It hasn't been the stablest year for MakerBot. Since last August, the quirky 3D printing company has switched CEOs twice, replacing co-founder Bre Pettis with executives from parent company Stratasys. After missing growth targets, it laid off around 20 percent of its staff and shut down its three retail stores in April. And it's fighting a class action lawsuit that alleges MakerBot and Stratasys knowingly sold faulty printing heads while misleading investors.
But the company is also turning a more positive corner. Earlier this week, it opened a new printer assembly center in Brooklyn's Sunset Park neighborhood — a 170,000-square-foot facility that will produce everything from its compact Replicator Mini to the large and high-end Z18. MakerBot says the new factory currently employs around 140 people, with around 40 more open positions, and will let the company double its production capacity. It's positioned it as not just a step forward for MakerBot but a step forward for the borough in general, a shift toward skilled jobs that don't require higher education. In theory, it will also create a more stable production environment, cutting down on equipment failures like those behind the current class action suit.
The MakerBot plant's unique twist is that it's essentially a factory for tiny factories. Amid the rest of the equipment, you'll find the odd 3D-printed placard, container, or manufacturing jig; MakerBot puts the designs for its fixtures online. They contribute to a Lego-esque atmosphere that stands in sharp contrast to the building's aging architecture — it's part of a century-old complex currently known as Industry City, where MakerBot has been leasing space since 2013.
After years of touting itself as an across-the-board "prosumer" printer company — selling machines for thousands of dollars instead of the tens or hundreds of thousands that a company like Stratasys might charge — MakerBot seems to be focusing hard on education as a way to carve out a lasting niche. Along with CEO Jonathan Jaglom, the grand opening included appearances from Brooklyn Technical High School's principal and the dean of SUNY New Paltz's science and engineering school, which opened MakerBot's first "innovation center" printing lab last year. Instead of a printer in every home, Jaglom is looking for one in every school — and he wants it to be a Replicator. "It's like the Xerox of 3D printing," he boasts. "They're not asking for a 3D printer, they're asking for a MakerBot."
- Industry City, home of MakerBot's new facility, was known as the Bush Terminal when it opened in the late 19th century. It served as a Brooklyn shipping hub and once housed The Topps Company, producers of Bazooka gum and several lines of trading cards.
- In recent years, Industry City has been revamped as a home for artisans and craft-oriented companies like MakerBot, which has moved through several locations in Brooklyn since its founding in 2009.
- Brooklyn borough president Eric Adams (center) cuts the ribbon at MakerBot's grand opening, as CEO Jonathan Jaglom waves to the crowd.
- MakerBot's first professional product was the Cupcake CNC, launched in 2009. Note the many small screws — MakerBot plant manager Diana Pincus says replacing them with parts that slide together has been a major priority.
- While the factory currently operates with 140 workers, CEO Jonathan Jaglom says it could operate with over 200 at full capacity.
- The Replicator Mini is the smallest and cheapest of MakerBot's designs. It can print items that are around 4 inches wide and long.
- MakerBot says it typically requires a high-school degree and a few years of general work experience in factory employees, who are trained on the job.
- Fans cool the MakerBot factory floor.
- Gray plastic jigs, printed by a MakerBot replicator, hold parts in place during assembly.
- MakerBot won't reveal how long it takes to put together one of its printers, which are passed down several steps in an assembly line.
- This hammer isn't made of either wood or metal, but MakerBot sees adding more kinds of printable materials as one of the biggest new challenges in 3D printing.
- A testing ground for MakerBot's Smart Extruder printer heads, which were the subject of a class action lawsuit earlier this year.
- 3D-printed decorations adorn all parts of the MakerBot plant, from conference rooms to employees' computers.
- MakerBot's plant manager says the company changes products too often to efficiently program robots that would replace human workers on the assembly line.
- While the majority of the floor space is devoted to assembling products, the plant also includes offices, conference rooms, and presentation space.