When to Open Source of 3D printer?

written originally 24.09.2012


So I just ordered a Makerbot Replicator 2.

I’ve been planning on purchasing a Makerbot for years, and have come close several times to doing so. However, my use is a bit atypical compared to past goals of makerbot. I solely wish to use the makerbot as a tool to fabricate components for other projects. For me Makerbot is not the project. Until now it’s been my opinion that the Makerbot is as much of a project as it is a tool. I think with the replicator 2, a rubicon has been crossed. I think most people would be very quick to point out that several have been crossed. The most talked about of course is the deviation of Makerbot from a fully open source release to a closed source release.

I’ve been asked by a couple of folks for my opinion on this, and I’ll give it to you in a few parts.

  • Does Makerbot not being open source make me want to buy it less?
  • What is my opinion of Makerbot’s decision?
  • What do I think Makerbot should open source?
  • How will this impact me?


The short answer is no. My favorite CNC equipment ever was an epilog laser cnc. You know what, it’s not open source either. But, it gets the job done and it’s a joy to work with. The makerbot I am hoping will be a joy to work with as well. And as far as CNC gear goes, I don’t need much in extensibility atm. At some future date my needs may change. Today they are what they are.

I get a warm and fuzzy when things are open source, but unless I need the source open to use the item or software I am purchasing, it’s just another feature I won’t use. So it’s not much of a consideration.

I’m practical like that.


As you may already know if you are even reading this, I was a member at NYC Resistor. So were all of the founders of Makerbot, and several of their employees throughout the years. Early development of the makerbot and even the early days of Makerbot were very much a part of every day life at Resistor.

So, I happened to be sitting in NYC Resistor as Bre Pettis assembled the very first Cupcake CNC in an effort to frost cupcakes using some of Zach Hoeken’s CNC boards and motors. I in advertently spent a considerable amount of time watching as Adam Mayer and Zach got sucked into the Cupcake, and eventually gave up on frosting cupcakes and instead pursued the very first Makerbot aptly dubbed the “Cupcake”. And also thus the existence of the frostruder. Oh yeah and ask them about the “Liberty” some time. I say that model was not released only because it would have change the whole tenor of “thing”iverse.

As a result, I know Zach, Adam, and Bre fairly well. I consider them all friends, and would gladly drop everything I was doing to help them out if asked. Now, from personal experience I can tell you that working with friends in the professional world can be very difficult. Unless you can separate business out from the friendship you very likely will lose a friend eventually. The simple fact is that a professional relationship can find itself at odds with personal loyalties very quickly. I know a lot of the younger idealists out there want to think they are different, but I assure you that is not the case. Be prepared for it. I’ve known friends who have had to sit down and fire friends.

And that is why I was not all that surprised or dismayed when Zach left Makerbot to pursue his next great ambition ( whatever that is ). Heck I met Zach before NYC Resistor became a hacker space, back when it was still a meet up for Micro Controller enthusiasts getting excited about arduinos and showing off cool stuff. I can tell you that few people have the abject unrelenting dedication to achieving impossible goals as Zach does. And his contributions to open source 3d printing cannot be understated. If he hadn’t been a huge reprap nerd for years before Bre decided to frost cupcakes, the Makerbot would never have come into existence.

The great thing about Zach is that he is something of a romantic when it comes to design. He pursues grand ambitions with everything he’s got. So I was not the least bit surprised when he hoisted up the Open Source flag and fired one clear across Makerbot’s bow over the closed source release of the Replicator 2.

Personally I agree with Zach’s post. I think that Makerbot should stay true to Open Source and see where that takes them. I know there are perils out there in the world, but they had a dream damn it!

At the same time, I have to consider my own Open Source situation.

I worked on the Nebula project, and as a result OpenStack now exists as an Open Source project. I’ve contributed to that project, and will continue to do so. I’m actually really proud of OpenStack and my small role in it. However, I also work for a start up that creates some closed source additions to openstack and sells it for cash money. We don’t release all of our code open source. Just like Makerbot doesn’t release all of their designs open source. In fact, in the software world, very few companies release all of their code open source even when they are considered to be an “open source company”. RedHat, Canonical, SuSE, I could go on, but all of these companies have closed source proprietary software that end up in their profit driven software releases.

I once described the way open source succeeds in the market as being organic. Much like with a tree, technology develops branching from core technologies into greater degrees of abstraction. Some of those abstracted branches grow into strong big trunk like branches, some die, some just stay small branches. But more branches sprout from many of those abstraction layers building still more abstraction layers. From Silicon wafer to gui, there are a hell of a lot of abstraction layers. But as with a tree, the green is always at the very end of the branches where new branches are forming. Leaves much like profit, are green. Some people will make money from selling the trunk technologies, and the large branch technologies, but innovation happens at the branches. That’s where the real money is. The trunk needs to be a strong standard upon which everything can build and that will naturally become open source. As will the larger branches. But the leaves? They don’t have to be until they become thicker branches supporting new branches and leaves.

Makerbot is a leaf in the wind so to speak. Right now they are trying to grow into a branch that will be able to support new technologies we’ve not even thought of, but to do that they need the green or they can’t grow. So, being open source maybe doesn’t make sense.

