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Print the Legend

Netflix recently produced and released Print the Legend, a documentary primarily featuring startups in the 3D printing industry. 

The documentary was directed and written by Luis Lopez and J. Clay Tweel.  Their primary subjects were Bre Pettis, former Co-founder and CEO of MakerBot Industries, Max Lobovsky, Co-Founder and CEO of Formlabs, and Cody Wilson, creator of Defense Distributed.

The documentary begins with the steady hum of a 3D printer and launches into an exploration of the industry, and the people who are, or have made it.  Lopez and Tweel begin in Brooklyn, New York in 2009. 

They document the rapid rise of MakerBot industries, which went from employing 3 individuals to employing 85 individuals in just two years.  Bre Pettis was just one of three co-founders of the company, but the documentary chooses to focus the story of MakerBot primarily around him.

Initially designated as the design/marketing head, Pettis modeled his company very much on that of Apple, Inc.  His fellow co-founders insisted on him being the “Steve Jobs” of MakerBot.  Which he did, with deft skill.  The documentary does well to show Pettis’ acumen for the spotlight: dealing with the media, presenting product launches that echo Apple’s throughout the years, and pushing MakerBot industries into the role of poster child for the desktop revolution within the 3D printing industry.

Print the Legend then shifts its focus to Max Lobovsky in Cambridge, MA in 2011.  Lobovsky co-founds Formlabs in his basement with an old friend, David Cranor.  They envision their Form1 3D printer as the first desktop stereolithography capable machine.  (Meaning the use of lasers instead of plastic extruders.)

MakerBot then takes center stage again, and this is where the documentary becomes even more interesting.  In late 2012, MakerBot underwent a huge shift in philosophy.  By this point they had about 260 employees, and had just launched the MakerBot Replicator 2. 

The Maker community was not happy.  Indeed, Natan Lader, one of the co-founders of Formlabs even went so far as to call it a “dark day for the open-source Maker Community.” 

Up until that point, MakerBot had stood by its philosophy of open-source technology, where everyone could share his or her different tinkerings and technologies and innovations.

But the Replicator 2 was created with proprietary control in mind.  No more open source, MakerBot aimed for the “sexy, Apple-like design” aesthetic.

Not everyone at MakerBot liked the drastic shift in philosophy as much as Pettis did.  Zack Hoeken, one of the other co-founders of MakerBot industries called Pettis’ actions “the ultimate betrayal”, as he believed in the democratization of the 3D printing industry.

Pettis replied by saying “you can’t live in a fantasy world and have a business too.”  Hoeken would quickly be herded out of MakerBot industries. 

But as a few MakerBot employees would point out, the industry was (and is) still looking for the “killer application for desktop 3D printing technology.  Something that would make people rush out and buy printers for.  Something that would make them say: this is why I have to have a 3D printer.”

Enter Cody Wilson. 

Wilson is from Austin, Texas, and according to the documentary is a “Law Student/Anarchist.”  We’ve chronicled a little bit about his escapades here at Replicator World.  He was the first person to build and shoot a 3D printed handgun, the Liberator. 

Wilson describes himself as an “information anarchist who does not subscribe to the belief that information should be public and private.  Everyone should have the ability to access all information.”

“There should be one law.  If the police can have it, if the military can have it, you can have it.”

His purpose in printing 3D guns and uploading the files online is to “confront the people in power in a very illustrative and visual way: You cannot control the future….the [barbarians] are coming.  This new generation intends for 3D printing to be a very significant technology in the future, not just a toy you can buy.”

Print the Legend does an excellent job of showing two opposing sides within the 3D printing industry.  They show what Cody Wilson is attempting to illustrate with his demonstrations, and they also show the corporate, MakerBot side of the equation as well. 

The story of Formlabs, despite their record breaking 2.9 million Kickstarter campaign to raise money for their desktop stereolithography 3D printer, becomes the least interesting when compared with the philosophical wrangling between Wilson and MakerBot Industries and other, larger, more established 3D printing companies such as Stratasys and 3D Systems. 

For example, when Cody Wilson put his 3D CAD files for his gun on MakerBot’s online Thingiverse CAD catalogue, the company very quickly struck them down.   So, Wilson decided to create his own online CAD catalogue.  And that was how DEFCAD.com was created.  He was able to freely post 3D printed gun designs online. 

Eventually, Stratasys would confiscate his 3D printers and the US State Department would order him to take down the gun files, citing firearm trade laws. 

Wilson was undeterred.  He feels that he “wasn’t invited” to the world of 3D printing, and the CEOs of the bigger companies hate that he is trying to enter it the way he is. 

Therefore, Wilson proceeded to put up a YouTube video of him shooting the 3D printed Liberator.  It’s clear that he isn’t 100% sure the gun will fire, however, because just before he shoots it, he turns to the cameraman and says “if this thing blows up on me, use Google Maps.  Find a hospital for me.”  The test was a success, however, and was seen 3.7 million times in the next several days. 

Print the Legend focuses on other stories within the 3D printing industry, but this tension between open source and proprietary technology is perhaps one of the most interesting.  And probably one of the hardest questions brought up by the documentary to answer. 

David Cranor, one of the co-founders of Formlabs, summed it up best:  “The big guys in the industry [MakerBot Industries, now owned by Stratasys and 3D Systems] are crying tears of blood.  They fear their grip on this new technology is beginning to slip.”  And it is companies like Formlabs, and interesting characters like Cody Wilson who are working to loosen that vice-like grip.

The struggle between the open-source and the corporate side of the industry will largely dictate the future of 3D printing. 

Image and Quotes Courtesy of Print the Legend and Netflix

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