May 15, 2013


Shapeways is reinventing the factory (Jessi Hempel, May 14, 2013, Fortune)

In front of us, one of these hulking machines gives off heat. It's the size of a refrigerator; inside, a rectangle tray the size of my favorite chili pan is being filled layer-by-layer with dust. We push our noses up to the small window to watch: a layer of dust is spread. Then, a laser burns a series of lines into the dust, heating it to the point of almost melting to form the object. It will take 24 hours for this chili-pan size tray to be complete.

For now, the Long Island City factory only prints materials in a white nylon plastic, though that will change in time. Shapeways is able to manufacture in other materials--stainless steel, sandstone, ceramics--from its other facilities. The company also has offices in Seattle and Eindhoven in the Netherlands.

A diagram of the tray's contents hangs to the right of each printer. Weijmarshausen explains that Shapeways maximizes each tray by pairing elements of different customer orders. These diagrams look like a cross between a 3D sonogram and a katamari. This optimization brings the price down. Once the tray is completed, employees bring it over to a post-production area where they remove all the dust that hasn't been sealed by the laser. The result is a jumbled collection of parts that are cleaned and separated and buffed, much like bone-hunting archeology. Depending on the order, many are also dyed in bright hues.

The 3D printing buzz has been a bit overblown this year as companies like Staples (SPLS) begin making them available directly to consumers--earlier this month The Cube, which is manufactured by 3D Systems, went on sale for $1300 through; it will likely be available in stores starting as early as July. But just as with any first-generation tech products, these printers won't be capable of doing all that much. The fanfare over the world's first 3D-printed gun is also a distracting side-show.

The real potential for 3D printing will be felt in enterprise--as companies like Airbus explore using 3D printing to make, say, airplane parts. That's the bet that fuels Weijmarshausen's ambitions. As big business takes an increasing interest in 3D manufacturing, the costs of materials will come down and the machine technology will improve. Customers will be able to order more types of objects in more materials. Today, perhaps it's the iPhone case. Tomorrow, potentially, the phone itself.

Posted by at May 15, 2013 4:36 AM

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