Imagination the Only Limit with Shapeways 3D Printing

By David Knight |

Printing in 3D is a rather expensive and complicated process. But that hasn’t stopped one Dutch startup from taking the challenge on – and creating a growing community of 3D designers in the process.

Shapeways now has an office in New York and has raised more than $11 million from some of the biggest names in venture capital. Its community manager Bart Veldhuizen was in town this week to talk at the Berlin Tech Meetup, and Silicon Allee caught up with him beforehand.

The company started life four and a half years ago in Eindhoven as part of the Philips Lifestyle Incubator before closing a $5.5 million round in December 2010 led by Union Square and Index Ventures. That allowed the co-founders to move half the startup to New York and to start buying the enormously expensive printing machines, which can cost more than €300,000 each. It was an important step, however.

Bart said: “Getting our first printer allowed us to experiment with it, to learn about the technology, learn about the problems. After a while we got better and better at producing and we got even better than our own suppliers. So we could actually teach them how to optimize quality.” The company now has six printers and is growing quickly – and this week, it revealed a new, $6.2 million round led by Lux Capital.

Shapeways is a ‘self-service system’ where the user designs something in 3D, uploads it to the website and exports it into a supported file format. The platform checks that the file is valid and then calculates the price and materials for the model. Once an order has been made, it is sent for printing – either in house or at a partner printer – and an operator will give it a final check. If it passes muster it will be printed, cleaned, quality checked and then shipped.

A 3D Design Challenge

The cost depends on which material is used – there is a range of plastics and metals available – as well as the size. Something small and light could be less than €10, Bart says, and something heavier and bigger might be around €100.

One of the drawbacks of the service, then, is that you need some 3D design skills to make the most of it. “That’s one of our challenges,” Bart adds. “If we could only cater to people who are 3D designers, then we would only have a small audience. So we also have software on our website where you can for example see a candlelight grow with your text on it, or you can model a vase in 3D with very simple tools.There are also designers who write software with our API who make really brilliant bracelets that you can design yourself, or who will get data from your Minecraft game and 3D print your character. We try to make it accessible to everybody even if they don’t have 3D modeling ability.”

Whenever Bart visits a city, he holds meet ups for the Shapeways users who live there, and there are plenty in Berlin, he says, because it’s a crossroads between art and technology. “It’s not so much about reaching new members as it is showing people they are not alone, because when you’re on the Internet it’s like you are the only one in town. But there is probably someone in the next street who also uses our service, and it’s great for them to meet each other.”

The community mainly interacts on the Shapeways website, with each model having its own page where others can discuss and rate it, and the company is working on more community features for its 150,000 users, who are mostly concentrated in the US and Western Europe.

If you think of something, they can make it – that’s the ultimate goal of Shapeways. The example of 3D printing that Bart has brought with him is a model of an incredible wind-powered creation called Strandbeest by Dutch artist Theo Jansen. The idea that the only limit to what you can do is the scope of your imagination is a very powerful one.

The working model of Strandbeest which was 3D printed by Shapeways