Makerbot's Thing-O-Matic 3D Printers Turn Ideas Into RealityRollingStone Nov 02, 2011 Back to press
The machines aren't taking over quite yet, but you'd be forgiven for thinking they might be if you wandered into the Brooklyn, New York offices of Makerbot. On a recent afternoon, around 10 buzzing, humming 3D printers called Thing-O-Matics – just over a foot tall and a foot wide – sat in a row, patiently building plastic objects of various shapes and sizes. It's slow going now – it takes two days to make all the parts for a battery-powered dune buggy toy – but the idea is that eventually, if you need, say, a spatula, you could just turn to your Thing-O-Matic, feed a design into its control panel and an hour later be flipping pancakes. Or, as head of marketing Keith Ozar put it, "You can make a bobble head in it with your own head."
Users design their own patterns or pick from hundreds available on Makerbot's "Thingiverse" website (recently added: a clarinet mouthpiece, a bicycle tire lever and a protein model). Then, after the file is uploaded, a spool of ABS plastic (the same stuff Legos are made of) runs through a tiny nozzle, which heats it up and draws a pattern, over and over again, on a moving metal plate. Since its launch in January 2009, Makerbot has sold around 6,000 of the $1299 machines (they'll assemble the machine for you for another $1200).
Until the Thing-O-Matic and similar products like the Fab@Home, which was developed by researchers at Cornell, 3D printers were way too expensive for the average person – they cost upwards of $10,000 and had mostly industrial, architectural and medical applications. But the big machines have been doing cooler stuff lately too: last year, the first car created entirely by a 3D printer (a hybrid, not surprisingly) hit the road.
So far, the personal 3D printing business has proven popular among artists – Laurie Anderson used it to create 20 models of her dog Lola for an exhibit at Philadelphia's Fabric Workshop and Museum – teachers, engineers, and college students. "It fits on top of a mini-fridge perfectly," says Makerbot co-founder Bre Pettis. Might they be trying to utilize it for more, uh, recreational pursuits? "There is a model for bongs on Thingiverse, but ABS is flammable. So it’s a bad idea. It’s such a bad idea."