July 29, 2014
Inside a 25,000-square-foot Queens warehouse that smells like hot candle wax, a man stands in front of what looks like a solid white cube the size of a small ice chest.
His fist rises and falls repeatedly, and within minutes, the cube disintegrates into powder, leaving behind dozens of solid plastic artifacts. The wings of a toy biplane. Two small elephants. A ring.
"I love this discovery process, because you never know what you'll find," says Peter Weijmarshausen, 42, CEO of Shapeways, a fast-growing company dedicated to providing state-of-the-art, 3-D printing to the masses. "The creativity of people amazes me."
Those creative souls are responsible for the 8 million products being sold through Shapeways' 16,000 online shops, ranging from $600 lampshades inspired by sea stars to $10 dice for board games.
Shapeways is also printing thousands of kid-produced bracelets as part of Google's $50 million Made with Code initiative aimed at getting more girls to code. The company also has a partnership with Hasbro that allows fans to tweak and sell intellectual property via the website SuperFanArt.
"We're starting to do more and more in precious metals, and while printers can't do clothing just yet, we're pushing that, too," says Weijmarshausen, noting that pantyhose are made of nylon, "which is really just fine plastic. We'll get there."
The Dutch technologist thinks he's at the beginning of a manufacturing revolution, one that sees the masses creating custom-made goods produced the instant an order is processed.
"Think of the benefits," he says. "No warehousing costs, and no waste on products that never get sold, plus the ability for people to have what they truly want. Maybe you see a mug on our site, but don't like the handle? You can contact the designer, and they quite often will adjust it any way you like. It's total freedom."
A 3-D printer turns digitized ideas into tactile reality by layering fine sheets of plastic based on data from modeling software. A growing number of companies are making small 3-D printers for home use. MakerBot, which sold for $402 million to Stratasys, sells its $1,375 MakerBot Replicator Mini in some Bay Area Home Depots, while the $1,000 Cube is available at Staples.
What sets Shapeways apart is its small army of industrial-grade machines, which can cost up to $1 million. To watch these printers work is like waiting for paint to dry, as lasers delicately melt parts of wafer-thin layers of plastic set down by the machine. The result is that block of white plastic powder filled with doodads.
Weijmarshausen was convinced there was a consumer market for sophisticated 3-D printing when he started Shapeways in the Netherlands five years ago, after it split off from Philips Electronics and raised $5 million from Union Square Ventures in New York and Index Ventures in London. But even he didn't imagine how fast the sector would grow.
The $1.4 billion 3-D printer manufacturing business has had annualized growth of 22% since 2009, and will continue to experience double-digit surges through 2019, says James Crompton, research analyst with IBISWorld. "It's not inconceivable that (3-D printing) could be a catalyst for a manufacturing revolution, much like the assembly line once was."
He gives the time and possibly life-saving example of a military outpost being able to 3-D-print a vital truck or plane part, and notes that surgeons have successfully implanted jaws and parts of skulls made with 3-D printers. "As the (printing) technology advances, so will the options."
Shapeways' machines provided more than enough technology to change Chuck Stover's life. The Lansing, MI, autoworker recently quit his job tending to Cadillac engines and rear suspensions, thanks to the steady business he's generated for his role-playing game dice sets, which boast graphic themes ranging from Midwestern leaves to space satellites. "When I started this, I just thought, 'If it's good enough for me, maybe someone else will like it,'" says Stover, who went from making $100 a month to quitting when his Shapeways-derived income matched his salary. "To do what I love and have no boss, it's amazing."
Weijmarshausen isn't surprised by that tale. It's reminiscent of the time in 2007, when this longtime techie ("I was online in 1992, when my friend would ridicule me and ask, 'Who are you going to e-mail, Pete?'") first approached a group of friends with a question.
"I had gotten a bunch of (computer-based 3-D) designs from them ahead of time, and quietly printed them out," he recalls with a laugh. "I said to them, 'Would you use a website where you can upload your designs, get feedback and a price, then pay by credit card and wait until the items are shipped to your home?'"
Their astonished and unanimous answers of yes led to Shapeways, which currently has 70 employees split between Eindhoven in the Netherlands and New York, a city he chose as a U.S. hub because "it's a cauldron of new tech but also design, media and entrepreneurship."
But ultimately, Weijmarshausen feels Shapeways shouldn't be thought of as a tech company hailing from any particular city. "People ask where we're based, and I joke, 'on the Internet,'" he says. "The point is, whether you're here or in Costa Rica or in Germany, if you have something you can design with 3-D software, we can make it and get it to you or your customers. That's all you need to know."
Copyright 2014 Gannett Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved
The original headline for this article as: 3-D's the charm for Shapeways' printing process
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