Making It

Educator, entrepreneur, and creator extraordinaire, Bre Pettis ’95 is a full-blown celebrity in the do-it-yourself, business, and tech worlds.

By Carolyn Shea

A leading proponent of personal manufacturing, he’s been hailed as one of the “most influential minds in technology,” “a rock star among makers,” and a “leader of the DIY movement.”

His personable disposition and extreme inventiveness have earned him the moniker “silver fox/MacGyver chimera” by the folks over at Etsy, one of his stops along the way to becoming CEO of MakerBot Industries. Pettis and partners bootstrapped MakerBot into existence in 2009 from the BotCave, a tiny warehouse in Brooklyn, New York. Their mission: produce an open-source, desktop 3-D printer to democratize manufacturing by transferring it from the hands of the few to the hands of many.

Bre Pettis

Bre Pettis shoulders a version of his MakerBot Replicator 2.

For those unacquainted with 3-D printing, think of “Star Trek’s” magical replicator. Order the machine to create an object, and voila, the object materializes. With today’s technology, it’s possible to send digital blueprints of practically anything you’d like to build from your computer to a 3-D printer, which then squirts out molten plastic threads layer by layer until your masterpiece takes shape.

A 3D-printed rabbit

A 3D-printed sculpture of a rabbit.

Commercial 3-D printers have been around since the 1980s, but they can be as big as refrigerators and cost tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars. In the industrial world, they’re used in prototyping and manufacturing everything from medical products and automobiles to engineering projects.

Pettis and his startup team wanted the devices to be accessible and affordable to everyone. “Our goal was to make manufacturing possible for the masses, for people’s desktops,” he said. MakerBot’s latest printer, the microwave-oven-sized Replicator 2, costs $2,200, still a bit steep for the everyday hobbyist, but as the market matures, analysts are forecasting prices to drop further.

Last February, President Obama called attention to the technology in his State of the Union address, when he said, “A once-shuttered warehouse is now a state-of-the art lab where new workers are mastering the 3-D printing that has the potential to revolutionize the way we make almost everything.”

MakerBot customers have already made everything from toys to jewelry to household items and much more. One of Pettis’ favorites is a prosthetic hand, which he displayed when he was a panelist at the Clinton Global Initiative’s annual meeting in September. Produced on a MakerBot printer, it was developed for a South African carpenter who had lost four fingers in a woodworking accident. After learning that prosthetic fingers could cost upwards of $10,000 each, he partnered with a theatrical prop designer in Seattle over the Internet to rebuild his hand. The plans for the functional mechanical fingers they invented, dubbed Robohand, have since been freely downloaded scores of times from Thingiverse, MakerBot’s massive online compendium for sharing user-submitted digital design files (to date, it holds more than 160,000 designs). According to Pettis, the materials to fabricate a Robohand cost $5.

Nowadays, Pettis oversees 360 employees at MakerBot’s headquarters and its new 55,000-square-foot production facility, both located in Brooklyn. The company has thus far shipped 25,000 printers, and in November 2012, it opened its first retail store in Manhattan’s Soho neighborhood. Two more stores are slated to open in Greenwich, Conn., and Boston, in time for the holiday season. Earlier this year, MakerBot debuted a 3-D laser scanner to map physical objects and create digital models suitable for printing.

In June, MakerBot and Stratasys, a 3-D manufacturing company based in Minneapolis, Minn., announced that they were merging in a deal worth $403 million. The arrangement, with MakerBot a subsidiary of Stratasys, is expected to push desktop 3-D printers more quickly into the mainstream.

Pettis’ passion for making things comes from his own creative knack. His blog is named “I Make Things.” He’s been a tinkerer since childhood, when he learned to make his own bike from spare parts and fix it when it broke, skills he found “super empowering.”

But what sets him apart is that he also has a knack for inspiring other people to make things, and providing them with the information and tools to do so. A former art teacher with the Seattle public school system, he found his students most attentive when he showed them how to do something. He started producing how-to videos and posting them online to connect with the kids.

Pettis says he gained a strong sense of his future potential from Evergreen faculty who told him, “We’re looking forward to seeing what you’ll do in the world after you leave here.”

Bre Pettis ’95

Before long, his presentations caught the attention of people at Make magazine. In 2006, he began producing and hosting the magazine’s popular “Weekend Projects” video podcasts, through which he taught millions of viewers to make all sorts of creations from tape wallets and kite cameras to workbenches and leaf-blower-powered hovercrafts. He also created new media projects for Etsy, the online handcrafts marketplace.

In 2008, Pettis co-founded the Brooklyn hacker collective NYCResistor, based on his involvement with Seattle’s Hackerbot Labs, a hackerspace focused on learning, sharing, and collaborating on projects with a group of like-minded individuals. It was at NYCResistor that MakerBot technology was first devised, tested, and proven.

Pettis lives in Brooklyn with his partner Kio Stark and their 2-year daughter Nika, not far from his office at MakerBot. He plays the clawhammer banjo to relax. In 2009, he and Stark dashed off their much-vaunted Cult of Done Manifesto, which lays out 13 rules for accomplishing things. “We wrote it in 20 minutes,” he reported, “because we only had 20 minutes to get it done.” It emerged in great part from his experience producing different tutorials every week for Make. “I didn’t know I couldn’t do it,” he said, “so I did it.”

A sought-after speaker and interview subject, Pettis regularly extols the pride and empowerment associated with making things and the collaborative community that’s grown around MakerBot. Another theme is his conviction that the company be a driving force in creating a better world. One of his biggest ambitions is getting 3-D printers in schools all over America to enable students to solve problems. Pettis gained a strong sense of his future potential from Evergreen professors who told him, “We’re looking forward to seeing what you’ll do in the world after you leave here.” He said, “That was an empowering message to think I might do something special.”

Pettis studied mythology, psychology, and performing arts at Evergreen. He loved his time at the college because he said he was given the freedom “to follow my heart.” One program he took examined storytelling, prompting him to wonder, “Wouldn’t it be great to have a job where you get to tell stories all day long?” At MakerBot, he said, “In some ways, I get to do that, to shine a spotlight on people who are making wonderful things happen in the world.”