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AM Community Conversation with Mara Hitner


Welcome to SME’s AM influencer series, dedicated to the passionate professionals who volunteer with SME to connect the digital thread of Additive Manufacturing - within traditional Manufacturing.

My name is Adam Penna, your host. Leading customer engagement for our SME Additive Manufacturing community.

My guest today is Mara Hitner. Mara is vice president of strategic partnerships at MatterHackers, and MatterHackers is the largest desktop 3D printing and digital fabrication retailer in the world. With a showroom in Orange County that has 70+ 3D printer models, and over 2,000 3D printing materials. Fundamentally, helping schools and small businesses corporations starting or staying current with 3D printing. Mara is also an ambassador for America Makes, as well as an advisor to the women in 3D printing youth programs. Mara, welcome.

What was your first experience with additive manufacturing like?

I think one main difference between myself and a number of the people that you’ve been working with has been that I kind of love the major additive manufacturing, the metal machines, the software, the ceramics, and all the big technology. With MatterHackers we sell the desktop 3D printers and the materials that go with the desktop 3D printers. So that’s what I get really excited about, that accessible kind of budget friendly 3D printers and materials, and that’s what I started with. I still have my Johnny 5, he’s still kicking.

I’m a musician, a lot of people know this. And there are a lot of musicians in the AM community, so many creative people. I think we all just kind of have that background in common. Yes, my background is not computers or design, or manufacturing or anything like that. I saw 3D printing on a TV show, back in like 2013 or 2014, and I just got fascinated by it. I’m like there’s just something about it, just sparked my curiosity. And I sort of went down the very limited rabbit hole at that time in 2014, trying to find out what is this 3D printing? And I actually discovered, there was a trade show that was going to be in Seattle, and I’m in Southern California. And I was also kind of looking for a new career at that point I had been working in sales and advertising and I started reading about 3D printing and it just never occurred to me that people made things. It never occurred to me that, my phone for example, was a prototype first. First it was an idea, and then it was an idea, and then it was iterated and then mass produced. It just never occurred to me. When I started reading about desktop 3D printing, I’m like wait a minute not only do people make stuff, but I can make stuff? If I have an idea, I can just make a thing? And so, I got a little bit obsessed. So I went to this tradeshow, 3D printer world or something like that in Seattle, and that is where I met MatterHackers, and saw that they sold 3D printers, end material, and software. It was a place that I could really learn. I bought my 3D printer from them, mostly because I was interested in it, but also probably just to get a little attention so maybe they would hire me. And they did, and that was six or six and a half years ago that I have been working here. And the company has grown, the industry has grown, it’s just been really inspiring. And honestly that creativity that got me into the industry is still what drives my passion for it today for sure.

Desktop 3D printers are such an exciting space honestly. I’m all fired up because it’s been a minute since I’ve done online interviews or presentations. But I did one yesterday for Penn State for their additive program, which is just fantastic. I did an update on desktop 3D printers and materials and what’s new, so I went and refreshed a bunch of the client stories and videos that I usually share, and I just get reinspired every time I see people using 3D printing for so many things. Because like the bioprinting, the metal printing, and the houses and all that big stuff, that’s really awesome. And desktop is also used for the prototyping and development and stuff for all of those things. The future is so bright. And it’s like you were saying it’s like a new tool in the toolbox and the fact that there are now so many tools when you talk about additive, it can mean so many things. And it’s just really exciting to be part of the full community but then especially with desktop where we kind of touch a little bit of everything. We get to learn a little bit about all of the different uses for additive.

How do you see AM evolving over the next few years?

If we can stick on education for a minute and work towards development. That’s one of the things like I love Tooling U and all the programs and certifications that SME has to offer, those are all fantastic places to start. Penn State has a great program. There are a number of universities that have really great programs, we work with Chapman University, we work with a lot of community colleges also. Which is awesome cause that’s really getting to making this education accessible and making these certifications accessible. One of my favorite stories right now is Somerset community college in Kentucky, and they’ve got these tricked out $600 3D printers, that they’re printing the BASF 316L metal material, it’s actually what my ring is made out of here. It’s stainless it’s 316L and it can be printed on any desktop 3D printer that has a hardened steel nozzle or ruby nozzle. They’ve tricked out these very inexpensive 3D printers, and they’re actually teaching a certificate program in AM specifically for welders and machinists to start bringing AM into the more traditional manufacturing. L3Harris is doing the same thing, they’re using the 316L to print parts and then weld them and machine them for like gages and fixtures and tools. We’re going to have all of these parts in our RAPID booth at MatterHackers booth if you come to RAPID, so it’s at the top of mind. Captain Brad Baker over at the U.S. Navy academy has a fantastic AM program where he just keeps pushing the boundaries, and such a great supporter of additive manufacturing companies and technology. I think the future of AM is already sort of everywhere, but the education is becoming more accessible so we’re going to be able to have people that are trained to hire more people to really push the technology in the directions that it needs to go in the future. Whether that’s food, supply chain, space, all of it.

