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Behind the Scenes of MakerBot's New Brooklyn Factory

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Even though the city's golden age as an industrial powerhouse has long since ended, some factories remain. Made in New York profiles these holdouts, how they operate in the city, and where in the world their goods end up. Up now, a visit to the new Brooklyn factory of MakerBot, the 3D printer juggernaut.

[All photos by Max Touhey.]

As Diana Pincus, plant manager at the new MakerBot Factory in Brooklyn, began showcasing the company's new facility during a press tour last week, she started by telling the crowd about her first desk. When Pincus joined the 3D printer manufacturer three years ago when it was operating out of a Gowanus garage, her first workspace was a wooden board suspended between two sawhorses. Now, she explained, as she showed off the two-month-old, 170,000-square-foot facility in Industry City in Sunset Park, she oversees process and procedure for a workforce of 140 assembling the company's flagship Replicator 3D printers. As if to reinforce the speed at which the company was moving, when a reporter asked Pincus why there aren't more robots on the factory floor, she explained that the manufacturing process was changing and evolving so quickly that it was cost-prohibitive to keep reprogramming artificial workers.

Instead, the company, which proudly touts a "Brooklyn first" mindset, offers on-the-job training to new hires and aims to make a serious impact on younger generations with a 3D printer in every school. Amid talk of a massive expansion into local schools, CEO Jonathan Jaglom noted that the factory was located just up the waterfront from the old Brooklyn Army Terminal, where among other things, Sherman Tanks used in WWII were once manufactured by local workers. While that kind of heavy industry may never return to the area, Jaglom sounded convinced that workers on the line were building a new kind of industrial revolution.

[Workers inside MakerBot's new Sunset Park manufacturing facility.]

MakerBot's new facility, which doubles its production capabilities, opens at an interesting time for both the company and the future of Brooklyn manufacturing. The much-hyped 3D printing revolution, expected to be a $20 billion industry by 2019, according to research firm Canalys, has been held up by many as a symbol of the future. That fact wasn't lost on the politicians and executives assembled at the press conference.

After pointing to a slide showing the back of every MakerBot Machine, which says "designed and built in New York City," Jaglom then pointed to a slide showcasing a 3D-printed Brooklyn Bridge. "This is a message that we're committed to doing this in Brooklyn," he says. "We're true partners to the Brooklyn cause."

The new factory layout is meant to increase efficiency.

[Plant Manager Diana Pincus demonstrating the Smart Extruder.]

Co-founded in 2009 by Bre Pettis, MakerBot has been the most public face of the 3D printing revolution, introducing a series of low-cost models, such as the Cupcake and Thing-o-Matic, that made the nascent technology more affordable and accessible for hobbyists and schools. And, as many have argued, the company also helped kickstart high-tech manufacturing in the city. The flagship Replicator 3D Printer uses a technology known as fused filament fabrication. A colored PLA plastic filament (derived from field corn) is fed via a drive train into a Smart Extruder that melts a small bead of material and places it on a build plate. As the printer moves the plate, positioning each bead of melted plastic next to another, a shape slowly emerges, following an outline inputted via 3D modeling software. The promise that supporters of 3D printing are banking on is that quickly creating products and models in three dimensions encourages faster prototyping, design, and manufacturing.

After years of being a cover star for publications such as Wired, MakerBot has had a challenging last few years. After a recent acquisition by Stratasys in 2013, the company went through a series of layoffs and store closings earlier this year due to restructuring and lower-then-expected sales. Earlier this year, a lawsuit was filed alleging that the Smart Extruder, a key piece of technology in every Replicator model, was knowingly shipped with defects. Jaglom, who declined to comment on a pending lawsuit, did promise to "vigorously defend" MakerBot against the claim. Opening a new factory space now seems to be a bid to both refocus on manufacturing and improve the quality of the final product.

[The exterior of MakerBot's Industry City new location.]

A year in the making, according the Pincus, the new space showcases a newer, leaner model for manufacturing. Spread over three floors, the massive new space offers MakerBot room to grow (the company signed a 10-year lease on the facility). The assembly line is located in the middle of the building, with a floor for material storage above and a shipping and receiving area on the ground floor. Split into an A and B side, the factory floor was buzzing with the sounds of workers as well as dozens of fans keeping staff cool in the July heat.

The company declined to release stats on how long it takes to assemble a printer, the total capacity, and the size of MakerBot's daily production runs. But the dozens of staff members at work—all sporting black T-Shirts that say "I Can Make Anything"—suggest they're moving at a fast clip. Later in the tour, Pincus noted that the company recently instituted "Project Firestorm," which invited the rest of the staff, including Jaglom, to jump on the line in response to a recent increase in demand.

As Pincus walked down the line during the tour, she pointed out many of the high-tech features she's instituted to help make the process more efficient. Employees work in teams at ergonomic workstations which can be raised and lowered to accommodate each individual employee. During assembly, as plastic pieces are turned into the housing for a Replicator, or a Smart Extruder is put together, each unit-in-progress is scanned in with a serial code to make it easier to track and test throughout the day.

Not surprisingly, the company also utilizes 3D printing during manufacturing. As workers assemble printers, fixtures and jigs printed in house steady pieces during assembly. New parts can also be quickly printed, tested on the line, and iterated. According to Jaglom, the ability to have every part of the process under one roof, and have different teams collaborate and share ideas, is one of the "hidden cost savings" that make locating a factory in Brooklyn such a positive for the company. An extensive testing process, both at a Stratasys facility in Minneapolis and another Industry City location, helps improve accuracy and reliability for the printers.

[The previous MakerBot factory was across the courtyard at another Industry City location.]

With 140 workers employed at the new facility, the company currently has 40 open positions. Since the basic manufacturing skills and experience MakerBot is looking for when hiring often aren't present in the area, according to Pincus, the company looks for candidates with a high school diploma and a few years of work experience, then screens applicants with a basic math and motor assembly skills test. Those who pass are assigned a mentor and learn via on-the-job training.

Within the conference rooms and engineers offices located on the periphery of the manufacturing area, evidence of tinkering with the machines is everywhere, including a variety of 3D-printed decorations in the New York-centric conference rooms (The Cloisters, Central Park, etc.). During the tour, reporters were taken into a room with a collection of previous MakerBot models, an evolutionary chart of 3D printing machines showcasing advances in technology, from wooden cases to injection-molded plastics. While the nobody would comment on the product roadmap recently devised by Stratasys and MakerBot engineers, Jaglom did say a big focus moving forward would be materials. Pincus passed around a 3D printed hammer made with new composites meant to more closely mimic the feel of wood and metal. While it wasn't a direct match by any sense, the texture of the tool was definitely closer to the real thing than plastic.

[MakerBot CEO Jonathan Jaglom.]

While the machines are meant for an array of uses, Jaglom focused on the educational space as an important part of the company's expansion plans. Brooklyn borough president Eric Adams, who was on-hand earlier during the ribbon cutting ceremony, praised the borough's workforce and spoke about his support of the printer-in-every-school concept that Jaglom had proposed. "The people here felt the technology transition was passing them by," says Adams, "and now they'll have the ability to build the future."

· As NYC's Factories Fade, One Keeps Churning Out Countertops [Curbed NY]
· How NYC's Decade of Rezoning Changed the City of Industry [Curbed]
· Inside MakerBot's huge new Brooklyn 3D printer factory [The Verge]
· MakerBot [official]

Makerbot Factory

147 41st Street, Brooklyn, New York