Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2012

3-D Printers: Sci-Fi Technology for the Masses

At the end of 2006, Peter Weijmarshausen was looking for his next business gig, when his friend, Enderson Guimaraes, the chief executive of Philips' Lifestyle Incubator (PLI), called him up to talk about a potential business venture. Guimaraes and his PLI colleagues were tossing around startup ideas and one involved 3-D printing, a manufacturing technology popular in the aerospace and automotive industries.

Instead of spitting out paper with words on it, 3-D printers lay down successive layers of material to form physical objects. Guimaraes was looking into bringing 3-D printing to the masses so that people could create things like a piece of jewelry or a coffee cup, exactly how they wanted them. Guimaraes knew Weijmarshausen had worked as a web-programmer at Blender, a start-up that develops open-source 3-D software, and wanted his thoughts. But, Blender users were developing virtual prototypes on computer screens, not actual physical items, so Weijmarshausen didn't understand. "I didn't think much because I didn't grasp the concept at first," says Weijmarshausen. "I had never seen 3-D printing. But, when I grasped it, I said 'Oooooh, yes!'"

To fully understand whether 3-D printing had potential, Weijmarshausen called his old friends who were using Blender software and said "Do you have anything that you created in your computer that you would like to hold in your hands?" Everyone responded that was impossible. "I said, 'Let's assume it is possible,'" says Weijmarshausen. "When I said that, they went wild. And I knew we had an idea."

Weijmarshausen came on board to spearhead the 3-D printing project in March 2007. After less than a year, his team had created its first 3-D printed object — a small fortress gate — and Shapeways became a wholly-owned subsidiary within Phillips, the Netherlands-based technology conglomerate.

How the 3-D printing process works varies depending on the material, but essentially the printer reads a computer file to understand where to lay down material and deposits a powder (made of plastic, steel, ceramic, or whatever material is chosen) and builds up the product layer by layer. Objects can get as large as a chair (in plastic) or as small as a ring (in silver), with the size often dictated by the material's cost. "The first guy who uploaded something and received the object at home went completely bananas," says Weijmarshausen, who notes that they could only print in plastic back then. "He posted it on the blog BlenderNation and everybody started to come to our site."

Three years later, after spinning off from Phillips and moving its headquarters from Eindhoven to New York City, Shapeways has grown into the largest marketplace for printable 3-D designs. The company boasts over 100,000 users and prints over 300,000 products in 25 different materials, including stainless steel, silver, glass and ceramics. That's about 30,000 unique items per month, which include everything from jewelry to home décor to hobbyist puzzles. Today artists, designers and even non-techie folks frequent the site, both as buyers and sellers. Shapeways now has a marketplace with more than 3,500 shops where designers sell what they've created. The company just partnered with Wired magazine to showcase products made by community members in a holiday Pop-Up Store in New York City's Times Square.

So far, the business model seems to be working, although the start-up is not yet profitable. Late last year, Shapeways raised an additional $5.1 million from Union Square Ventures and Index Ventures — the companies who invested the first round of funding of $5 million last fall — and announced that it will open its own printing facility in New York City this year. The goal: faster turn around times (no more shipping to Einhoven to print) and lower prices — two challenges the company has been grappling with since the beginning — in the hopes of winning over the mainstream public.

"Shapeways sales are growing nicely," says Albert Wenger, partner at Union Square Ventures, also an early investor in Etsy, Twitter and Kickstarter. "It has a similar feel to Etsy in that there is clearly a community of people emerging who are passionate about designing 3-D objects and almost everybody can learn how to do it."

Although 3-D printing sounds like it's straight out of a science fiction movie — enter in a digital drawing and out pops a custom-made object, such as a car part or a ring — the technology is actually nothing new. In fact, 3-D printers have been around for over 20 years, with engineers using the machines mostly to build mini prototypes of what they were working on in the real world. But the cost of printing objects was so high that only corporate America could afford to use them.

