INTERVIEW: 3D Printing – Shapeways

INTERVIEW: 3D Printing – Shapeways

Shapeways CEO & Co-Founder Peter Weijmarshausen wants to change the way goods get made

How does that process differ from how products are traditionally designed and manufactured?

Most products as we know them are made by big corporations. Billion dollar companies, with access to factories they own themselves or factories they work closely with. If a big company decides to launch a new product, the first thing they do is try to figure out what people want through market research. Then, once a problem is identified, they try to understand what people are willing to spend. From that, a budget is produced, and working back from the point of sale the company figures out how much the manufacturing can cost. This is when designers come in. They are told to make something that fits a specific need and costs no more than a certain amount to produce. And once that product is designed, it’s tested with focus groups, manufacturing is tooled up, and 100,000 or a million products are made and brought to market. Those products go in stores, and, fingers crossed, the company hopes people will buy.

It’s a slow, inefficient process that can take a year in a best-case scenario. And it’s riddled with problems. What if the market changed while the product was being developed? What if there’s a little design flaw? You suddenly have an inventory of hundreds of thousands or millions of products that have lost a lot of value. This whole old way of thinking is now becoming obsolete. With 3D printing, the process is flipped on its head. Design starts with you and ends with a product.

What about 3D printing technology is enabling this shift in thinking?

This was one of the fundamental questions that led to the start of Shapeways. Is this technology actually usable for making real products? 3D printing technology was commercially invented in 1989, and had been in use for prototyping for a number of years. So, in that traditional design process, designers might have actually used 3D printers to make product prototypes. But the costs have come down a lot, and the materials these printers can work with have expanded from plastics to materials like stainless steel, silver, ceramics, and glass – with many more coming. And the answer to that original question turned out to be “absolutely yes.” There are an amazing number of real products that can be made directly with this technology. For example, my iPhone case is 3D printed. My cufflinks are 3D printed. Even my coffee cup is 3D printed.

How has the business evolved from its beginnings?

Our community currently uploads about 40,000 unique product designs each month. We’re growing a humongous database of really creative and cool product designs. We’ve printed way north of a million products and we expect to print somewhere between three and four million this year. It wasn’t easy at the beginning, but if you look at the company today, five years later, indeed we’ve accomplished most of our goals and actually surpassed some of them. We’re still working really hard to make it more and more affordable and easier for people to use. We want to give people the freedom to create what they want without making it too hard.

What advantage does a site like Shapeways give to product designers?

A major component to our site is called Shapeways Shops. Imagine you invent a useful product for your photography hobby and make it with Shapeways. Say you’re part of a photography club, and your friends want one too. You can sell that product directly through Shapeways. Post a description, provide a great picture, set a price, and suddenly you’re in business! We take care of the rest – payment, fulfillment and customer service. By the end of next year, we will have more unique products for sale on our website than Amazon has.

If you look out five or ten years, how does a company like Shapeways change the way goods are made?

In many ways. Think back to what we discussed about how mass manufactured products are made, and I can tell you there are inherent benefits to direct-from-digital manufacturing. First, the time from concept to actual product is condensed from years to a matter of days. We have one user who launched an iPad cover four days after the iPad launched in 2010. He didn’t have any help from Apple – he just bought an iPad in the store and designed a beautiful cover in a few days and then made it commercially available on Shapeways. So, the time to market is compressed immensely. The other key aspect is that the risk of going to market is almost non-existent, because your investment is only the design of the product itself. Now, designing a great product isn’t easy, but the rest of the process is now quite simple. No need for a loan from a bank to pay for manufacturing, no need to convince retailers to sell your product. Just design a product, put it in a Shapeways shop, promote it and see what happens! If it’s great, it takes off. If it’s not, you lose a bit of sweat equity – significantly less than the hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars that it typically would take to launch a product.

The other big thing about 3D printing is the freedom it offers. For almost 100 years, designers have been trained to think within the limits of traditional manufacturing technology. 3D printing allows you to make incredibly complex designs at no additional cost: interlocking components, naturally hinged parts, semi-translucent surfaces, and even objects that can move on their own without assembly (like the strandbeest). You can make things that were not even possible before. And one of the most exciting things for me is to see young designers in schools being directly influenced by the availability of this technology. We will see products emerge that we’ve never imagined before – mind blowing shapes and solutions. I can’t wait to see what will happen in the next five years.

Source: Forbes