MakerBot, a manufacturer of desktop 3D printers priced at the level of a decent laptop, is the best known of companies producing a product that has already been raised to PC-level stature in terms of its potential impact on business and society.
Bre Pettis, the CEO of MakerBot, has become the face of this long-simmering but suddenly hot business (3D printers – the really expensive kind, anyway – have been around for decades) in part because he had lots of practice being a public face long before he ever thought about launching his company.
That background is why he was so pissed off at the recent Front End of Innovation conference, where he gave a speech about his approach to innovation.
What Caused the F-Bomb
Now, it’s important to put pissed off in proper context when talking about Pettis, who, when it comes to being the face of a new technology, hews much closer to Apple’s polite, tranquil (and nearly forgotten) co-founder Steve Wozniak than the other Steve. Besides some hair gel to sweep back a thick shock of salt-and-pepper hair and some long, hipsterish sideburns, Pettis wears the uniform of the typical sloppy, slack, sneakered, untucked anynerd and seems utterly comfortable in the skin beneath it.
That’s why when he uttered the F-bomb on stage (he apologized in advance) it came as a bit of a shock. He was talking about the US education system, saying that it is “f***ed.”
After his speech to the conference at large, Pettis held a Q&A in a small side vestibule where he was asked to explain what makes him so angry. Basically it’s the things we tamp down with Ritalin today: “We don’t let kids be playful, explore, or help them understand who they are,” he said.
A CEO Who Lived the Crisis in Education
Pettis is one of the few CEOs today who can speak about the education system from experience. He taught art in the early ’00s in a middle school in a poverty-stricken Seattle neighborhood. “If you are white you can basically skip school and not miss anything,” he says bitterly. “If you’re poor, you need the structure of the school system. About half the kids I taught got their breakfast through the school.”
With kids like these, many of whom lacked a consistent adult presence in their lives, Pettis discovered that using the medium that the kids were growing up with, video, was a good way to reach them. He did a series of videos of himself demonstrating how to make art projects and then had the eerie experience of playing the videos in class while standing next to the monitor. “They retained the information better when they watched the videos than they did when I taught in person,” he recalls.
Not that Pettis was a bad teacher. Indeed, when he began uploading the videos to the internet (this was pre-YouTube days), they got tens of thousands of views. That led a publication called Make to approach him to make a series of weekly how-to videos for more pay than he was getting from the Seattle school system.
An obsessive, energetic tinkerer from an early age, Pettis couldn’t resist the offer. The connection with Make eventually led him east, where he co-founded NYC Resistor in a warehouse in Brooklyn so that people like him could get together and spend evenings cobbling weird stuff together.
From that base emerged MakerBot in 2009, which was co-founded by Pettis and two others. NYC Resistor is now housed in space upstairs from MakerBot’s Brooklyn factory.
Bringing Playfulness to Schools
As he demonstrated at the conference, Pettis hasn’t lost his passion for education. In 2013, the company launched a program called MakerBot Academy, in which teachers can request a 3D printer for their classrooms through DonorsChoose.org, a crowdfunding site for educators. Pettis pledged personally to supply every high school in Brooklyn with a printer, and has enlisted hackers on the company’s 3D print-plan community sharing Web site, Thingiverse, to develop a curriculum for teachers to download and plans for printing objects in the classroom. “I want to put a 3D printer in every school in the US so kids can feel empowered to create,” he said.
Of course, he wants those printers to be made by MakerBot, but what keeps his pledge from sounding like another one of those attempts to burnish the company image and revenues while doing good is the personal connection Pettis says he still has to teaching. “My skill is that I know how to gather people to do wonderful things,” he said. “I couldn’t be a CEO without having been a teacher first.”
When we think about the industrial supply chain, we can’t forget the resources that ultimately make it happen when they grow up: children.