What do you think defines the AM community?

Community is a great word, that’s definitely what we found. Especially with the pandemic, everyone making face shields and everything. Just pulling together no matter what your technology is, no matter what your affiliation is, no matter where you’re getting your money, who your clients are, the crossovers. The community really has a common goal. And I think that we all sort of understand that it’s too big for one company to own. We would use the phrase bear-hugging the community. MatterHackers can do a lot of stuff, but what we’re really great at is filling gaps. There are a lot of other companies and partners that we work with. We’re mostly a reseller for example. Ultimaker, MakerBot, Race 3D, Creality 3D, all of the things. We found that there was a gap in the market for an under $1,000 desktop 3D printer that was able to print composites like nylon with carbon fiber, nylon with metal. We developed the pulse, which is one of the many printers that we sell. Community, and resilience is also probably another word I would use to describe the additive manufacturing community because everybody is just always ready for the pivot. I think probably cause the technology is developed for the pivot, where it’s literally made to change quickly and iterate quickly and be open source. You know coming from that open-source foundation I think also really fosters that sense of community, that sense of openness, that sense of not just sharing, but like collaborating. Really no kidding, this is too big, none of us are going to do this alone, so how can we work together small things and big things to develop the industry more. And I think that also goes for the client's side as well. One of the things I see a lot at MatterHackers is because we work with schools and businesses and military, those three don’t typically talk to each other, and yet with teachers all they want to do is train students for the jobs of the future. And all the corporations want to do is have a really talented pool of applicants. We try to facilitate those conversations. And then with the government and military as well bringing on AM in a really meaningful way and so open to working with small businesses. America Makes is a great facilitator for those conversations as well so, again if you start to think about it, it’s too big, it’s too much. So, you just need everybody.

I think I met more people through the pandemic, I mean the pandemic was terrible I wish it never happened and silver linings, I think I virtually connected with more people in this community than ever before. Especially with women and 3D printing with America Makes, with our clients, with so many organizations, Makerspaces. Just small and large that are just really working so hard and are so passionate about making an impact. And I’m very glad about RAPID coming up and with other programs SME is starting to do in person, like you’re doing the virtual and also doing the in-person. I think that’s, like when we talk about the new norm, I hope that continues. Cause we’ve been able to connect with people from other countries, people that maybe their company is super small and has amazing tech and ideas but just doesn’t have the budget to fly everybody all over the country. It’s really great.

Do you have any advice for manufacturers looking to adopt AM?

Listen more to your more innovative employees who might be watching Joel Telling videos, or might be watching YouTube seeing ideas on YouTube about how to use even these like couple hundred-dollar 3D printers and yes buy the $10,000 Ultimaker or whatever, buy all the things. And just start, just find someone in your organization or hire someone into your organization that has some weird ass ideas about how to do things differently. And just try it out even if it’s just a little couple hundred-dollar printer and you’re just making little plastic things. Like I’ve seen some things on the production line for the automotive industry like jigs and fixtures and real solves for problems that are like 20 cents worth of PLA. And just start. And then be open to everything else that’s out there. My biggest advice is don’t start with Peek. Maybe start with PLA or PETG. Like work your way up to it, nylon is awesome, PETG is also really strong and a lot easier to print. Like start somewhere, get some winds under your belt, have an advocate within your company but then also reach out to a partner like MatterHackers that’s completely agnostic and just really interested in your success. I think that’s some really great feedback that I’ve gotten from our clients is that they appreciate that we are there to kind of guide them to, which because we’re completely agnostic, which materials are going to work for their use case, which machine did they really need. If they’ve got a budget, maybe it’s better to get five less expensive machines instead of one machine for your whole budget because you need more production capacity versus bells and whistles that you don’t really need, and then you grow into it. My advice is start. And then find someone either internally or externally that can kind of guide you to being successful.

What do you see the role that SME plays inside of additive manufacturing?

I mean it’s a gatherer of people, a connector of people, providing opportunities for people to get together virtually or in person to discuss these things. And really providing those platforms and those opportunities for conversations and for introductions of the community, bringing the community together. I think the other thing that I’m seeing a lot of that’s great is more of a diversification in the supply chain for additive. There’s definitely a need and a call for, and I think we’re starting to answer it, for more American made printers, like we’ve got Pulse, Ultimaker, LulzBot. There’s some really good solid American made desktop printers, and also materials. I mentioned to you I recently went to this military trade show where I connected with a client of ours that during the pandemic, he was very grateful we were the only place that he could find materials, because the pro-series MatterHackers is American made. And we’re actually now also making American made resins, epoxy free resins and castable, dental, all different kinds of resins, because that’s another part of the industry that I see there being a lot of traction in right now is the low-cost open-source resin 3D printing. I think that’s another interesting thing we’re going to see more and more of is options. There’s always been options. Single extruder or dual extruder, independent dual extruder, resins or FDM. And now I think we’re going to see a little bit more of a diversification and kind of a worldwide adoption of manufacturers coming from all different countries including America.

