What is the most important invention of the 21st century? The smart phone? Hybrid cars? Twitter? Filmmakers Luis Lopez and Clay Tweel would have you believe it is the 3D printer.
These desktop devices allow users to print immediate prototypes, greatly reducing manufacturing processes and improving workflow. While their documentary Print the Legend doesn't exactly succeed in proving the claim of most important invention, it does succeed wildly at capturing a fascinating moment in innovation. This is the best documentary on startup culture since Startup.com, and it is a brilliant snapshot of a moment in history.
While 3D printing has existed since the tech boom of the 1980s, the technology has always been too costly for anyone but the most lucrative corporations. That is, until just a few years ago when several plucky upstarts developed the first desktop 3D printer and started the company MakerBot. While being first to market has its financial advantages, it also presents plenty of challenges. Rapid growth, fundamental differences between founder Bre Pettis and the other partners, and the constant toll of trying to stay a step ahead of the next plucky upstart are the main issues MakerBot is faced with. This is all great fodder for Print the Legend to tackle, and Lopez and Tweel do it with aplomb.
But MakerBot is just part of the story. While the filmmakers catch up with MakerBot as the company reaches adolescence, the cameras are also running with the aforementioned next plucky upstart, Formlabs, when that company is just in its infancy. Built on a completely different technology than MakerBot's fused deposition modeling, Formlabs's Form 1 takes the 3D printing world by storm when Formlabs founder Max Lobovsky launches the prototype on Kickstarter and pre-sells hundreds of units, bringing in $2.9 million. Add overnight success, production delays, and huge expectations to all those problems MakerBot had, and you see there is plenty of drama for the filmmakers to sink their teeth into.
Two tangential characters earn substantial screen time as well. One, Cody Wilson, is a media savvy anarchist and creator of the first fully 3D-printed firearm. His story points to a darker side of the technology and his criticisms of Bre Pettis are well founded. The second is Abraham Reichental, the head of 3D Systems, the company that holds many of the patents for the stereolithography technology that the Form 1 uses. His lawsuit and interaction with Lobovsky and Formlabs serve as that story's counterpoint, although as a character, he isn't full developed.
It is often said that what makes a great documentary is strong characters, and the directors made a wise decision to focus the film on the stories of Pettis and Lobovsky. Both men are compelling characters with plenty of warts to be illuminated. It's these men's personalities that are on display in Print the Legend, and what the audience comes away with is a sense of what it takes to succeed in the high intensity world of a technology startup. It is a truly fascinating film and one that will be very enjoyable to revisit in years to come. Maybe by then we'll have a better idea what the heck we can use all these 3D printers for