How 3-D Printing Startups Are Shaping the Future

Shapeways
A 3-D printing marketplace where anyone can buy, make or sell their own products.

From iPhone docks to jewelry, 3-D printable products are growing in popularity among designers. But the machinery's high costs and ever-improving nature make it difficult to keep up with the technology.

For example, new materials are being developed all the time for fused deposition modeling, a 3-D printing technique where objects are formed by pushing heated materials through a tube, similar to an inkjet. Innovations also abound in selective laser sintering and stereo lithography, both of which operate much like a laser printer, with high-powered beams of light carving and hardening shapes from a bed of resin.

Both a manufacturer and a retailer, New York City-based Shapeways gives consumers and designers access to scores of printers and materials -- and more as they come to market. Launched in 2008 at the Royal Philips Electronics lifestyle incubator in Eindhovern, the Netherlands, the company has two factories where it produces products on demand, shipping them to customers worldwide.

A marketplace similar to Etsy where independent designers can sell their wares, the company's website has more than 6 billion product variations. "It's a new model, both of manufacturing, because it's 3-D printing, but also of e-commerce, in that everything is made on demand," says Shapeways director of marketing Carine Carmy.

Additionally, users can upload their files to Shapeways to have them printed and delivered like a prototyping service bureau. "The small business or independent designer who is typically designing those products has a much lower barrier to entry than they would if they were going through traditional manufacturing," says Carmy.

Because it costs the same to 3-D print 1,000 of the same product as it does 1,000 of different products of the same size and material, the new manufacturing technique eliminates economies of scale. Previous fabrication methods created objects through molds and could have more than $10,000 in setup costs, an investment that only pays out if many duplicates were created. As a result, prototypes that were once pricey are now available and considerably more affordable.

Based in Portland, Ore., John Patrick Pullen covers travel, business and tech for Men's Journal, Fortune and others.

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