Shapeways, MakerBot, and Lux Capital Stoke Ambitions for 3-D Printing

4/24/13Follow @jpruth

Layer by layer, 3-D printing continues to build up its presence as more funding lands in a local player’s pockets.

On Tuesday morning, New York’s Shapeways, which makes products on demand with its printers, announced it had raised $30 million in a Series C round led by Andreessen Horowitz.

Later that afternoon, Shapeways CEO Peter Weijmarshausen gave a keynote speech at the Inside 3D Printing Conference & Expo in New York, sharing a few morsels of his plans. The two-day event featured a mix of investors who back the industry and 3-D printing companies in this still growing niche.

Large-scale businesses, such as 3D Systems in Rock Hill, SC, displayed their creations alongside developers of desktop 3-D printers including Brooklyn’s MakerBot Industries and Cambridge, MA-based Formlabs.

(It was interesting to see Formlabs and 3D Systems just yards apart under the same roof given their patent litigation, but that speaks to the relative size of this industry.)

The technology may not be new, but the level of detail now possible with high-end 3-D printers has generated a growing amount of buzz for this sector. Weijmarshausen trumpeted the capabilities of 3-D printing, such as personalizing products while retaining the efficiencies of mass manufacturing. “We’re completely disrupting how we think of manufacturing,” he said.

Dita Von Teese models a 3-D printed gown. (photo by Albert Sanchez)

Shapeways hosts online shops for designers to devise products that consumers can order. The company’s industrial 3-D printers generate the items; Shapeways shares sales revenue with the designers.

Weijmarshausen said people use his company to make vases, lighting fixtures, coffee cups, fruit bowls, and functional products such as lens cap holders and acoustic amplifiers for iPhones. Shapeways even produced pieces for a fully articulated gown, designed by architect Francis Bitonti and designer Michael Schmidt.

“3-D printing for fashion, not only accessories, is coming pretty soon,” Weijmarshausen said.

MakerBot CEO Bre Pettis spoke earlier at the conference to Xconomy about the Replicator 2, his company’s latest 3-D desktop printer, which Pettis says is aiming for both high-end consumers and business customers.

“It’s for professionals, but then it has wide enough reach for consumers and business-to-business uses,” he says. Architects, Pettis says, create models of houses with MakerBot’s 3-D printers. Tech-savvy users interested in digital design, Pettis says, have also taken a shine to his products, which his company sells online and through the MakerBot store in Manhattan.

Zack Schildhorn, vice president and director of operations with New York’s Lux Capital, gave a presentation at the conference about the potential of 3-D printing, which he said is just being realized. “What if you could go straight from a digital file to a physical object? That is the promise of 3-D printing,” he said. “On-demand manufacturing. Goods, how and where you want them.” Lux Capital is one of Shapeways’ backers.

MakerBot's Bre Pettis says the Replicator 2 appeals to prosumers.

More materials are working their way into 3-D printing, Schildhorn said, including polymers, glass, living tissue, complex metals and alloys, engineered plastics, and concrete. Combined with 3-D image scanners, he said, it is possible to reproduce objects from the physical world. “These tools are making it so easy that just a few photos can create a fully printable 3-D model,” Schildhorn said.

However, cool technology alone, he said, does not make a business. Schildhorn said he carefully scrutinizes ideas and companies in this market to sort out what is real and what is in the distant future—but he still thinks the prospects for a new style of creation continue to grow.

Fashion, construction, and scientific research are dabbling in 3-D printing, Schildhorn said, in a major shift from its roots creating prototypes of products. “This technology has reached a point where in some cases, not all, it is suitable for making real products,” he said. “It opens the door for this technology to be used on a more massive scale.”

Schildhorn also said there are not a lot of large companies in 3-D printing at the moment, but the landscape is evolving. “The entire market cap of all the public companies [in this industry] is only a few billion dollars,” he said. “That is not a big industry if you compare it to traditional manufacturing.” Consolidation has been underway the past 24 months, he said, including the 2012 merger of Stratasys with Objet and 3D Systems’ acquisition of Z Corp. and Vidar Systems, completed early last year.

He expects the technology to also spread among traditional manufacturers. Aircraft maker Boeing, he said, uses 3-D printing to make parts used in F/A-18 jet fighters. “They are investing heavily in this space,” Schildhorn said. General Electric, he said, plans to use 3-D printing in titanium to create … Next Page »

João-Pierre S. Ruth is the editor of Xconomy New York. He can be reached at jpruth@xconomy.com and followed on Twitter @jpruth. Follow @jpruth

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