Makerbot Is Making Mp3 Players Relevant Again With 3D Printing

<p>With the help of Makerbot, you can 3D print an mp3 player that looks like your face&#8212;or just about anything.</p>

People are doing some really trippy stuff with 3D-printing, like replicating organs and cloning mummies (seriously). Two weeks ago, the Brooklyn-based 3D-printing company MakerBot launched their latest product: the Mixtape—a 3D-printed cassette tape with a built-in 2GB mp3 player. Compared to all the futuristic objectives other 3D printers are spitting out into the market, the Mixtape seems like a strangely anachronistic (but rad to look at) choice. My first reaction when I saw pictures of it floating around the internet: Cool, but why would anyone want this thing in a world of smartphones and Spotify?

John Briscella (left) and Matt Kroner (right), with their experimental prototypes.

So I convinced the two head designers from the project, John Briscella and Matt Kroner, to sit down with me in a Boerum Hill diner one sweaty afternoon, to find out more about their hipster nostalgia trip. It turned out these two dudes are set on grander plans: completely changing our idea of what an mp3 player does, and what it should look like. Not only do they want you to 3D print your own music player, they also want you to download a negative file from Thingiverse—and make any plastic model from the website into your customized mixtape player. The possibilities are pretty crazy: a bust of Beethoven that plays Symphony No. 9, a garden toad that blasts the new Twin Shadow, your girlfriend’s buttcheeks booming to Fiona Apple… you get the idea.

The first Mixtape design (left), and the final product (right).

The Creators Project: What's the point of an mp3 player disguised as a cassette tape?
John: I would love for a 3D printer to print everything, even electronics. This was the first step—having the electronics enclosed in a 3D-printed shell. I was looking for a fun way to teach people what 3D-printing is. Most people get freaked out by it.

Matt: We wanted to show off rapid, at-home manufacturing. Something you recognize as a consumer product, but you made it yourself.

When was the moment that you were like, okay, we should bring back cassette tapes?
John: It was weird. In 6th grade I was the first one in school to get my own CD burner—it was like $400. I had the perfect scheme: basically ripping CDs and swapping them out. But what I really learned from it was, a great way for people to associate themselves with something is to make it and then give it away.

How long does it take to print out this thing?
Matt: About an hour. We engineered this thing to be a perfect, finished product—not just a prototype.
John: It's non-linear development. We can develop the board and parts separately, and if the board goes wrong, we didn't make molds for it, so it doesn't matter. Everything can be changed. Everything is parametric. We're not going to go backrupt or lose any time.

Why make your designs open-source?
John: We think it's the best design but if people try it out, they might find a beter one.

How old are you guys?
Matt: 27
John: I'm 28.

So okay, when we were growing up, cassette tapes were on their way out, being replaced by CDs. Why not make a walk-man?
Matt: It's not as powerful. The mixtape is more personalized. Not only are you selecting the songs, you're also selecting the physical object you're printing out and designing yourself.

How does the Mixtape fit into MakerBot's overall vision as a company?
John: I think of it like sports or karate—you can figure things out by yourself, but if you have somebody teaching you certain steps, you can learn more. The MakerBot is a 3D printer with its own technique—we can use the Mixtape to train people in how this thing can benefit them in the long term.

Do you think this will replace all other mp3 players?
Matt: No, it's not a replacement—it's something fun you bring on a day trip.
John: It's a bit more than an mp3 player. It's a momento.

John, with another mp3 player he made for a co-worker…crush.

Do you think Chinese workers are going to hate you in ten years? If everyone owned a 3D printer, would that eliminate our reliance on foreign manufacturing?
Matt: The politics of it bum me out a bit.
John: It's like solar energy. We're trying to offer alternatives, but it's not going be enough for everything. If we can offset the demand a little bit, it might be beneficial for people. We're not saying it's gonna save the world.
Matt: The cool thing is just ending sentimentality to every object you own.

Images courtesy Makerbot.