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One On 1 Profile: MakerBot Founder/CEO Bre Pettis Navigates The Future With 3D Printing

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On Tuesday, Makerbot Industries will hold a press conference in its NoHo store to announce a new initiative the company says will have a major impact on education and technology. Bre Pettis, the CEO and co-founder of MakerBot Industries, credits expanding the horizons of the digital industry through 3D printing with hard work and an obsession for invention. NY1's Budd Mishkin filed the following One On 1 profile.

There are two versions of Bre Pettis: Bre Pettis, the person, and Bre Pettis, the thing, specifically a replica of his head being created in a 3D printer.

Pettis is the CEO and co-founder of MakerBot Industries, a company that makes 3D printers for the home and office.

3D printers use digital designs and materials, such as plastic, to create three-dimensional objects.

For Pettis, it's not so much about what you are making, but the fact that you are making it.

"Instead of thinking about, 'Oh, I want something, where am I going to go buy it?' You think, 'I want something, I'm going to make that myself,'" Pettis says.

3D Printers have been around since the mid 1980s, but only recently have they been made small and inexpensive enough to function for the individual consumer.

The industry's impact is growing.

NASA and Lockheed Martin use MakerBots for telescopes.

MakerBots have also been used to create artificial limbs and design sets, and MakerBot has a program with young people connected to the Museum of Natural History.

"When we started, we had to explain what 3D printing is, and it would just boggle people's minds like, 'What? I have a machine that makes things? What?' People just didn't get it at the beginning. Now, people get it," Pettis says.

These people include those in the White House.

"A once shuttered warehouse is now a state of the art lab, where new workers are mastering the 3D printing that has the potential to revolutionize the way we make almost everything," said President Barack Obama in his 2013 State of the Union Address.

"That was one of those moments that was like, 'Okay yeah, we've just gotten somewhere, like something just happened," Pettis says.

Pettis's journey has been unconventional.

He was born in Ithaca, moved to Ohio and grew up primarily in Seattle.

He can't recall a time when he didn't make things or repair his own stuff.

"For me, when I made my first bike with my uncle, I had this feeling of, 'It's mine, I'm in control of it. If it breaks, I can fix it, and if I want to make it better, I can do that too,' and that's a real powerful rush," Pettis says.

That feeling of empowerment has never left him.

In college, he wanted to study in Japan. So, to save money, he took things into his own hands.

"When I wanted to live in Japan, I moved into a little hut in the forest," Pettis says, "It was a handmade hut. It was pretty well-insulated, and it was free."

After college, Pettis taught for seven years in the Seattle public school system.

"I loved being a teacher," Pettis says. "I loved seeing the spark in kids' eyes when they found a new way of expressing themselves, and they would start going for it."

But to raise a family, Pettis knew he needed to make more money.

He left teaching and started making instructional videos on the net, creating the weekly video series, "Weekend Projects."

Around the same time, he briefly pursued an art career.

He says his pieces didn't sell.

Still, his love of art that starts with an intention but doesn't know how it's going to end influences his work today.

"We want this to exist, we don’t know how it’s going to exist, we don’t know if it’s possible that it can even exist, but we’re gonna do it anyway, and the adventure that we go on to get there will inform us and help us figure out what the future is going to be," Pettis says.

Behind Pettis's desk is the progression of 3D printers put out by MakerBot, since the company's inception in 2009.

Pettis says he and his colleagues initially thought MakerBot was a side project, a small business, and that 20 kits would be sufficient inventory for a couple of months.

"We put them out on line, the internet went crazy, and we sold out basically instantly, and it was one of those things where it was like, 'Oh, we're screwed, and this is awesome."

The company's first months featured 16-hour work days, lots of caffeine and endless meals of ramen noodles.

"There's a secret power that obsessive people have that the rest of the world doesn't have," Pettis says. "For most people, they think about working from nine to five, and then they stop working.  When you're obsessive, and you're committed, and you have an idea, and you can't let it go, you get way more hours in the day than everybody else."

It seems that he never turns off the obsession for invention.

When his daughter was sick in the hospital, for example, Pettis noticed an IV machine that he thought could be made more efficiently.

But he is realistic about what can be achieved.

"It's one of those things where I'm mature enough that I can go, 'Okay, I'm only going to live another 40 years, I can only get so much done in my lifetime, I have to pick my battles," Pettis says.

Intellectual property has become an issue for the 3D printing industry.

Pettis answered bY promoting the idea of people sharing their designs, what MakerBot calls "open source."

"So, if you upload something, I can download and make it better, and then re-share it," Pettis says. "It turns out that it's this amazing, being a parent kind of a feeling, when you make something, and you set it free, and then it has a little bit of a life of its own."

Another big issue for the industry is gun-making.

A blueprint can be downloaded, and then made into a plastic gun.

Pettis had no interest in discussing the issue.

In December 2012, MakerBot took down some of the downloadable blueprints for gun components off of its "Thingiverse" website.

MakerBot's imprint on New York is growing.

There's the company store in NoHo and three work sites in Brooklyn, including the main headquarters in a relatively new space downtown.

"You come here, and people are motivated to get things done," Pettis says. "You know, you walk down the street, people literally walk faster here, because they have things to go do. The talent pool is amazing here. I get to work with the most talented people in the world, because we're in New York City."

Pettis frequently talks about empowerment, an idea that connects his careers in teaching, instructional videos and 3D printing.

Both Pettis and MakerBot are increasingly prominent in a growing industry, but he doesn't necessarily categorize it as success.

"Some people might think that we look pretty successful, but we don't see it that way," Pettis says. "We wake up every day wanting to live in a world that doesn't exist yet and doing our part to push it forward. You don’t build the future by making something that’s already been done. You have to jump off the ledge and hope that there’s something there to support you."

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