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SXSW: CEO’s Passion for Accessibility Shines Through

By Beth Carpenter - March 13, 2013

As Bre Pettis took the stage for the first keynote of SXSW 2013, two things stood out.

One: Bre Pettis is “that guy.” This CEO believes his invention won’t simply just change the world. He believes it will improve the world’s economy,  recycle plastic into usable objects, and solve all sorts of other problems – from how inventors work to how goods and services are shipped. As he demoed a prototype of his newest project, he smiled like he was an eighth grader showing off at a science fair.

“Making things is like crack – you can never get enough of it,” he said, grinning.

Two: Bre Pettis repeats the word “accessible” a lot. “The next industrial revolution is powered by passion, innovation, iteration and the ability to make things,” Pettis said. He reinforced that as costs come down and the industry scales, more and more will have access to a cheap 3D printer. (Right now, a Makerbot costs $2,199, or about $300 less than a Macintosh cost in 1984 before adjusting for inflation.)

Of course, cheap is only half of the story. “Accessible” means you also have to be able to use it without a manual, 20 YouTube videos, or a college course. Makerbot is working with AutoDESK to develop easy-to-use software. In the meantime, most hobbyists are sharing designs online and teaching each other how to use complex industrial design software.

“With 3D printers, the browser becomes the interface to a manufacturing plant,” 3D printing enthusiast John Biehler said in a session later that weekend. Think of the mini-manufacturing plants that could help a nonprofit’s work. Could field offices in far-flung places print needed materials? Could a nonprofit get HIV medicine to a remote village by simply installing a printer? Soon, you’ll even be able to print human organs.

In the discussion that ensued after Pettis’ keynote, someone mentioned “a guy who prints houses.”  He prints what? A little googling led to a documentary trailer.

As more new inventors get involved, Pettis and others expect new applications to sprout. “We won’t continue to see the few design for millions. With 3D printing, we’ll start to see millions designing for themselves,” said one panelist at the Future of 3D Printing panel, one of three more sessions on 3D printing during SXSW.

Pettis gave a shoutout to the RoboHand project, which builds prosthetics for kids born without limbs or appendages. “If you’ve ever had to buy shoes for kids, you know how this goes. They grow so fast. They’re just cranking out hands for kids!”

Still to be solved are copyright issues, and how to restrict manufacturing of dangerous items. What use are gun laws if you can just print your own gun?

In the meantime, however, Pettis pointed out that libraries are starting to buy their own 3D printers and hosting meetups; judging by the reaction on the street at SXSW, this is a technology inspiring a huge new wave of creativity.

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