NEW YORK — MakerBot wants to put a 3D printer in every school in the United States, and is drumming up support from the industry and wider public to make it happen.
While 3D printing for now remains a gimmick to many, it garnered enough attention for President Barack Obama to mention the emerging technology in the recent State of the Union Address, describing it as having the potential to "revolutionize the way we make almost everything."
That sparked an idea in MakerBot founder and chief executive Bre Pettis' mind. A former teacher himself, Pettis said the company has "education in its DNA," in remarks at the launch of the new initiative at its flagship store on Mulberry Street in New York City.
"Instead of waiting for someone to create a product for you, you can create your own," he said. "It can change the whole paradigm of how our children will see innovation and manufacturing in America."
Founded in 2009, the company shot to prominence during the rise of 3D printing, a new technology that allows ordinary consumers and businesses alike to build polymer-based products in their home or place of work. Now the company is partnering with companies involved in the new and developing technology, including America Makes, and design software giant Autodesk.
The U.S. government is also supporting MakerBot's efforts. Tom Kalil, deputy director for Technology and Innovation at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, said in prepared remarks, "We all need to think creatively about giving our young people the tools to be 'the makers of things, and not just the consumers of things'."
And once 3D printers start rolling out to schools? MakerBot insists they won't simply be expensive paperweights. The company is also launching Thingverse, a community of 3D digital designs that school children can design, share, upload, and print designs of their own.
Launching Tuesday, indivduals and corporations can donate funds using DonorsChoose.org, a crowdsourced site for teachers. Pettis wants those in communities around America to contribute to their local schools. Meanwhile, MakerBot is offering significant discounts in order to lower the price point of the 3D printing machines.
Corporate partners will offset some of the donor expense, the company says. MakerBot and its parent company Stratasys are putting in funds themselves — they declined to say how much but said it was "a lot." Pettis has personally pledged to put the company's latest 3D printer, a MakerBot Replicator 2, in every public high school in Brookyn, New York, the company's hometown.
Pettis told ZDNet that this initiative has been on the company's mind since its founding. "We have one core mission: empower the next generation," he said. There's no doubt that as a business, the company has to stay afloat. Although he doesn't deny that the initiative would be a significant revenue driver for MakerBot, Pettis said it was "not our focus," describing how he is using "every tool at our disposal to make this happen."
"If we don't, who will?" he said. "We just have to take responsibility."
The company's founder appeared truly excited by the news. In asking him what keeps him awake at night, he paused momentarily. "I'm actually sleeping pretty well, but I don't think that's what you were asking," he chuckled.
"We want to make sure that what we do is relevant, has a deep impact, and is genuine," he said.