Shapeways CEO: 3D Printing Can Fully Disrupt Views on Manufacturing

7/11/13Follow @jpruth

Inside the Manhattan headquarters of 3D printing service Shapeways, engineers plug away at rows of workstations, the crisp clackety-clack of a table tennis match is underway in the break room, and CEO Peter Weijmarshausen sees a revolution building across his industry.

“3D printing can completely disrupt the way we think about manufacturing,” he says. “We have built a platform that people are using to bring their products to market in a much quicker, lower-barrier way than it used to be.”

For anyone catching up on this space, 3D printing is a method of producing objects by using a machine that lays down layers of a liquid material—typically plastics—that can harden quickly, making digital 3D models into real-world versions quickly and relatively cheaply.

It’s been used for years in manufacturing, but advances in the technology are making the machines cheaper. They can be used to create trinkets and toys, or more serious items such as bone implants or transparent braces for teeth. The technology is also used to create hearing aids. (Although, Weijmarshausen says, Shapeways has not really pursued the medical end of the market.)

Though there still limits to what can be created with the medium, the ability to custom order items through 3D printing, he says, cuts down the need to sell the high volumes typically necessary for mass production to make financial sense.

The 3D printing movement wants very badly to spread into more aspects of life, from personal desktop machines available now from MakerBot Industries in Brooklyn and units due for wide release in October from Formlabs, to professional-grade printers from 3D Systems and Stratasys for creating prototypes.

And while Shapeways can also produce prototypes, Weijmarshausen says, that is not the company’s main focus.

Instead, he says, enabling people to get products they want, from jewelry to décor and even board game pieces, is at the heart of Shapeways. The technology has also spread to the fashion world to create shoes and even an evening gown from 3D printed pieces. The company’s online market lets designers post images of their creations that customers can order to be printed by Shapeways and shipped.

“The time to market of a product can go from months and maybe years to days or weeks,” Weijmarshausen says. The cost to bring products to market also plunges through 3D printing, he says, giving independent designers and small companies a chance to sell their own products.

3D printed shoes, created with 3D System's Cubify printers, on display during CE Week in New York.

Weijmarshausen compares this 3D printing-driven transformation of manufacturing, which is still in its early stages, to the software space. Publishers previously only released software on discs (and if you look back far enough, floppy disks). Thanks to the Internet, software can be accessed and downloaded immediately.

“With the Internet, platforms such as ours will have the ability to do the same for physical products,” he says.

The lower barriers to entry 3D printing offers, he says, could also lead to more startups creating ideas around physical products and not just apps, software, and websites. A benefit of 3D printing, Weijmarshausen says, is the ability for designers to create limited run and customizable products. A napkin ring made through Shapeways might include text personalized by each consumer, yet have the same dimensions and shape.

Shapeways, founded in 2007, developed at an incubator in the Netherlands funded by Philips Electronics. The operations team remains overseas but Weijmarshausen says company is building its product, marketing, and engineering staff in New York.

“We’re almost 40 people here,” he says, and the company may need more space as it grows the U.S. staff. Weijmarshausen says the company has hired tech talent locally as well as outside of New York.

Weijmarshausen is not the only one who wants to put 3D printing at center stage, and a highly competitive group of companies is battling in this space. The industry has seen some legal spats over technology infringement—Formlabs and 3D Systems are discussing a settlement of their patent litigation—and rivals who pop up within skipping distance of each other. Solidoodle in Brooklyn was founded by Sam Cervantes, the former chief operating officer of nearby MakerBot.

Shapeways, which moved its headquarters to New York in 2010 after its Series A round with Union Square Ventures and Index Ventures, unveiled a production facility in Long Island City last October that houses about a dozen 3D printers with additional printers being installed almost monthly. “By the time it is completely at capacity,” Weijmarshausen says, “we will have between 40 and 50 machines.”

That may happen sooner rather than later. In April, Shapeways raised $30 million in a Series C funding round led by Andreessen Horowitz. The company will be able to produce more than 2 million products annually, he says, at the Long Island facility when it is full of printers by the end of this year.

Weijmarshausen says the company plans to keep adding new materials to the plastics, stainless steel, silver, and ceramics currently available. Shapeways recently introduced a rubber-like flexible material called elasto plastic on its menu. “There are other totally different types of materials like wood; granite can be printed. We don’t have those yet,” he says. Gold and alloys of steels such as titanium are on his wish list. He anticipates introducing more new materials to his service this year but it is too early to say what they might be.

As some players in the 3D printing industry consolidate, namely Stratasys acquiring MakerBot, Weijmarshausen says he does not feel pressure to change his strategy.

“Stratasys was one of the pioneers in FDM [fused deposition modeling] technology; MakerBot is using FDM technology. It makes a lot of sense, from the outside, that they are together now,” he says, and expressed hope that the deal would drive market adoption at the high and low ends.

Before co-founding Shapeways, Weijmarshausen was part of software company Not a Number Technologies, which published 3D graphics software Blender. When he heard about 3D printing, he reached out to the community of hobbyists in 3D software about turning their virtual designs into real items. “They already had the skill to mold things in 3D.”

The attention focused on 3D printing has also drawn critics who question where this is really going. Making replacement parts through the medium is not the same as manufacturing an entire engine block for example. Weijmarshausen says the technology is evolving to broaden its applications. “Wouldn’t it be great to print in one product both plastic and metal? Today that technology does not exist,” he says.

Weijmarshausen believes as more companies look to this market, innovation will follow and new materials will become available. He also hopes the public will develop more realistic expectations of the technology. “In some ways, 3D printing’s perception is science fiction,” he says, “and people think everything can be 3D printed. In reality that is not the case.”

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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  • Mike Sangha

    I cannot agree more with Peter. This is a rocket ship called 3D printing, which is likely to cause immense disruption. We need to get the ethics and the legal elements in hand before the horses bolt the barn. If you still dont know about 3D printing, this is a good primer: http://chopra-m.blogspot.com/2013/03/ready-set3d-print.html