The Ministry of Artistic Affairs
Thursday, May 19, 2011

“There’s nothing like working with plastic!” Marius Watz announced to an appreciative crowd at the start of a talk in Brooklyn recently. Mr. Watz, a Norwegian-born artist, was describing his work with MakerBot, a new consumer-grade, desktop-size 3-D printer. With some assembly and do-it-yourself tinkering, the MakerBot makes, or “prints,” three-dimensional objects from molten plastic, creating a piggy bank, say, or a Darth Vader head from a computer design at the touch of a button.

“I’d heard about 3-D printing in the ’90s, but at that time it sounded like some sci-fi technology, like laser guns,” Mr. Watz said. “Basically, it sounded totally awesome.”

“Awesome” was sort of the buzzword at MakerBot’s inaugural open house, held at its warehouselike offices in Gowanus, Brooklyn, where Mr. Watz, its first artist in residence, showed off his sculptural forms (“We just started doing some blobby objects — vaguely disturbing but also awesome”) to a few dozen admirers and MakerBot owners, mostly guys in various stages of nerdy bliss. (“Aaawwwe-some.”)

After a burst of invention by three friends, the company was formed two years ago — “built on caffeine,” said a founder, Bre Pettis — and has since expanded to 32 employees and thousands of MakerBot kits sold. Three-D printing has existed for years, but the machines were cumbersome and expensive, relegated to art and engineering schools, often monopolized by specialists. The MakerBot, which tops out at about $1,300, gives anybody with a computer and an idea the same creative horsepower, and artists are beginning to take notice.

On Saturday 3rd Ward, the Brooklyn arts and design collective, will host a Make-a-Thon, where those interested can play with the Bots and receive miniature 3-D busts of themselves printed by Kyle McDonald, MakerBot’s current artist in residence and an expert in digital scanning.

“It’s definitely baked into the DNA of MakerBot that this is a tool for creative people,” said Mr. Pettis, 38, who worked as a middle school art teacher in Seattle before starting the company with Zach Hoeken Smith, 28, and Adam Mayer, 35, hardware and Web developers. (They met at a Brooklyn hacker space.) As part of their mission, MakerBot’s founders also embrace sharing: users are encouraged to post their designs for the machine on a company blog, Thingiverse, where anyone can have access to them, to print or modify.

“We’re obsessively open-source,” said Mr. Pettis, who, like many people in the MakerBot universe, speaks with the zeal of the technologically converted. “In this age of the Internet, the sharers are the people who will come out ahead — the people who make progress and then share it so that other people can stand on their shoulders.”

He knows his audience. John Abella, a MakerBot hobbyist from Huntington, N.Y., came to the open house with a bin full of objects for the show-and-tell.

“Almost all these things are things we got off Thingiverse,” he said, clutching a brightly colored plastic doodad. “We have a rabbit that someone put a dragon head on.”

Mr. Abella, 35, who works in network security, said the appeal of MakerBot was that “everybody sees it with their own slant.”

“My wife’s friends look at it, and they ask me for cookie cutters in shapes that don’t exist,” he continued. “At work people see it and say, ‘Can that replace the missing part in the company Ping-Pong table?’ ” (Probably, though the MakerBot has its limits — it can print objects that are at most five inches on a side, at relatively low resolution.)

Another hobbyist, Ed Hebel, made a carrying case for a single cigarette. “I go out and I don’t want to take a whole pack of cigarettes,” Mr. Hebel, an engineer from upstate New York, said, demonstrating his little holder, which he invented for the show-and-tell. “This is called a Lucy. I thought of this like two days ago. I thought for like 20 minutes, and I thought of this. And an hour later, I printed it.”

And shortly after that, it went up on Thingiverse, where, despite Mr. Hebel’s disclaimer that smoking is bad, another user quickly suggested a modification.

As part of its open-source ethos, in its offices MakerBot has a “botfarm” — 18 machines capable of operating almost continuously — that it will give over to worthwhile projects. Michael Felix, a Brooklyn designer, used it to make the hinges for a giant geodesic dome he built for a music video shoot. Noting that nearly 4,500 MakerBots have been sold so far, Mr. Pettis said, “For artists, it’s kind of like, imagine, you create something that’s a 3-D model, there’s 4,500 different locations in the world where it can seep out of the Internet into the real world and blow people’s minds.”

But the ease of replication does present some questions for art professionals.

“Art is not traditionally an open-source practice,” Mr. Watz, who is represented by the DAM gallery in Berlin, noted dryly at the open house. Nonetheless, he posted some of his technical specs on Thingiverse, explaining that he didn’t want to take advantage of the generous community spirit there without giving back.

And as a digitally oriented artist, Mr. Watz said, he had long questioned the art market’s economy of scarcity, even if he participated in it with limited-edition designs. For prospective buyers, he does offer to sign his MakerBot work, which brings up another question.

“What is the real value of my signature on the object?” he mused, adding: “When I’m trying to model with the MakerBot, I don’t consider that printed model the final product. It’s the process that is the significant part.”

Some Bot artists are just excited about the machine’s practical applications. David Bell and Joe Scarpulla have been laboring for years on a stop-motion animated film and photo series with an elaborate, labor-intensive miniature set. On a whim, Mr. Bell and Mr. Scarpulla bought a MakerBot — a “CupCake” model, which costs about $700 — and found it to be a good fit as a custom manufacturer.

“Our first successful prop was a miniature toilet bowl,” Mr. Bell said. “We’re outfitting an entire apartment in 1/8 scale. So far we’ve done sinks and light sockets, a bathtub and pots and pans.” Including the painstaking design process and troubleshooting, using the Bot takes the same amount of time as hand carving, Mr. Scarpulla added, “but the results are definitely better.”

Now they are imagining other things they can use their machine for, on a much bigger scale. “It opens up a lot of opportunities,” Mr. Bell said.

That sentiment was echoed by Mr. Watz and Mr. McDonald and visible on a tour of MakerBot headquarters, known as the Botcave. In the front, by the whirring Botfarm, is a vending machine of Bot-extruded plastic bangles. Employees sit behind stacks of products with high-tech Seussian names, like Thingomatic Gen. 4 Subkit for Stepper Drivers V 3.3.

Little plastic doohickeys and thingamabobs cover many surfaces. (A new employee recalled being told to print out his own coat hook.) Mr. McDonald, 25, comes nearly every day to work on his MakerBot project, which turns the Kinect, an inexpensive 3-D scanner and Xbox accessory, into a miniature replicator. Though his previous work was theoretical — his background is in computer science and philosophy, which translated to an interest in “democratizing technology,” he said — playing with plastics and engaging with other Bot fiends has changed his focus.

“Now I think about physical things,” he said. “I spend a lot of time thinking, how can these systems be used in an interactive way? It’s basically my full-time job to inspire myself and others. It doesn’t pay very well, but I’m happy.”

By Melena Ryzik for the New York Times