Consumer 3D printing can be seen from two different perspectives, both as an in-home consumer product and as a service. We decided to give the world’s largest consumer 3D printing provider a chance to share its thoughts. We spoke to Shapeways CEO, Peter Weijmarshausen for his take on the current state of 3D printing.
Q. Shapeways famously shifted its headquarters to the U.S. in 2010, what was it about being based stateside that helped Shapeways grow in a way that would not have been achievable in the Netherlands?
A. Firstly, our biggest market at that time was the United States so we wanted a presence here regardless but combine that with the fact that we had ambitious plans, which we still do, we figured that it would be easier to attract top talent if our headquarters was based in the United States. Secondly, the availability on investment in the United States is much greater than in Europe, I recently saw some figures that venture capitalists are deploying between four and ten times more money in the U.S. than in Europe and we've definitely benefited from that.
Q. 3D printing is creating whole new business models, how would you say that businesses like yourselves and 3D hubs are enabling a new age of the American dream?
A. We’re in the midst of a revolution whereby manufacturing is moving from an analogue technology to a digital technology. Typically when things move from analogue to digital big changes happen, we've seen it with photography, we've seen it with 2D printing, we've seen software go from an analogue distribution to a digital distribution, I think we will see a similar transformation with physical goods and I think 3D printing is at the core of that. Platforms like Shapeways are enabling individuals to decide what products go to market instead of big corporations. We're seeing that products no longer get made on the cheapest places on earth but as close to the end user as possible. We see that the amount of money required to bring products to market has gone down to almost zero, the only cost is the designer's time. You now have direct access to manufacturing your product and creating a business without a big upfront cost. The time to market is also massively reduced for instance right after Katy Perry performed her half-time show at the Superbowl Left Shark was on Shapeways a day later.
Q. Do you see 3D printing taking a similar approach to 2D in the way people still don’t print high quality items in the home but go to a service a la Shapeways?
A. I wouldn't be surprised with the internet being the enabler that services like Shapeways deliver a service that people are really happy to use. That doesn't mean that desktop printing won't be used in the home, but just like with paper
printing it doesn't mean the majority of printing will be done in the home. I once found a number that 95% of paper is actually printed by services and not in the home, that leads me to believe that the service model is a good business model for physical products.
Q. Do you think that Shapeways is limited by 3D printing in any way?
A. We currently use multi-step processes where we need to. With precious metals we print in wax, and then we use traditional investment casting and for porcelain we also use a hybrid process. We don't do that because we like to, we do that because it is the best way for our company to make our customers happy. If you look at the lead times we offer it is those multi-step processes that take the longest for obvious reasons. I think with upcoming innovations new machines will make it possible to do direct printing in all those materials and even some materials we haven't seen before. We will go completely digital in the future.
Q. Do you think consumers care how a product is made?
A. We want to be the platform where people make immensely beautiful products, period. How they get made in the end is not as relevant for the end user as being unique, you and I will talk about 3D printing because your readers want to know how we're pulling this off but most people don't care, just like they don’t care that they're using the Internet Protocal 4 when using Facebook, they care about that they can share things with people.