Shapeways turned this notion on its head, going to 3-D printing companies and convincing them to lower prices by promising a high volume of sales. The result: personalized production at affordable prices. Designers now have an easy way to make what they want and sell them to the public. And if you don't have 3-D modeling experience, that's ok too. You can simply shop or hire a designer to help. The site has over 1,000 ready-made items that anyone can customize, such as a "light poem" that's an electric candleholder where users choose the material and the poem to form the outershape. Or upload a pencil-drawn form and Shapeways has software to turn it into a ring or earring. "Shapeways is well positioned with at least two business models that seem viable," says Michael Weinberg, senior staff attorney at Public Knowledge, an advocacy group focusing on technology. "You don't need everyone to know how to design to make this work."

Artist Bathsheba Grossman opened the first shop on Shapeways in 2007 to augment her existing business of selling geometric-inspired jewelry and sculptures. (By coincidence, her brother works at TIME.) Grossman was one of the first artists experimenting with 3-D printing back in 1997, but it was so expensive she couldn't make ends meet. She eventually garnered a following and when Shapeways opened a marketplace for sellers, she was the first artist Weijmarshausen contacted. Today her store pulls in $200 to $300 a month in profit (Shapeways takes a 3.5% cut of each object made) and while it's not as much as she makes through her website, partnering with Shapeways means less work. "When I sell through Shapeways I am a pure designer," says Grossman. "I upload the file and then go back to bed and the money appears in my PayPal account." When she sells via her website, Grossman acts as a retailer and a manufacturer, amassing orders, creating the packaging and sending out the boxes. Sure, the costs are lower if she does it herself, but it's time consuming. Plus, Shapeways lets her offer customers more materials, because before she couldn't afford to stock low selling ones.

Jessica Rosenkrantz who started the design studio Nervous System with her partner Jesse Louis-Rosenberg agrees. "If I wanted to produce 100 bracelets that are all slightly different I wasn't able to do that using molds because it would have been too expensive," says Rosenkrantz, whose nylon and stainless steel rings are sold on Shapeways and at the MOMA Design Store in New York. "Shapeways gives us the ability to make complex forms that are one of a kind, easily."

When Chuck Stover was laid off from his Lansing, Michigan factory job three years ago, he spent his unemployed days learning the 3-D program Google Sketchup and opened a Shapeways shop, made by Wombat. Even though the factory hired him back a year and a half later, he continued running his shop on the side. A Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) enthusiast and graphic design major in school, Stover started creating novelty D&D dice that sell for around $25 in plastic and $105 in metal. This past March, Cory Doctorow, science fiction author and editor of BoingBoing started blogging about the dice. Pretty soon other blogs did too and, by June, Adam Savage from Discovery Channel's Mythbusters suggested the dice as a father's day gift in PEOPLE magazine. Sales took off and today Stover averages $1,800 a month in profit. "When I'm making $35,000 to $40,000 a year I would feel comfortable quitting my factory job," says Stover. "That's probably six months away."

As with any new technology, pushing the boundaries of production comes with exciting possibilities, but also with unanswered questions. For instance, many lawyers would argue that the digital file created for Shapeways is akin to a recipe and not copyrightable. But, if that's the case, how do people protect their products without applying for a costly patent? And what if someone tries to use 3-D printing to make a gun part or an ATM skimmer, which criminals use to capture other peoples' data? (Shapeways came across a file that appeared to be just that and refused to print it.)

On the flip side, there are public interest uses too, as doctors have employed 3-D printing to lower medical costs. Mark Frame, an orthopedic surgical trainee at RHSC Glasgow recently used Shapeways and CT-scan information to create a 3-D model of a fractured forearm to practice a surgery. Instead of the normal $1,200, the Shapeways model cost just $120. It's hard to guess what kinds of things will be possible in the future, but aside from hoping to print in gold and mixed materials, Weijmarshausen theorizes that in five or ten years 3-D printers will be able to churn out working electronics, such as an iPod.

But for now, some fans are wowed simply by the personal touch the site fosters. "How many times have I been in a store with my mom and I liked what she suggested but I wanted it changed slightly or in a different material," says Chris Kurdziel, 26, a Cornell business school student who visits the site weekly. "Shapeways lets you solve this problem. It gives you the opportunity to be a tastemaker."