Shapeways’ CEO: 3D printing could not only let you design products, it could let you design materials

It’s hard to believe that Shapeways can still be called a startup. Since its founding in 2007, the company has become the place to outsource high-quality 3D print jobs to, whether you’re printing a fashion-forward dress or geometric metal bracelet.

It does so by printing objects made from plastic, metal, ceramic and sandstone on demand. One of the major advantages of 3D printing is there isn’t any real difference in setup costs in printing one or 1,000 units. There is no exorbitant cost attached to printing a 3D figurine of a cherished pet and artists can sell their goods individually instead of having to create a pre-made stock of goods. Shapeways’ printers also are top-of-the-line and tend to cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, which the average individual generally does not have access to.

I sat down with CEO Peter Weijmarshausen this month to talk over the company’s future. After introducing a series of new metal materials customers can print in this month, Shapeways is preparing to more than double the number of 3D printers housed at its factory in Queens, New York, by January 2014. (Check out this photo essay from our tour of the factory here.)

A metal cuff 3D printed at Shapeways. Photo by Signe Brewster
A metal cuff 3D printed at Shapeways. Photo by Signe Brewster

Weijmarshausen attributed Shapeways’ appeal to several factors. Awareness of 3D printing is growing. And 3D printing an object — especially one you’ve designed — can give it meaning that just buying it off of Amazon does not provide. Each object is made on demand, (more or less) easily customizable and generally not mass produced.

“People love to get what they want, and the backstory that it is 3D printed makes it even cooler,” Weijmarshausen said.

Shapeways has also hit upon an industry that pairs very well with mail-order products. Right now, home 3D printers are slow. They spend hours printing even small objects. Users can’t just pop in a design and have it be ready five minutes later. The same applies to visiting a Kinkos-like center for 3D printing, which some have suggested will become more prominent in the future. So why not spend a few days waiting for your 3D print to come from a professional printing center like Shapeways, à la Amazon?

3D printed vases sit on a windowsill in Shapeways' Manhattan headquarters. Photo by Signe Brewster
3D printed vases sit on a windowsill in Shapeways’ Manhattan headquarters. Photo by Signe Brewster

But printers are changing fast. Weijmarshausen said that within five years, personal 3D printers that print in plastic could rival a faction of Shapeways’ professional printers, putting pressure on the companies that supply them to innovate. And there are plenty of innovations he would really like to see, with printing in multiple materials being a prime example.

While printers that work with multiple materials already exist, Shapeways has yet to offer printing services that utilize them. Weijmarshausen said file formats are not yet standardized enough and user-friendly software needs to appear. But the appeal of printers that mix materials with incredible precision is great, as they would give rise to totally new textures and lend objects new properties.

“That capability, we as humans, have never had,” Weijmarshausen said. “You don’t just design a product, you design a material.”

A dyed sandstone 3D print in the Shapeways headquarters. Photo by Signe Brewster
A dyed sandstone 3D print in the Shapeways headquarters. Photo by Signe Brewster

Beyond its printers, Weijmarshausen said Shapeways’ big asset is its community. It serves as a platform for artists to hawk their creations and connect directly with buyers. When he wanted an espresso cup that was just a little bit bigger than standard, he asked a Shapeways artist to modify their cup for him, and got his cup.

“You get this interesting dynamic going again,” Weijmarshausen said. “It actually existed in the past: Before mass manufacturing, we went to markets. and now still have them in farmers markets in this city, but we don’t have them for … many other things. Markets are conversations, and this is exactly what online platforms can foster again. I think this is a very interesting and compelling thing that happens.”