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Exclusive Interview with MakerBot CEO Jenny Lawton on the Future of MakerBot, Next Generation Printer, Smart Extruders, & More
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By Eddie Krassenstein | 3DPrint

One of the great things about attending a show as large as, and on as large of a stage as, CES is the fact that all of the big players within industries are on hand showcasing their latest products, and discussing how they feel these products will make an impact in the coming years. Another benefit of CES is that most companies make sure that their top executives are on hand to speak with the media. Unfortunately, sometimes there is too much demand for some members of the media to get interview time with company CEOs, top engineers, or whoever else a firm elects to bring to the show.

Luckily 3DPrint.com had the opportunity to sit down with MakerBot CEO Jenny Lawton and discuss many of the company’s new products, as well as the direction in which they are going. Since Lawton took over for Bre Pettis as CEO back in September, we had only had a chance to speak briefly with Lawton on the phone and exchange a few emails, so it was nice to finally meet with her and get her perspective on the direction in which MakerBot is going.

Lawton spoke of potential partnerships, clarified some issues with the Smart Extruder, introduced some new 3D printing materials, and spoke of her transition to CEO of the company. She also answered questions on whether or not MakerBot will consider manufacturing 3D printers that use other technologies, when we can expect to see the next iteration of printer from the company, spoke of her relationship with former CEO Bre Pettis, and discussed where she thinks 3D printing will be in 12 years from now. Below you can read the entire interview that we had with Lawton.

3DPrint.com: You came on board at MakerBot in November of 2011, and you became president during the Stratasys takeover. You had a big hand in that, didn’t you? What do you feel has helped MakerBot the most with the acquisition?

Jenny Lawton: Yeah. It wasn’t my doing but I certainly led the deal. When we were approached by Stratasys, we were on a roadshow to raise a ‘free idea’ round (of funding), so we were pretty far down the road from taking the next round and looking for an opportunity to go public or at least be a lot bigger. When we looked at the choices, it was strategic but it was also tactical in a way. What enabled us to keep running, and keep on the path that we were on? Working with Stratasys really felt like it gave us the opportunity to get the stability of a company with more financial backing. It made us public immediately. We didn’t have to worry about the process. The process of going public is brutal, and it’s not predictable at all. I think that if we had not done that (teamed with Stratasys), we might not have brought our products to market as quickly. It was really important that we brought this new platform to market, because there is so much we want to do with it.

3DPrint.com: Do you think that Stratasys’ patents have helped you at all? How else has the acquisition helped MakerBot?

Jenny Lawton: That hasn’t been our focus. MakerBot for one is pretty IP focused, and has always been. IP has been something we have been aware of and concerned about, but having assets to a 25-year-old company — we like to think of as the grandfather of the industry — is awesome. If we have an issue with technology, we can go and ask people who have been doing this for a long time. It really gives you depth. We were only a 5-year-old company when we were acquired, so having the depth of Stratasys at our fingertips is incredible. I would look at that as more the opportunity than looking at the IP portfolio. Being able to go and talk to Scott Crump (Stratasys CEO), when you have a question, that’s awesome! It’s incredible, and I can pick up the phone and call Scott Crump when I need to.

Our engineers have access to their engineering team and we can learn from their failures, and experiences as well as from our own. So it really gives us a depth of experience that you just wouldn’t have in a company our size.

3DPrint.com: Do you think you will remain only a manufacturer of FDM-based 3D printers or could you potentially get into other technologies like SLA and SLS?

Jenny Lawton: We are committed to providing individuals with accessibility to 3D printing, and we really like people having access on the desktop and giving people the option to iterate as often as they need to. We are an innovative company, so we are always looking at the best way to innovate.

3DPrint.com: When you came on board in 2011, did you ever think that you would one day be CEO of MakerBot?

Jenny Lawton: It’s interesting. I always sort of had this thought that I couldn’t work for anyone else. Once I was a CEO of my own company, and then I left that and I worked in venture capital for a year, as an entrepreneur-in-residence, so my job was to start something but I ended up buying this independent bookstore in Greenwich. I have always been at the helm of my life, since I was in my late 20s.

So I did find out that I could work for other people and it was just as meaningful as [being at the helm]. I probably learned more working for other people than I do always being in charge. It really wasn’t on my mind [being CEO of MakerBot] when I came in. I really loved the role of being able to support Bre [Pettis] in growing and learning as the CEO. He really is just incredible in his span of growth. It was really awesome to be able to be working with him. I [still] talk to Bre every day. It’s awesome to be here but it’s not what I had expected. I’ve loved every aspect of what I have done at MakerBot.

3DPrint.com: What was the reason for you leaving the technology world and start running a bookstore?

Jenny Lawton: I left the technology world after 9/11 because I really wanted to spend more time with my family, be able to do something different, and not be on the road all of the time. I just got tired of being on the road all of the time.

3DPrint.com: What do you think about Autodesk and Spark? Do you think that is a possibility for MakerBot?

