In New York, the factory of the future.
Shapeways, which prints 3-D products, had only three machines on the floor, including the one that printed the scissors Bloomberg used. Two more printers arrived the following day, and another two the week after. Shapeways marketing director Carine Carmy expects to have 30 to 50 machines running by next October. All told, the factory should churn out three to five million products annually.
This astonishing growth is due to the new market for 3-D printing that Shapeways has found.
For 20 years, engineers have used 3-D printing--building parts by sintering, fusing, or crosslinking layer after layer of metals or plastics--to produce prototypes and, more recently, such specialized parts as custom dental implants and turbine blades with impossible-to-machine cooling channels.
Shapeways, on the other hand, specializes in consumer products. Its typical users are jewelers, designers, architects, sculptors, and artists, all groups well represented in New York, where the company moved in 2010.
Relying on designers with limited CAD background may not have sounded like a promising business model when Peter Weijmarshausen and Marleen Vogelaar founded the company in the Netherlands in 2007. Yet business is booming now. Shapeways' website has more than 200,000 registered users, double last year's number. It hosts more than 7,000 "storefronts," which sell hundreds of thousands of print-to-order products annually.
Shapeways, Vogelaar argued, is doing something that has never been done before: "We are building a factory that mass produces 100 percent unique products."
It has a ready audience. A new generation of "makers" sees 3-D printers the same way their grandparents viewed basement lathes and garage machine tools.
Some buy inexpensive systems that fuse filaments of plastic into finished products. According to 3-D printer market analyst Terry Wohlers, sales of these inexpensive thermal printers costing $1,000 to $2,000 jumped nearly 300 percent to more than 23,000 units in 2011. That number does not include thousands of less expensive units and kits.
Others turn to Shapeways or such competitors as Materialise and Digital Forming, whose high-end laser and UV industrial printers can churn out slicker, more precise products than can desktop units.
Kevin Wei, who teaches architecture at Columbia University, sells jewelry with repeating patterns and faceted sides that sparkle in the light from his Shapeways storefront.
"You can get that effect by hand, but you need extremely skilled people to do it," Wei explained. To keep his bracelets affordable, Wei has Shapeways make resin models that can be used to make precision molds for casting.
Some use 3-D printers to make simple products, like napkin rings and cups. Dutch kinetic artist Theo Jansen creates impossibly complex Strandbeests, whose gears and articulating joints come out of the printer ready to catch the wind and "walk" down a beach.
Shapeways encourages buyers to customize designs. Last spring, it introduced a set of sake cups and tumblers that users could modify. While thousands of viewers redesigned the set, the price -$89 for a tumbler, $21 for each cup --may have deterred them from ordering.
On the other hand, Sweden's Teenage Engineering, maker of the popular OP-1 music synthesizer, has uploaded CAD files for spare parts onto Shapeways. Rather than ship knobs, buttons, and other pieces of plastic around the world, it lets users replace them for the cost of printing. Users can also customize the files.
Other companies could do the same, or charge a small fee for use, Carmy said.
Other possibilities are not as benign. Users may one day swap CAD files for commercial products, just as they now download music and movies from the Internet. And then there is Wiki Weapon, which has raised $20,000 to create CAD files that would let anyone print guns with--or without --a permit.
3-D printing may never replace the economies of mass production, but Shapeways's new factory is likely to find a bright future.
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|Author:||Brown, Alan S.|
|Date:||Dec 1, 2012|
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