It’s funny to think like this, because I’ve actually used that analogy before when explaining open source to people who don’t understand it. In operations we tend to be willing to pay 20k on some software to save some time. It’s generally cost effective. But occasionally we’ll spend some time to write that 20k software open source, because we need it to be something that is controlled by a standards body and not one benevolent dictator. When I think of Makerbot’s new model compared to the ones I have seen time and again in open source silicon valley, I am staggeringly unsurprised.

Bre, and Adam have an entire team they are responsible for. Friends that left their careers to help them succeed. People who took a risk and are counting on them. They need to think like a business if they are going to be a healthy open source company. And that means keeping some of the green stuff on the technology tree as special sauce that they can sell.

So I get where Makerbot is coming from. I cannot fault them at all. In fact, as far as open source goes they are pretty much matching the business models of every other successful open source company out there. There’s nothing wrong with their decision at all. They can still be open source, and hold some tech back. It’s actually the industry norm.

Still, I like the dreamers. So I am with Zach. Be open, damn the torpedoes, why not be the better company.

Makerbot should not be the company gotham wants! It should be the company gotham needs!


Assuming Makerbot doesn’t decide Zach is right and declare loudly for the world to hear, “God damn the Chinese, full 3d open source printer ahead!”

Well, there’s no easy answer on what Makerbot “should” open source. However, let’s look at the goals. Makerbot wants to prevent people from carbon copying their product. More to the point they want to keep a competitive edge and sell a product so that they can continue to innovate. Well, now they are walking a fine line. A lot of innovation in Makerbot has come from outside sources via open source, so obviously they want to safegaurd their community and it’s desire to work with them to succeed. Of course they will lose the support of community members who wish to compete with them with printers of their own, however there is no reason they cannot help drive open standards in the field.

Summarized Key goals:

  • Prevent Carbon Copy Competition
  • Protect profit generating innovation
  • Promote Open Source contributions from community
  • Be a leader in defining standards with other open source 3d printers including reprap
  • Protect Thingiverse

These strike me as the goals that make sense for them to follow.

I’d prefer they didn’t do so much of the “Protect profit generating innovation”. What is good for the goose is not always good for the gander. Makerbot can’t reward competitors for their innovation, but at the same time they NEED that same innovation. So, they should provide releases of all of their technology even if it is staggered. This allows for others to follow in their footsteps and continue to innovate.

Preventing carbon copies will be a matter of throwing up enough barriers to trip up all but the most dedicated. At some point it’s easily diminishing returns.

Promoting open source contributions will be critical. I think protecting thingiverse as an open source repository is essential here. And if they can do that, they can continue to help foster open source development of 3d printers.

Leading standards is the most important thing I can think of coming out of this. A great many 3d printer designs today are built directly from or as forks of core makerbot technologies. With this new closed source model it will be important to ensure that all printers maintain some common functionality and language sets otherwise users will end up in vendor lock in hell. That’s not open, and it’s why makerbot has been succeeding in the face of stratasys. So, I think makerbot needs to maintain a dialog with emerging open source competitors and there should possibly be the establishment of an open source 3d printer foundation to help set the standards that all printers should adhere to. Or maybe just IEEE working groups. ACM chair? Whatever. Something.

However they go about doing that is up for scrutiny. But I say release all design work open source after a year and provide academic / non commercial license to people who want to do specialized research and adaptation of makerbot internals for pursuits that are not commercial at the time of their initial work effort ( up to 1 year or so ). It makes sense to me.


I think I’ve had a chance to consider a little more of the future of open source both in hardware and software and what it means to me. I think Open Source Hardware is growing up. I know that if I released a hardware product I would take time to consider the costs of open source, and in some situations I may even be inclined to only do a partial release of functionality or designs to open source. Apache and bsd licensing exists for a reason. It promotes success in business and that promotes success of the technology and all involved. It’s good all around.

But, I still love open source. And I think I’ll never hide source. Put restrictions on use? Maybe. If there were a really good reason to.

I still think Makerbot is a great company, with terrific people involved and running it. I think many of the growing alternatives to makerbot will climb up out of the muck now and challenge them, and competition is as healthy as it comes. So I am pretty optimistic about Makerbot, the community, and 3d printing in general.

As far as my friendships go? Zach, Bre, and Adam are friends. That won’t change over something as silly as a 3D printer.

And as for the community and what they think? Open Source generally isn’t 3000 contributors building a product. It’s like 20 tops, with a few hundred people doing extensions to their own products or fixing their own bugs. 99.9999% of the time someone complains about something it’s none of those people. It’s just some catcaller from the internet. And if you have ever gotten a project posted to hackaday, or gizmodo, you know that no matter how cool it is, or how much fun you had making it, there will be a bunch of ne’er do anythings sitting on the internet ready to complain about everything and anything they can think of. I find it’s best if you just join in early and lead the complain train. Hell who is more qualified to give you shit on one of your decisions or designs than you.

It’s in that spirit I invite Makerbot to be their biggest critic on this decision at least behind closed doors. I have no doubt that makerbot has no problem looking into a mirror occasionally and deciding to make a few adjustments. If anything this proves they have the maturity to make hard decisions. And I see that as a strength.

Open Source, as a business model isn’t the same as free software. It never will be. But it can work. It DOES work.