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A ceramic espresso cup available on Shapeways.
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Shapeways Nervous System
Sterling silver jewellery by Nervous System available on Shapeways.
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Shapeways' 2013 year in review
Arguably, it's the service bureaux that have the best view of the 3D printing industry - at least the consumer side. They see the designers, the entrepreneurs, the new technology, the growing ranges of applications and materials and, most importantly, the shifting trends.
One of the most prominent service bureaux in this space is, of course, Shapeways and TCT Magazine snatched half an hour of Director of Marketing Carine Carmy's time this month to reflect on what a rollercoaster year 2013 was and what the next 12 months will bring.
The interview was off the back of Shapeways' accessible and comprehensive 3D Printing Year in Review report and Carmy was happy to share both her views and what the rest of the Shapeways team is thinking when it comes to the trends we are experiencing and are yet to experience.
Explosion in market awareness
"You know it's interesting," Carmy began, "I've been at Shapeways now for about two years and the company has been around for a little while and I think everybody believes last year was explosive in terms of market awareness.
"We went from people not necessarily knowing how the technology worked to a shift in the conversation and people asking questions like 'so what does this mean for me', 'how does this fit into my life', 'is this the future of manufacturing?' I think the public discourse changed from 'I can press a button and this comes out of a machine and that is incredible' to 'how do we use this technology?' I think that shift in conversation has also opened up the imaginations of so many people and that's why we're seeing such rapid growth on our side."
Fortunately for companies like Shapeways, which is dealing with this surge in creativity and public imagination kindled by the barrier-breaking realisation of what 3D printing really can do, the abilities of the technology itself is growing apace parallel with galloping user enthusiasm.
"In the year prior to last we had 30 materials, in the last year we had 40 including a lot of really high-end metals, so you see real luxury industries waking up to 3D printing, which is the complete opposite of what you can imagine using the basic plastic materials for, which are only good for prototyping."
One of the major growth areas for 3D printing technology as an end-to-end manufacturing solution is jewellery-making, a subject close to Carmy's heart as her mother is a jewellery designer with a small business that does not have the backing of a "large manufacturing engine", as she puts it.
"3D printing … perfect technique for jewellery"
Carmy praised 3D printing's abilities to manufacture high-quality jewellery due to the fact the technology is so perfectly suited for customisation - a trend the jewellery industry has to accommodate to remain competitive.
"A piece of jewellery is a product with meaning and you typically want it to fit just right and allude to something in your past. If it's a gift you may want an engraving and so on. There is always the need for customisation with jewellery and 3D printing allows for this kind of customisation, but also at a cost consumers can afford and with the precision you need. There may be some post-processing if you want to add stones and so on, but because of the high precision and customisation capabilities, 3D printing can be the perfect technique for making jewellery," Carmy said.
But the benefits extend past the technicalities of manufacturing jewellery, as a jewellery designer using a service bureau to produce their designs does not need to hold an inventory of high-value metals. The capital associated with jewellery companies is traditionally very high, but using a service bureau like Shapeways slashes this, allowing so many more jewellery designers to produce rings and pendants and other adornments with a much smaller initial capital investment, and this is true of other startups outside of jewellery-making.
Carmy revealed: "We recently did a survey with our shop owners and most say it's $100 or less to open up shop in terms of the capital investment required to start prototyping. You can really start to see a much wider range of people looking to set up businesses whether it's jewellery, or home décor, or gadget accessories ... it is where you can start to reduce those barriers to entry that are typically so high.
"You can also meet the needs of the consumer end to end in a much better way. We are so accustomed as buyers to take whatever's on the shelf and accept that's what you get, so we have to be able to think 'I might want this slightly different' and so on - it's really going to shift our perspective of what it can be."
The "next frontier"
Jewellery is one major growth area in the consumer 3D printing sphere, but ceramics is another hot topic and - true to form - Shapeways is fully aware of the potential waves this trend could make in 2014.
"I love ceramics," Carmy mused. "I have a 3D printed coffee cup and when I take it down to the coffee shop in the morning and tell them it's 3D printed nobody ever believes me."
She predicted that 3D printed products that are food safe could be the "next frontier". And when you consider the range of uses - everyday uses - for ceramic 3D printing it is easy to see why Carmy believes this is the case.
"Think of the different kitchenware, things for the tabletop and home décor - it opens up a new world," she said. "This past year we were able to drop the price of ceramics so it went from being an artistic product with a premium price tag to something that could compare with the cost and quality of what you'd buy in a store and that opened up the market in a big way."
The accessibility of ceramic 3D printing products and materials, and growth in metals - particularly for small jewellery businesses - are set to be major trends but what else does Carmy predict for 2014 and the short-to-medium term in the 3D printing industry? The Director of Marketing was cautious when asked to prophesise.
"Predictions are dangerous," she admitted, "But my personal predictions are that the trend for material innovation will continue. It took some time for research and development in the space to develop and we are now doing some of our own R&D.
"Next year [I see more] conductive and flexible materials and multi-material 3D printing, so things that open up new design possibilities. Secondly, the tools for design are not only getting easier with apps allowing people to create things like rings or coffee cups at the click of a mouse, but more free tools are now available, opening up a new market of 3D modellers. So many of the Shapeways community actually taught themselves to 3D model ... there's a lot of people out there who will be part of this explosion of creativity. Lastly, 2013 was the year we really proved there would be 'the 3D printing entrepreneur', so Shapeways' supporting low-capital intensive businesses in 2014 will really help this explode. And this doesn't just refer to 3D modellers but content publishers and people who have never been able to bring a physical product to market. We will see this really big growth of people who are growing their own business using the technology."
Carmy likened the explosion of 3D printing entrepreneurism to blogging, which has enabled so many people to write and to publish what they have written. Clearly some writers are better than others, but blogging has enabled many writers to make a name for themselves - and this current 3D printing wave could enable fresh talent to make itself known in the real world.
"The individual as a brand has taken off in content and I think it's the same with product as well," Carmy stated. "Give people tools and see what happens. One of our goals is really to bring to market the best 3D printing materials available also at the lowest cost so entrepreneurs can compete because it lowers the barriers to entry."
As little as 18 months ago Shapeways, and indeed the rest of the industry, had no idea what the 3D printing landscape would become by 2014. Carmy believes there has been a sea change in how the technology is perceived and the dialogue has evolved.
"Market awareness has changed and it was surprising how quickly that turned. When I first started [at Shapeways] the 'what is 3D printing' conversation meant I had to repeat myself over and over again, so that shift of understanding has been much quicker than I anticipated.
"The global nature of the trend is not just concentrated in urban environments with access to capital and high education - we have customers from all over the world because there this is such a prescient need [for this technology]. People are looking to find the perfect product for their hobby or home - this trend is really powerful."
So have Shapeways' goals shifted to accommodate 3D Printing 2.0, as it's been coined? It seems Shapeways' overarching mission statement has been prepared for what is happening in the industry all along.
"We're a platform that tries to help people unlock their creativity, whether it's working with 12-year-old designer or a big brand our goal has always been about bringing 3D printing to anybody."