Zach Smith, pioneer of low-cost 3D printing, swears by Open Source

Zach Smith

Zach Smith

On June 19, 2013, a New York-based company producing 3D printers was acquired by Stratasys Incorporated in a stock deal worth $ 403 million. For a founder who could sense such a deal coming, it takes to be more than a man to leave the company just before the deal is struck.

But Zach ‘Hoeken’ Smith is not known for making popular decisions (including this one). In 2012, he left Makerbot, the company he founded back in 2009, because of disagreements with the other two founders on how the business will run and on the open source nature of their product (3D printing technology). The world was even more surprised with his very next move of shifting to China.

Recently, when Zach was in India for a brief visit, Yourstory caught up with him to understand the bigger picture of 3D printing technology and his plans ahead.

Introduction to the world of 3-D printing

In his early days as a web developer, Zach always wanted to use the computer to bring alive his idea.  He recalls, “Before starting Makerbot, as an experiment I connected my computer to a motor and controlled the latter with the former. It was my first close encounter with my ideas taking off in the real world. I decided not to work on flashy lights and pixels on screen, but rather take up something which has more to do with the real world.”

While surfing the internet one day, he came across an initiative to develop a 3D printer that can print most of its own components. He was excited about the idea of making cheap 3D printers and eventually applying the same principles to real time product building. In 2007, he joined an initiative, RepRap Project (short for replicating rapid prototyper) as one of the founding member and since then, he has been a vocal and public proponent of the open-source movement, putting all designs for his invention out in the public domain.

The Open Source movement

Open sourcing in 3D printing technology is restricted to the designing part. This means that a person can use an existing design (from open source) to develop products but he/she should share the updated design in case any modifications are made over and above the existing design. Emphasizing on the importance of open source, Zach says, “The whole internet is built on open source. It’s amazing to see how hundreds of companies are started daily because of this free float of technology on internet. Businesses like Facebook could be started only because building websites and testing ideas came at low cost, all of which can be attributed to open source. In short, it is nothing but sharing our knowledge to open areas of awesomeness.”

Zach believes that open source enables the availability of tools and the engine of trades, at a low cost which helps many people and encourages innovation across sectors. In fact, his decision to quit Makerbot in 2012 came when he feared that his own company was challenging the open source movement.

3-D Printer

3-D Printer

Move to Shenzhen

Situated in southern China, Shenzhen is possibly the world’s most prominent manufacturing city which makes it a favorable place to develop hardware products. This made it an easy choice for Zach when deciding to relocate from New York. In fact, from his experience so far, he likes the dynamic nature of his new city owing to the 1979 liberalization policy which made it one of the SEZs (Special Economic Zone) in China.

Though 3D printing has come a long way since 2007 when Zach joined the RepRap project, there’s still so much to do which keeps him motivated. He spoke about the following as major challenges in the field of 3D printing:

  1. 3D printers are too expensive and hence out of reach of common man.
  2. It is not very convenient to work with a 3D printer. The 6-axis robotic arms which are used to print make things complicated.
  3. The material used as melting powder in ‘Selective laser sintering (SLS)’ can be further improved.

Advice to young innovators

As a torch bearer for open source technology, Zach believes that IP (intellectual property) protection is worthless and one should focus on building good products rather than wasting time in protecting it. He added that entrepreneurs should do something audacious and not simply copy and replicate a product/service.

According to Zach, there are three key ingredients to a successful startup:

  • Good idea
  • Good execution
  • Good at sharing

If any of the above two are present, the startup is likely to do well. Entrepreneurs should distance themselves from fear of failure. “It is not always the best idea that wins, but the one which gets everyone excited. With your idea you have just two options — go big or go home.”

Image courtesy: tehelka.com


Alok Soni

Alok Soni

Alok Soni prefers to keep his bio short owing to a dearth of creativity. Feel free to reach out to him at alok[at]yourstory[dot]com or follow on twitter @aloksoni