention Center’s largest room is filling up. Hundreds of keen technologists and creatives are waiting eagerly to hear top innovator Bre Pettis’ opening remarks. Honestly, we had no idea what to expect or even who the guy was, but it was this uncertainty that made the incredible reveal that much more special.
Someone comes onstage and starts talking, introducing the festival and reinforcing its three core principals; creativity, innovation, inspiration. “Geek innovation is what we’re all about” he says, to a reception of whoops and spattered clapping. We had assumed this speaker was Bre but soon realised that he was actually only introducing Bre and the best was yet to come.
On comes Bre to a pretty modest but warm applause, but in the coming minutes he would show us some things that manage to muster an applause much more impressive. His ambitious opening claim that we were about to witness the shape of ‘the next industrial revolution’ may have seemed a little bolshie at first, but he successfully backed his claims up and then some. Bre is one of the brains at the epicentre of the 3D printing revolution that we hear so much about in the news, but he plays a key role that other revolutionaries don’t. His creation, MakerBot, is the world’s first domestic, budget 3D printer. It’s priced at a meagre $2,200 – anyone can purchase this amazing piece of home-made technology and use a 3D model to start creating pieces out of molten plastic up to the size of a shoebox, “affordably innovating the innovation process.”
“MakerBot is all about allowing people to make stuff,” he says. He goes on to show us the many applications that MakerBot has – from the production of cheap, robotised prosthetic hands for children (in traditional prosthetic production one finger alone can cost up to $10,000) to a small, tailor-made plastic accessory that turns a piece of Duplo train track from a ‘receiving’ piece into a ‘connecting’ piece.
The MakerBot community (which receives several big-ups from Pettis throughout) takes a hugely prolific and open source approach to its creations, with over 90,000 user-created projects added in the past 90 days alone (including the Duplo accessory and bits like a customisable Nokia Lumia back cover) available to download as MakerBot-ready 3D models on the community’s home, the Thingiverse. Essentially, the MakerBot is replacing two centuries of mass production. Can’t afford the expensive outsourcing for a production process? Buy a MakerBot for a fraction of the price and have your own miniature production factory, operated in the comfort of your living room.
But the big event of this talk is not the MakerBot, it’s the unveiling of a brand-new product available for purchase in Autumn called the MakerBot Digitizer. It basically does the reverse of a 3D printer. Using lasers it scans an object up to the size of a shoebox and makes an incredibly accurate 3D model (Pettis used a garden gnome to demonstrate) ready for reproduction on the MakerBot. These two machines work in tandem to absolutely revolutionise mass production, empowering the everyman like never before.
“Remember what Photoshop did for photography?” Pettis asks the audience, “MakerBot does that for mass production”. The implications of these products for education, the support of underdeveloped countries and much more are undeniably huge. My favourite part of all this though? Every MakerBot is made to order by a team of kids and adults from Pettis’ local community in Brooklyn – a homemade product as the basis of the next industrial revolution? Awesome.