The future will be printed in 3-D

The house of the future will be outfitted with hundreds of products created on 3-D printers, everything from jewelry and cups to home decor items and eventually more complex items like furniture or digital devices. It’s a future coming sooner than people think, said Peter Weijmarshausen, the CEO of 3-D printing start-up Shapeways.
Fresh off $6.2 million in new funding for Shapeways, Weijmarshausen spoke with GigaOM about where 3-D printing is going, how it parallels the software industry and how far the technology can take us into the future. The New York startup, a transplant from the Netherlands, operates both a 3-D printing service and an Etsy-like marketplace for creators. It has now produced more than 1 million products to date and is the leading 3-D printing service available.

Outfitting our lives with 3-D printed products

The 3-D printing revolution is just barely underway, Weijmarshausen said, but it holds the promise of huge disruption in the way products are made.
“Production will be completely changed by this technology. There’s a lot of things that will be mass produced because we need bulk and standards, but there are so many products you can make custom,” Weijmarshausen said. “If you can’t buy something, you can just make it.”
Shapeways offers printing in 30 materials and finishes such as plastics, ceramics and metals such as steel and silver. The printers, about the size of a table, work by laying down a layer of powder, which is melted by a laser that follows digital designs created through programs like CAD software. As each layer is laid down, the laser fuses it all together, creating all manner of shapes, from very simple products to more complex constructions with interweaving parts that are already in place.
Shapeways, which prints more than 100,000 products a month, has 150,000 users inside its community, most of them buying items on Shopways’ 6,000 marketplace shops. The company projects users will double over the next 6-8 months and expects it will need to double the printing capacity in the next 4-5 months. A big part of Shapeways’ expansion plans include an upcoming New York factory, which will occupy up to 30,000 feet in Long Island City. That will give the company much more capacity and will expand its U.S. production. Previously, most of the work was being done in Europe at its Eindhoven factory in the Netherlands and through partners.

Empowering creators

Just like software tools have simplified the process of creating websites, 3-D printing offers the chance for anyone to be a maker, Weijmarshausen said. The factory, in essence, is open to all. But unlike the manufacturing world, there are no barriers between consumer and creator, said Weijmarshausen. A product can go through any number of evolutions, based on the requests or feedback of users. There’s the potential for an iterative production process, similar to what happens in agile software development, in which a product can be shaped over time.
He said consumers are slowly coming around to understanding the alternatives to mass production. Markets like Etsy are helping build awareness about individually crafted goods, which speak to people’s desire for unique products that fit their exacts needs.
“Mass production has given us everything we want and then some but it’s all standardized and based on the lowest common denominator. But the trend you see on the web and everywhere is people are making things by hand and there are artisans again and where 3-D printing comes in is the need for people to get exactly what they want,” Weijmarshausen said.

Major challenges to mainstream adoption

However, there are three main challenges holding 3-D printing back from mainstream adoption. Right now, the creation tools are still hard for average users to use. Alhough there are more accessible software programs such as Tinkercad and Google’s Sketchup (s goog), it’s still too complex for most users. But Weijmarshausen said there will soon be 10 times as many people with 3-D design know-how as students take it up. Shapeways is also providing a number of simple products that users can easily customize without having to know 3-D design.

Another big challenge is that there’s still a limited number of materials. Weijmarshausen would like to work with wax, which can be good for traditional jewelry making, and higher-end metals such as titanium and gold. Wood would also be appealing, but with Shapeways’ manufacturing process, it would not resemble the natural finish people of think of with wood products. But he said more of these materials are becoming available. And researchers at Xerox PARC are working on printable electronics for things like RAM, sensors and transistors. That, he said, could lead to consumers creating their own phones or MP3 players housed in cases of their own design. 
The last challenge is pricing. In some cases, making a silver ring, for example, can end up costing a similar amount as one bought at retail because of the big mark-up on jewelry. But 3-D printing isn’t able to take advantage of economies of scale, so the price of most products don’t differ much whether one item or 100 are created. Weijmarshausen believes over time, as 3-D printing gets more efficient, the savings will get passed on to consumers as well.
Weijmarshausen often fields questions about what product will actually open people’s eyes to 3-D printing. But it’s not about any one product, he said: it’s about making it possible to print any number of products, whatever people can imagine.
“We need to let people create what they want so there’s a variety; millions of products,” said Weijmarshausen. “We haven’t seen anything yet.”