Jenny Lawton: I like working with Autodesk and I like our partnerships in the past with Autodesk. I am very curious about what they are doing with Spark, so I’m looking for an opportunity to spend more time with them on it. I think that Spark is an important part of the future of 3D printing and I think that the CAD industry needs to evolve and will evolve. There is room for a lot of people to play on the software side, so I applaud Autodesk for putting a stake in the ground and deciding to change the way they do things as well.

3DPrint.com: Do you think that perhaps you will utilize Marvell’s 3D printer System-on-chip solution with your 3D printers?

Jenny Lawton: I think we are pretty happy with the technology that we are using right now. I think you are going to have a lot of plays like Marvell, so we’ll see.

3DPrint.com: Do you ever have plans to make it so that your 3D printers can only use your own MakerBot filaments?

Jenny Lawton: Never is never a good word to use for anything. The answer to that question is complicated. It’s the super early days (for the desktop 3D printing industry) really, and you look at the total size of the industry, and where we all are now. I think we are all going to sort out how that works. Materials are really important.

3DPrint.com: So tell me a little bit about your new 3D printing composite materials: Maple, Limestone, Iron, and Bronze.

Jenny Lawton: These materials show you the benefit of the Smart Extruders. When you look at the MakerBot Smart Extruder, we will pair a Smart Extruder to work with metals. We’ll pair a Smart Extruder to work with woods. You are able to swap out the extruder, so it doesn’t mean you will have to go buy a new printer to do something different. When you look at why we came out with the Smart Extruder, we came out with it for a few reasons. One was because the biggest problem people have with 3D printers is problems with your extruder, so the ability to put in a new extruder in seconds and then be up and running right away is great. We also designed it so that you have the flexibility of using different materials or having a different extruder do a different process or task.

3DPrint.com: Will you be introducing any flexible filaments?

Jenny Lawton: We are looking at a bunch of new materials, and we are just talking about a few of them right now. Materials and extruders are what you will be hearing from us in the next year.

3DPrint.com: Tell me more about where you are at with the Smart Extruders. I know there have been some issues with it in the past.

Jenny Lawton: We have always iterated on our technology, and I look at our printers as something that increase in value versus decrease in value because of the level of innovation and iteration that goes into our products. We’ve continued to work on the Smart Extruder, and the extruder that we have today combined with the firmware and software that we have is a very good experience. We recognized that there were problems with the early extruders, and one of the benefits of MakerBot is that we have a warranty for our extruder. If you look at some of the other players out there, they don’t warranty the extruder. So the benefit of the warranty is that people have made use of it.

As we started to uncover some of the problems that people have been having, we made changes to the extruder to make it a much better experience. The way that the [Smart] Extruder works is different from the extruder on the Replicator 2, which is a much simpler extruder. We wanted to add a lot of technology and “smarts” to it and it didn’t necessarily always behave smartly. It does the Z-homing, and it does detection of filaments. It also has a lot of statistics and logging capabilities, so we can get information about [it].

Really when you look back on it, one of the things we missed was understanding [that] how people interact with a Replicator 2 versus how they interact with a 5th Generation MakerBot Replicator is very different. When you get a clog with the Replicator 2, you don’t think, “Now what?” You unclog it or figure out what to do with it. You don’t stop and think of it as downtime. The purpose of the Smart Extruder was that if you have a problem, you put a new one on and you would be able to keep running. One of the things that we didn’t do a good job of at first, was explaining to people that to have that experience, you first needed to have a second extruder. We’ve also learned over the last year that we can make the extruder serviceable, so the current version of the extruder is [now] self-serviceable. In the next few weeks we will put out videos of how you can take it apart and unclog it. That combined with having a second extruder makes it so that you really have maximum uptime.

3DPrint.com: So how about the next generation of 3D printers? Will we hear about them at next CES?

Jenny Lawton: [Laughter] I don’t know. Probably not. One of the things that I love about what we are doing today is that we are talking about what you do with 3D printers, we aren’t talking about the “3D printer.” I really want to focus a lot on the ecosystem and how we deliver accessibility to individuals. We are really going to work hard at driving accessibility. We will do that through our MakerBot Application programs, so people like MODO can create awesome 3D printing solutions. There is so much we have to do on the ecosystem side. We have a lot of customers today, and we really need to hear from them so that our next platform delivers what they need.

3DPrint.com: Where do you think 3D printing is going to be in 5 years from now?

Jenny Lawton: I think you need 12 years before you get to more ubiquity, and 12 years gets you through a full education cycle of kids using 3D printers from K-12, and going into college. You are really going to see a change once that happens. In 5 years from now it is not going to be ubiquitous, but are people going to be very familiar with 3D printing? I think they absolutely will.

3DPrint.com: What do you think about 3D printers that can embed electronics in objects? Will they catch on?

Jenny Lawton: I think you are going to see incredible use cases. We are creating tools for people to do things and it’s going to be really interesting to see all the things that people do. You see really awesome use cases and you are going to continue to see that.

3DPrint.com: What do you feel the biggest differences between you and Bre Pettis are as MakerBot CEO?

Jenny Lawton: Bre brought me on because I had more experience than he did in building companies. He’s a really big thinker, and we both are pretty big thinkers. I was able to be enough balance to him where I was less of the big thinking. Now I am the big thinker and Frank (Alfano) is the balance to me.

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