Can Hardware be Open-Source?

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Zach Smith | Tech Entrepreneur. Photo: Ishan Tankha
Zach Smith, Tech Entrepreneur. Photo: Ishan Tankha

Iowa offers very little other than farmland stretching all the way to the horizon. Growing up there, Zach ‘Hoeken’ Smith had little else to do than take things apart and put them back together again. Today, the 29-year-old is pushing the limits of technology. Zach is the pioneer of desktop 3D-printing.

He is not an engineer. In fact, he doesn’t even have a formal college degree. But his entrepreneurial venture, MakerBot Industries, which he started with two other friends, was acquired for $403 million. At a time when 3D-printers could cost more than a few thousand dollars, MakerBot brought down the size of printers and made them cheaper. “The idea was to make 3D-printing easy, affordable and ubiquitous. I wanted every engineer to have a high-resolution 3D-printer on his or her desk,” he says.

After dropping out of college, Zach worked as a web developer for a few years before getting involved with the RepRap project, an initiative to develop 3D printers that can print most of their own components. It was here that Zach picked up essentials of engineering and design.

In 2008, Zach along with Bre Pettis, who cofounded MakerBot, and others, founded one of the first hackerspaces in New York — NYCResistor: a community of geeks and nerds who met regularly and helped each other on individual projects. It was here that Zach, Bre and the third co-founder Adam hit upon the idea to make their own RepStrap kit. And thus MakerBot was born.

But playing the typical non-conformist, Zach quit the company months before it was acquired. He left MakerBot after differences with his colleagues over his staunch commitment to open-source hardware (OSHW). OSHW is a growing trend in manufacturing where the designers release all of the files needed to replicate the object once it’s up for sale. This allows customers and supporters to build upon the product.

Zach thinks of 3D printers as creativity multipliers. And by giving people access to his source codes, he wants to ensure that more people have access to the technologies that are revolutionising the world. The fact that others might clone his technology and eat from his profits doesn’t bother him. In fact, he believes that people cloning his idea is a confirmation of the fact that his technology is more successful than his rivals’.

After quitting MakerBot, Zach moved to Shenzhen in China, which he calls a “maker paradise”. “Living in the ‘factory of the world’ means that I have access to all these amazing tools that would be really difficult to get access to at home. The world’s largest electronics market is right in the middle of the city. And the price is the lowest price around,” he says. “I have a bazillion ideas and, in Shenzhen, the means to turn them into reality.”

Zach believes that 3D printing will unleash an explosion of creativity as people with access to cheaper 3D printers will be able to turn their dreams into reality.

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