When you got together with MatterHackers, how long after that was your first RAPID + TCT?

I started MatterHackers in 2015 in March. I want to say I probably went to my first RAPID probably the next year. I don’t know that for sure, somebody can check that for me, but pretty soon. I know I’ve been to a few RAPIDs, and I’m kind of known in the company as the outdoor cat, like everybody kind of stays back and is doing their development and shipping and all the things that MatterHackers does, and I’m the one out there in the world going what are you guys doing? How can we work together? What’s happening? I’m the one who tends to show up at all the shows so I’ve been to a few. Yes, fond memories of RAPID. I remember that’s where I first met America Makes and did some of their videos that they were doing, I think it was like three years ago. 3D printed fashion, the fashion show, that you all did a few years ago. Yulia Turner is who I met there, who she’s become such a great part of the community. Yeah, such good things.

What is your advice for attracting the younger generation and the new work force into additive manufacturing?

My advice is to the adults, to just keep making cool stuff, and sharing it with your kids, with your friend’s kids. Share it with your schools, with your local schools like reach out to your local school if you made a cool Yoda model. Just as we were coming out of the pandemic a couple of months ago, MatterHackers has a program called the education ambassadors, which is like K12 teachers that are super passionate about 3D printing in the classroom and that are basically sharing their expertise with us so that we can share it with teachers that are interested in 3D printing. So, if you go to, you’ll get to meet our education ambassadors. We teamed up with Phillips 66 and one of our education ambassadors, who’s a 6th grade teacher in Calexico, and we did a couple of trainings, a couple of workshops at the Boys and Girls club here in L.A. And he is such an inspiring education. But he came in and showed them videos about 3D printed houses for example, and 3D printed assistive devices for dogs. Some of the things that like, maybe some of us in the industry are like ahh that’s old news or whatever, but I mean the kids were just blown away. And the video about the 3D printed houses, not only did it have them asking questions about you know, ‘Well how can I do that? That seems cool, that’s a robot arm doing that?’ They had so many questions, but then it ended up being a whole conversation about the costs of land opposed to the cost of the house and like different housing markets and how that works. I think when you just get a kid excited about something cool, it just opens up so many other avenues of conversation. And it just becomes normal. You know having a robot doing your bidding is just like yeah, we did that in 4th grade. Keep making cool, share it with young people, and reach out to your local schools.

It just makes me think, there’s that side of it but then also what I think of as the workforce development side like we were talking about before. The entrepreneurship side and inspiring, another program we did was with an organization in L.A. called Think Watts, and the city was actually giving the organizer for Think Watts this guy named Sticks, and he’s like a rapper and community organizer and amazing human being. They reached out and asked if we would 3D print the key to the city. Which was cool, but I kind of wanted it to be more reflective of their community, so I reached out and found a designer from Watts who designed the key, and we then printed it. And it’s huge, it's comically huge, we have some photos of it it’s epic, it's pretty awesome. But we 3D printed this key, and we’re also going to be working with them, so Think Watts is opening a STEM lab basically, in Watts, to work with local corporations to train people that wouldn’t normally have access to this kind of training, in 3D printing, in coding, in entrepreneurship, in all of it. We’re going to be getting them again in cooperation with Phillips 66, we’re getting them a bunch of 3D printers and material and training, to kind of help boost the local community and have that workforce development available hyper locally, and for them to have access to 3D printing. Point being, entrepreneurship, when I talk to teachers who are doing elementary school or middle school and are like, ‘Yeah you know we’ve got some 3D printers and I don’t know we teach them Tinkercad I’m just having them make like cookie cutters it’s nothing major.’ Especially through the pandemic, some of our biggest clients who have been purchasing like hundreds of spools of filament are people with Etsy shops, that are literally making cookie cutters, or sewing tools, or custom things to hang your espresso scooper on a wall. All of things, that’s entrepreneurship. Especially through the pandemic people were home they have a bunch of printers at home, they started developing things and throwing them on Etsy shops and that’s now their business. So that’s something that’s accessible as a career path, for anybody.

While we have you here, is there anything else you’d like to share?

Still, I think there’s confusion on like, ‘What does MatterHackers do, like how can I work with MatterHackers?’ If anybody would like more information about any desktop 3D printers and materials that we mentioned, and the metal material that we mentioned. We actually did a panel of Etsy entrepreneurs that’s recorded, so get my email address I’ll email you a link to that panel. We have information about every different kind of material. I get very excited about the materials side of desktop 3D printing cause why have the video game counsel if you don’t have cool video games and the materials of the cool video games? I’m all about the community I’m all about just being available and being a contribution, so feel free to reach out with any questions if anybody needs help with anything.