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

4/24/13Follow @jpruth

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injectors for jet engines. Combining 3-D printing with manufacturing, he said, can trim waste from the process. “It cuts 25 steps down to a single step or maybe just a few,” he said. It also reduces paperwork and labor to create parts and rapidly make adjustments.

Manufacturers of hearing aids, Schildhorn said, make extensive use of 3-D printing for 95 percent of all in-the-ear units to create unique, custom-fit devices. “It is one of the few industries where 3-D printing has had a pervasive impact,” he said. “It doesn’t make sense to do it the way they used to.”

Other medical devices and products can be created with this technology. Bespoke Innovations, a San Francisco-based unit of 3D Systems, uses it to craft prosthetic limbs. “They can scan someone’s [other] leg or arm, match that geometry, and produce something that expresses their personal taste,” he said.

For now, 3-D printing is not quite mainstream. Bbut that could change if the technology advances as more money goes into this space. Shapeways plans to use its latest funding to build more factories, continue to develop its technology, and increase access to 3-D printing for consumers.

Last October, Shapeways opened a factory in Long Island City, with the facility still being built out. “We intend to expand it to have 30 to 50 industrial grade 3-D printers making over a million parts on a yearly basis,” Weijmarshausen said. The company also has a factory in the Netherlands and plans to set up more to bring production as close as possible to customers.

Shapeways receives about 60,000 new designs each month, Weijmarshausen said, and has made more than 1 million different products. “I remember the early days when I was happy I had three designs I could print,” he said.

And the designs are getting increasingly unique. Weijmarshausen said users can connect their accounts on SoundCloud, an audio website, to Shapeways. One of SoundCloud’s features is the graphic depiction of audio tracks as waveforms, which can be used in 3-D printing. “The wave that SoundCloud is known for, the expression of the sound visually, becomes the back plate of your iPhone case,” he said.

Designers have the chance, he said, through 3-D printing to become entrepreneurs much like the way engineers can launch their own websites to distribute software and collaborate with others.

A chess set available through Shapeways.

Weijmarshausen said the technology helps designers skip some of the usual stages of production, such as creating a prototype, patenting their items, gathering money, finding a manufacturer, and trying to get the item on retail shelves. “Then you’d have to hope the product resonates with the audience you had in mind,” he said.

Setting up shop online through Shapeways, he said, makes it possible for designers to move much faster. Jewelry designers, for example, can quickly feature their creations online. As Shapeways adds more materials to its offerings, Weijmarshausen sees the chance to shake up various markets where customization is a desirable.

“It’s now possible, using 3-D printing, to make silver in a quality I call jewelry-grade silver,” he said. In some cases, he said, it is hard to distinguishing jewelry made through 3-D printing from what is found in stores.

Weijmarshausen said the mechanics of 3-D printing make it easier to set up production facilities near customers, cutting down costs and the time to ship products. He also believes the technology, when brought up to scale, could drive the return of an often outsourced industry to these shores.

“You don’t need to go to a country that is known for being very cheap for manufacturing,” he said.

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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