I’ve watched Shapeways grow like crazy over the past few years. The company is a community-based designer and artist marketplace that allows users to upload 3D designs and print them using 3D printing technology. 3D printing creates solid, three-dimensional parts through an additive, layer-by-layer process. From upload to print, you can expect your creation to arrive in 15 days or less. You can visit Shapeways.com to upload a design for printing, open an online shop, or create an entire fulfillment order for your 3D designs. It allows you to print just about anything through the magic of the Interwebs.
They’re always experimenting with new materials and processes to improve and quicken the 3D printing process. Their latest release is a pastel palette of ceramics. I spoke with Shapeways CEO and Founder Peter Weijmarshausen to learn more about how and why he decided he’d bring 3D printing to the masses via the Internet, long before anyone else.
3D printers at the Eindoven Shapeways facility
Peter wanted to bring together the incredible technology that takes designs from digital to physical, and at the same time, make a way for people to be a part of that process – to create their own designs. He first experienced the printing of the Blender Suzanne Monkey on a Z-Corp printer, and from there a seed was planted.
Chris Hardy’s Cesca chair with 3D printed chair back and base
Shapeways, which spawned from the lifestyle incubator of Royal Philips Electronics, started in July 2008 using a Stratasys FDM machine. In September of 2008 they then acquired an EOS P100. That same machine is still in use today to 3D print in nylon (white strong and flexible).
Rings by Theresa Burger, Flickr
How have 3D printers changed since the beginning? Both from a technical standpoint and generally?
We are starting to see quicker printing, higher definition, larger printers and more differentiated materials coming out. However it is only now, almost four years after launching Shapeways that the industrial printers are really starting to change significantly. EOS launching higher definition machines, Z-Corp launching a larger printer, 3Dsystems launching larger HD3500. The real innovations are Objet with the full color plastic printer and the home machines (MakerBot, Ultimater, RepRap, they were non-existent in 2008 and are everywhere now).
What new development in 3D technology has helped the Shapeways business deliver better quality and faster products?
Shapeways is a service enabling you to use 3D printers to make whatever you want. The first and very important step is creation. What do you want to have? Many of our community members use their own 3D software to design and then upload these files to us. In the beginning only about 45% of the files were good enough to accept and we rejected the rest. We have worked tirelessly developing MeshMedic and other parts of our service to the extend that we now accept over 90% of the uploaded files. This is not due to the fact that the files have become better, actually the opposite, but our 3D software automatically fixes the problems.
Tell me about the process of creating a product with Shapeways?
It depends, if you are a designer, using 3D software it starts with designing your product in your favorite 3D software (Blender, 123Dapp). When you are happy with the design, you upload to Shapeways. After it is accepted you can see in what materials you can print it and what the product would cost in these materials.
When you are customizing existing designs, like our cuff-links, or the Vibe (a custom iPhone case with your favorite sound from SoundCloud!), you do not even need to learn or use the sometimes complicated 3D software. You can customize the products directly on our site!
Depending on the material you want the product to be in, you can have it delivered to you worldwide in 10-15 days.
Vibe: 3D printed cases based on your SoundCloud favorites
What are the printers you currently use for Shapeways?
We currently use almost all industrial printers available. The bulk of our printing is done on EOS machines (P100, P760), but we also use 3D systems HD3000, CPX, the Objet EDEN machines, Z-Corp 650 and ProMetal printers.
Where do you see the future of 3D printing for the average consumer?
Enabling them to get really cool stuff that would never be made possible before 3D printing existed. Being involved in products they buy, by specifying what the product looks like, or by personalizing it by adding your name or picture. The biggest change will be that the complete eco-system of design/manufacturing/retail is going to change. With 3D printing, you manufacture locally and on demand, which removes the need for large manufacturing plants and enables the independent designer to become a mega brand, purely by designing great products which address the needs of consumers.
Apple iPod Nano with Shapeways.com accessories by tazdotcom, on Flickr
Besides 3D printing, what amazes you about what your technology can do that you would have thought impossible just a few years ago?
Automatically testing, fixing and accepting of 3D files. When we started Shapeways we spoke to several very smart people and they told us this would be extremely expensive to build and take a long time. Alan Hudson (our Director of 3D tools engineering and former CEO of Yumetech) build the first prototype of that in three months for a very reasonable budget proving them REALLY wrong.
What is the craziest thing you’ve seen 3D printed, and what would be the coolest thing you’d want to see 3D printed?
One of the craziest things is definitely parts for a small satellite part of a student project launched into space. When I started Shapeways I could never have dreamed that we would be making parts for the Space industry ;-) The coolest thing, would be clothing. This would revolutionize a complete industry, giving everybody finally and for the first time clothes that fit!
Above, an EOS machine selective laser sintering (SLS) nylon powder layer by layer to print a 3D form. Afterwards the design is removed from the bed of nylon powder.
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