How 3D printer manufacturer Ultimaker thrives thanks to open innovation

Ultimaker is a 3D printer maker from the Netherlands with a unique approach to intellectual property: it doesn’t do intellectual property. Embracing the principles of open innovation, Ultimaker put all its designs and software on the web, waiting to be tinkered with, improved and reiterated by the Ultimaker community.

Here’s what they say on their site:

The Ultimaker is open hardware, which means that the design files are published for you to improve and modify. This includes electronics CAD files, files used for laser cutting and the firmware’s and PC-software’s source code. This has allowed people in the community to create these add-ons for the Ultimaker and, more in general, improve almost any aspect!

We do not believe in the creation of artificial scarcity but strive to preserve important intellectual freedoms. We believe it would be a shame to develop something good and to keep it to ourselves. Moreover, we want to hear about, and see your improvements without requiring you to ask for permission to innovate!

It’s not that Ultimaker doesn’t want to make money, says co-founder Erik de Bruijn, it’s just that he believes that patents are not the right way to make money. See an interview with Erik de Bruijn at the DLD conference, with this priceless Q&A snippet :)

Q: What are 3D printers killing?

A: I don’t think they’re killing much.

Ultimaker printers sell for € 1500, and the company is currently selling about a 100 a week, FD reports: De Bruijn estimates that his year, he’ll sell 3250 of them.

De Bruijn thinks patents are a roadblock to innovation, he told FD: “If it weren’t for patents, 3D printers would have made it to consumers long before. It’s only now, with important 3D printing patents expiring, that the technology flourishes.” And no, he isn’t worried about copycats selling Ultimaker printers under a different brand: a competitor called BlueBot3D who tried that already went under in the Netherlands.

De Bruijn is a passionate believer in open innovation, because he’s convinced that this is how you create products that consumers ask for: by letting them design the product themselves. Asked whether Makerbot sold its soul to the devil when it abandoned its open source philosophy after it raised money in 2011, De Bruijn says: “You could call it that, yes.”

While Ultimaker is bootstrapping, Makerbot received a $ 10 million injection in 2011 from the Foundry Group and Jeff Bezos’ personal VC fund. That’s a lot of firepower. Another US competitor managed to get its product on the shelves in the Dutch retail chain ‘de Bijenkorf’ – right in Ultimaker’s backyard. But De Bruijn is already planning a counterstrike.

‘It’s time to get serious about finding marketing professionals,’ De Bruijn says.

[Ultimaker, FD][photo: Ultimaker]

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Raf Weverbergh

Editor of whiteboard. Raf Weverbergh was a magazine journalist whose work appeared in magazines like Rolling Stone, Playboy, Mail on Sunday, Publico and South China Morning Post. He is the co-founder of FINN, a corporate communications agency where he advises startups and multinationals on their PR and Mustr, the easiest media database for PR professionals. You can contact him on Twitter, Linkedin or Skype (rafweverbergh).

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