When owners of a Makerbot 3-D printer need a shirt button or a cold-air intake for their Porsche 928, they don’t pull out a sewing kit or call a German chop shop. Instead, they flip on their printer and download the object of their desire from the Web.
In September the Brooklyn, N.Y. firm Makerbot started selling the $2,200 Replicator 2, its latest and most polished 3-D printer, a machine that extrudes ultrafine strands of heated plastic in layers to turn software models into detailed, solid objects just as easily as a traditional printer turns a Word document into ink on a page. It’s already sold 2,000 of the new devices, which, added to the 13,000 earlier models sold, makes Makerbot the most successful consumer 3-D printer company around.
But the less visible ingredient behind Makerbot’s success has been Thingiverse, its online collection of software models that encompasses everything its users can imagine.
Anyone who buys a Makerbot can immediately download and print any of Thingiverse’s 25,000 designs. Those with the software skills to create new designs and upload them to the site are rewarded with hacker fame and remixes from others in the digital DIY community. And every new blueprint on the site boosts the utility of the machines sold so far.
One user has uploaded more than 230 faces scanned with his Xbox Kinect. Three Thingiversers haveuploaded engagement rings. (All three advertise that their proposals were accepted.) “It’s a way for users to inspire and be inspired, a way to make Makerbot operators into superstars,” says the company’s founder, Bre Pettis, a rockabilly geek with gray hair and thick-rimmed glasses with frames that have been downloaded 75 times at last count. “This is an important thing for creative people everywhere, and there’s nothing else like it.”
On Nov. 7 Thingiverse relaunched with a flashier user interface and more social features. But even prior to its redesign its store of uploaded blueprints doubled since the beginning of the year, with 8.5 million downloads and half a million since August, far more than any other consumer 3-D printing platform. That’s helped Makerbot attract $10 million in investment from Foundry Partners, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and others.
Makerbot could easily use Thingiverse’s network effects to put the squeeze on its competitors like Stratasys or the open-source project RepRap. Instead it’s opted to host Makerbot-incompatible designs, too. Pettis says that openness has been part of the site’s philosophy since 2008–a year before Makerbot was even founded–when he and fellow Thingiverse creator Zach Smith built the site in an hour one Saturday afternoon. “We keep it open because it feels right,” says Pettis. “There’s no downside to sharing it. All the competitors are going to make stuff and share on Thingiverse, too, and that just benefits our community.”