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Aleph Objects on the Potential of Open Hardware

At AllThingsOpen in Raleigh, NC, I spoke with Harris Kenny, VP of Marketing at Aleph Objects, the company behind Lulzbot 3D printers. I spoke with him about how they leverage open hardware, and the opportunities for 3D printers.

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Tell us a bit about Aleph Objects and Lulzbot.

The point of the company was “hey, free software today has been over three decades of lessons learned and tooling”, but about 5-10 years ago, people started applying it to hardware. So the company started to be this pure free software and open source hardware company, so the tools, the products, all of that stuff, but in particular applying the free software community and development philosophy to hardware. So we're getting mechanical engineers writing feedback on drawings, sharing the bill of materials, that kind of thing. That’s sort of the idea of the company.

We make the Lulzbot line of 3D printers in Colorado. We’ve got 140 employees, and we have customers in 85 countries, so we’re definitely growing and scaling, and the demand for 3D printers is really picking up. So we were well-timed there, but there are other open hardware companies, we’re not the only one. We’re just one of them, and we make a fully packaged tool that's assembled, you take-it-out-of-the-box, plug-it-in, and start printing. There’s a lot of open hardware but a lot of it is focused on electronics, boards, and soldering, so we’re a different beast in terms of our customer expectations, right? “Hey, this thing should work, I bought it and I want it to print” not “Hey I want to read three hours of tutorials.”

Why is open source hardware and software important to what you do?

Basically, the exciting thing is that the printers can make things, so the printers themselves are cool, but once you’ve been around them enough you kinda get it, it’s less interesting. But what’s more interesting is what people do with them. So by having a toolchain that people control, it’s like “why is Linux better for developers?” If you’re a hardware engineer, and you want to get a certain thing, or you’re a teacher teaching engineers, and you want them to understand how to get a certain output, that open environment is really good. It also turns a lot of hardware conventions on their heads, like we don’t require any NDAs, we share our bill of materials so we get really good pricing, because when we buy it’s like running into a marketplace and waving a sign when everyone else is whispering. You know, we'll walk in saying “we want 10,000 motors” and other people think “oh we should bid on that.” So we get really cool benefits. Ultimately, it’s for the end user: the engineer, the teacher, the designer, they have more freedom to make.

How do you maintain an advantage when your all of hardware specs are available?

The first thing is there’s “openwashing”, like “this is an ‘open’ printer”, but we work with organizations like the Free Software Foundation, and Open Source Hardware Association to meet their specific definitions of what a free license is. The biggest way for us to signal and differentiate in a market where it’s mixed with traditional approach, some kind of open-ish, and more of a pure product. That’s just the beginning, the hardest part is getting the product to market, working with suppliers, building it reliably, shipping it (shipping is a huge thing no one talks about, like packaging).

Well, packaging isn’t that exciting.

It’s not exciting at all! It’s this weird little cottage industry where there’s very little sharing, some best practices. I guess packaging software can be pretty hard too.

What’s your vision for where 3D printing is going?

The biggest “next” technology for 3D printing…the hardware has gotten pretty darn reliable. I mean, we’re making improvements and we’re doing some research projects right now to see if there’s that next-generation improvement in how it moves or in how it prints, but I think in addition to that we’re really stepping more time up in software, usability, more extended functionalities, so you can do more manipulation of your model before you print, and then materials. So for us, developers are not writing Python — well, some — but really a lot of the developers we’re working with are working in like Nylon and Urethanes and plastics, and that’s where there’s some exciting stuff going on, because with each new material it opens up doors to a lot of different things.

So for example, Fenner Drives makes a product called Ninjaflex, making these industrial drive belts, and one of their engineers said “hey what if we took that urethane and put it in a 3D printer,” and they turned it into a product and commercialized it. It’s an example where there’s been like fifty years of research and lessons learned, and now they’re immediately available to the Lulzbot user community, because our platform is open.

Another example would be the Eastman Chemical Company, spun out of Eastman/Kodak, they are the folks behind copolyesters. So if you have a Nalgene BPA-free water bottle, it’s made with that Eastman copolyester. They’re a huge company, thousands of employees and tons of research. Now as an open platform, it’s not a big deal to just print with that material now. Whereas it would have been impossible to, say from scratch, say “let’s do that.” So software is important for some new features and UX but the materials are important. When you get a rubber material now you can do phone cases and bumpers, grips, different types of prosthetics. So in the material world, if you have a new material it just really revolutionizes applications instead of what you think of when you think of a 3D printer printing plastic that feels like LEGO.

What do you think is the most exciting thing about open source technology right now?

Personally, I do our marketing, and something exciting to me is that there’s been a really strong push around design, UI, UX in open source and free software projects. Rachel Nabors talked about it from a design perspective and Jackie talked about it from a marketing perspective, those were awesome keynotes because it really represents what’s on the frontier of what’s happening in open source. For me that helps adoption for something like Elementary OS. We use Debian, but in general Elementary OS is like a newer distro that’s designed first for folks who are newer to Linux, and it gets a good reaction. Like “wow Linux feels very modern, I didn’t realize it was so good, I thought it was for hackers,” and that’s cool because it helps open people up to the possibilities. We use Lime Survey at Aleph Objects for customer surveys, and their user interface is like night and day versus how it used to be, and now when we have employees managing and writing surveys, they think “wow this is so awesome, it feels so modern and intuitive.” It has a lot of menus and features like some open projects tend to have, but that’s okay. Point it, those changes are really exciting. There’s some other stuff that I’m less familiar with, like containers, but that’s what I get excited about.

What’s something you feel should be standard practice in the community but isn’t?

I think licensing is really important. I think every project should have that initial commit of “here’s the license.” It’s a signal to other people, companies, and schools on how they can work with it. There’s been a conversation about whether we’re in “post-licensing” and as far as I know, federal law has not changed. So that may be culturally true, in some cases, and maybe in our community in particular, and I love and respect that, but as a company our exposure is very high and if we had a customer that’s a maker that wants to put something on Etsy, we would encourage them to be aware of federal law, because otherwise we can get a DMCA notice. So I think licensing still matters until public policy changes. I would just reiterate that because for us that really matters.

With 3D printing, lots of people are creating new content that falls under copyright, and they’re less familiar with copyright law, they don’t know it is copyrightable or if they can share it. We get a lot of use cases of people who put “noncommercial” but didn’t know what it meant, or realize that Aleph Objects can’t print it. And as soon as we tell them, these people change the license every single time. They were just trying to share it and didn’t really know.

I was doing a workshop at NC State, because they have our printers in a lab there, and it was so cool because they had a woman who’s a fellow who focuses on copyright law who works with the library, co-teaching this workshop with their maker space. And they were doing that in parallel: we’re going to talk about how this works and how to use the printer and bouncing back and forth. I couldn’t have asked for a better workshop, because teaching people that and also how to do it is really important.

We’re focused on user freedom, and our machines don’t have any DRM that restricts the user. Some of that can be labeled as “inspired by” to get under the radar. We just encourage people to know what they’re dealing with. With 3D printing you have this colliding of worlds, it’s not mass copying or cloning, but it’s enough of these lighthouse cases, like a few big companies have a big stake in their products. But a lot of the ones who really succeed are joining in on it, sharing files, and sharing free licensed models to engage with their brand. Heinekin did bottle openers for a soccer tournament as part of a maker marketing campaign. So there are some brands that are doing that and wanting to be a 21st century company, and start sharing because the Internet’s about sharing. I think in the long run that’ll be the winning approach.

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Topics:
iot ,open hardware ,open source ,3d printing

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