Shapeways, MakerBot, and Lux Capital Stoke Ambitions for 3-D Printing

Layer by layer, 3-D printing continues to build up its presence as more funding lands in a local player’s pockets.

On Tuesday morning, New York’s Shapeways, which makes products on demand with its printers, announced it had raised $30 million in a Series C round led by Andreessen Horowitz.

Later that afternoon, Shapeways CEO Peter Weijmarshausen gave a keynote speech at the Inside 3D Printing Conference & Expo in New York, sharing a few morsels of his plans. The two-day event featured a mix of investors who back the industry and 3-D printing companies in this still growing niche.

Large-scale businesses, such as 3D Systems in Rock Hill, SC, displayed their creations alongside developers of desktop 3-D printers including Brooklyn’s MakerBot Industries and Cambridge, MA-based Formlabs.

(It was interesting to see Formlabs and 3D Systems just yards apart under the same roof given their patent litigation, but that speaks to the relative size of this industry.)

The technology may not be new, but the level of detail now possible with high-end 3-D printers has generated a growing amount of buzz for this sector. Weijmarshausen trumpeted the capabilities of 3-D printing, such as personalizing products while retaining the efficiencies of mass manufacturing. “We’re completely disrupting how we think of manufacturing,” he said.

Dita Von Teese models a 3-D printed gown. (photo by Albert Sanchez)

Shapeways hosts online shops for designers to devise products that consumers can order. The company’s industrial 3-D printers generate the items; Shapeways shares sales revenue with the designers.

Weijmarshausen said people use his company to make vases, lighting fixtures, coffee cups, fruit bowls, and functional products such as lens cap holders and acoustic amplifiers for iPhones. Shapeways even produced pieces for a fully articulated gown, designed by architect Francis Bitonti and designer Michael Schmidt.

“3-D printing for fashion, not only accessories, is coming pretty soon,” Weijmarshausen said.

MakerBot CEO Bre Pettis spoke earlier at the conference to Xconomy about the Replicator 2, his company’s latest 3-D desktop printer, which Pettis says is aiming for both high-end consumers and business customers.

“It’s for professionals, but then it has wide enough reach for consumers and business-to-business uses,” he says. Architects, Pettis says, create models of houses with MakerBot’s 3-D printers. Tech-savvy users interested in digital design, Pettis says, have also taken a shine to his products, which his company sells online and through the MakerBot store in Manhattan.

Zack Schildhorn, vice president and director of operations with New York’s Lux Capital, gave a presentation at the conference about the potential of 3-D printing, which he said is just being realized. “What if you could go straight from a digital file to a physical object? That is the promise of 3-D printing,” he said. “On-demand manufacturing. Goods, how and where you want them.” Lux Capital is one of Shapeways’ backers.

MakerBot's Bre Pettis says the Replicator 2 appeals to prosumers.

More materials are working their way into 3-D printing, Schildhorn said, including polymers, glass, living tissue, complex metals and alloys, engineered plastics, and concrete. Combined with 3-D image scanners, he said, it is possible to reproduce objects from the physical world. “These tools are making it so easy that just a few photos can create a fully printable 3-D model,” Schildhorn said.

However, cool technology alone, he said, does not make a business. Schildhorn said he carefully scrutinizes ideas and companies in this market to sort out what is real and what is in the distant future—but he still thinks the prospects for a new style of creation continue to grow.

Fashion, construction, and scientific research are dabbling in 3-D printing, Schildhorn said, in a major shift from its roots creating prototypes of products. “This technology has reached a point where in some cases, not all, it is suitable for making real products,” he said. “It opens the door for this technology to be used on a more massive scale.”

Schildhorn also said there are not a lot of large companies in 3-D printing at the moment, but the landscape is evolving. “The entire market cap of all the public companies [in this industry] is only a few billion dollars,” he said. “That is not a big industry if you compare it to traditional manufacturing.” Consolidation has been underway the past 24 months, he said, including the 2012 merger of Stratasys with Objet and 3D Systems’ acquisition of Z Corp. and Vidar Systems, completed early last year.

He expects the technology to also spread among traditional manufacturers. Aircraft maker Boeing, he said, uses 3-D printing to make parts used in F/A-18 jet fighters. “They are investing heavily in this space,” Schildhorn said. General Electric, he said, plans to use 3-D printing in titanium to create injectors for jet engines. Combining 3-D printing with manufacturing, he said, can trim waste from the process. “It cuts 25 steps down to a single step or maybe just a few,” he said. It also reduces paperwork and labor to create parts and rapidly make adjustments.

Manufacturers of hearing aids, Schildhorn said, make extensive use of 3-D printing for 95 percent of all in-the-ear units to create unique, custom-fit devices. “It is one of the few industries where 3-D printing has had a pervasive impact,” he said. “It doesn’t make sense to do it the way they used to.”

Other medical devices and products can be created with this technology. Bespoke Innovations, a San Francisco-based unit of 3D Systems, uses it to craft prosthetic limbs. “They can scan someone’s [other] leg or arm, match that geometry, and produce something that expresses their personal taste,” he said.

For now, 3-D printing is not quite mainstream. Bbut that could change if the technology advances as more money goes into this space. Shapeways plans to use its latest funding to build more factories, continue to develop its technology, and increase access to 3-D printing for consumers.

Last October, Shapeways opened a factory in Long Island City, with the facility still being built out. “We intend to expand it to have 30 to 50 industrial grade 3-D printers making over a million parts on a yearly basis,” Weijmarshausen said. The company also has a factory in the Netherlands and plans to set up more to bring production as close as possible to customers.

Shapeways receives about 60,000 new designs each month, Weijmarshausen said, and has made more than 1 million different products. “I remember the early days when I was happy I had three designs I could print,” he said.

And the designs are getting increasingly unique. Weijmarshausen said users can connect their accounts on SoundCloud, an audio website, to Shapeways. One of SoundCloud’s features is the graphic depiction of audio tracks as waveforms, which can be used in 3-D printing. “The wave that SoundCloud is known for, the expression of the sound visually, becomes the back plate of your iPhone case,” he said.

Designers have the chance, he said, through 3-D printing to become entrepreneurs much like the way engineers can launch their own websites to distribute software and collaborate with others.

A chess set available through Shapeways.

Weijmarshausen said the technology helps designers skip some of the usual stages of production, such as creating a prototype, patenting their items, gathering money, finding a manufacturer, and trying to get the item on retail shelves. “Then you’d have to hope the product resonates with the audience you had in mind,” he said.

Setting up shop online through Shapeways, he said, makes it possible for designers to move much faster. Jewelry designers, for example, can quickly feature their creations online. As Shapeways adds more materials to its offerings, Weijmarshausen sees the chance to shake up various markets where customization is a desirable.

“It’s now possible, using 3-D printing, to make silver in a quality I call jewelry-grade silver,” he said. In some cases, he said, it is hard to distinguishing jewelry made through 3-D printing from what is found in stores.

Weijmarshausen said the mechanics of 3-D printing make it easier to set up production facilities near customers, cutting down costs and the time to ship products. He also believes the technology, when brought up to scale, could drive the return of an often outsourced industry to these shores.

“You don’t need to go to a country that is known for being very cheap for manufacturing,” he said.

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