Shapeways CEO: We are at Early Days in 3D Printing Technology, Digital Manufacturing Will Bring Next Industrial Revolution
One of my favorite parts of being involved in the 3D printing industry is the fire behind participants’ eyes. With much of our work here at 3DPrint.com conducted remotely, conferences and tradeshows like this week’s Inside 3D Printing NYC grant the opportunity to truly see the passionate spark take hold of those devoting their careers and lives to the latest in technology and just what it has to offer. I saw it in an impassioned Jonathan Jaglom as he told me about being a romantic at heart, truly believing that every day at MakerBot he can help make a difference — and I saw it again sitting down with Shapeways CEO and Co-Founder Pete Weijmarshausen.
Ahead of his keynote yesterday, Weijmarshausen took the time to chat with me for a while about Shapeways as well as about what he sees as driving the future of 3D printing, a topic he expanded upon in his keynote, ‘Digital Manufacturing and the Next Industrial Revolution.’ From Shapeways’ latest material introduction to the future of hyper-localization and 3D printing’s place in that global manufacturing economy, Weijmarshausen barely paused for breath as he filled me in on his expansive thoughts.
“We just released a new material,” Weijmarshausen told me, regarding the company’s 55th offering. “We like to listen to our community and what they want. What they want is to make highly detailed collectibles, board games, warriors, miniature trains, accessories — more and more detail, always important. And a little bit more affordable would be nice, too! So we launched 10 days ago High Definition Acrylate in Black. The benefit is crisper detail than any materials we’ve launched before and about 20% lower than previous prices. This is hitting home, it’s what customers want. Reaction is that demand has outstripped expectations by more than 4x. We need more machines, a nice problem to have, obviously, it shows we listened well. This is always what we try to do: understand what our users want, what new users might want. We are leveraging high-quality 3D printers, putting to use for our community to provide what they want, what they love.”
Available now, the Black High Definition Acrylate certainly does have a lot to offer in detail, as the below video from the company illustrates:
In addition to the latest material, Weijmarshausen certainly had a lot to tell me about his thoughts on the industry itself, as well as, of course, Shapeways’ place in it. Keyed up for his keynote, Weijmarshausen placed a great emphasis on the future of 3D printing — what’s possible, what we might not even know yet could be possible. As far as he is concerned, we have barely, barely begun to scratch the surface of what this technology is capable of and the role it will play in our lives and world.
“People have been led to believe that 3D printers as they are today are close to what is possible — I think the opposite is true,” he told me. “We are at early days in this technology. So many things will become possible that people haven’t thought possible, it’s going to revolutionize how we make products.”
In an insightful comparison, Weijmarshausen drew back to that single great, undeniable example of unanticipated technological game-changer: the internet.
“Compare to early days of the internet, when the only app people wanted to use was email. They thought email was the killer of snail mail, and that was it. Little did we know! I like to compare where we are now with 3D printing to that time — when we didn’t grasp that the internet was more than email. We can’t predict what’s going to happen, but much more, much more exciting things are going to happen that we can’t expect yet.”
While we might not yet grasp the immense implications that additive manufacturing will have on the manufacturing world as we know it, we are perhaps beginning to see glimmers that will begin to light our way, little tech will-o’-the-wisps to guide us toward this future. And Weijmarshausen sees a lot of that starting now with new entrants to the 3D printing scene, in the form of both existing tech giants entering the arena and new startups that have new takes on tech.
“Over the last eight to nine years, we’ve seen two things: the rise of desktop machines and a limited amount of innovation in industrial machines,” he noted. “It seemed like those making them were happy about where they were. I called this out in early 2015 that this would happen: in two fronts, innovations are going to happen. HP, Toshiba, Canon have a substantial amount of resources — this will fuel a faster innovation cycle than seen before. That would be useless without benefit — and who benefits? It’s the end user. Users have been telling us for years — they want those products to be higher quality, want them faster, want to pay less. 3D printing is still very expensive. What are these other companies addressing? Machines are faster, lower cost, better quality. HP is not going to release one machine and be happy with it — they have a road map to keep topping that, more exciting technology to come,” he told me.
“The other end — asking investors to please also invest in startups, making machines. The hardware side of things needs startups as well. Great corporations are entering, but startups are needed, too,” Weijmarshausen explained to me. He threw out a few examples: “Carbon, Formlabs, Desktop Metal, these smaller companies are starting to address the problems the technology has and making it much better. There’s a blending of digital and real, scanning, easier user interfaces, like the HP Sprout, and other technology, too. Augmented and virtual reality, 3D scanning, all technology will fuel ever-better 3D printers. Very focused on capturing all the technology, making it very easy for people to use, hopefully making a lot of people very, very happy with the products they make.”
Weijmarshausen also touched on some of the design future possibilities using 3D printing, such as merging material design and shape design into one single area of product design. “What the result of that will be,” he said, “no one will really know.” He further noted that we’ll have more excitement to see from Shapeways quite soon, teasing that next week an announcement will be made that “changes the way people look at businesses.” With 38,000 people already having opened businesses on Shapeways, “selling products with varying successes,” Weijmarshausen said that “next week will show that we really care for those people, making it clear that Shapeways is the place to start their business.”
With all this excitement already swirling, I was more than ready to Weijmarshausen’s keynote that afternoon, where he took to the stage with the same sense of gusto. His excitement is contagious, and the room held a palpable feel of captivation as he took us through the first and second industrial revolutions, then introduced us to his concept of the third industrial revolution and 3D printing’s place in it.
Now, of course Weijmarshausen isn’t the first to suggest that additive manufacturing is the third industrial revolution. His take on it, though, has a bit more finesse than previous theories (which, as we can see, certainly haven’t been on the money about timing of adaptation or near-term ubiquity). Digital manufacturing, to Weijmarshausen, brings a digital description into a physical product. Through design software and capturing devices, we will see products brought into the physical world. He noted that this specifically changes several factors: who’s in control, what will be made, where these things will be made, time to market, and an overall change in the structure of business.
Changing the structure of control means that, ultimately, anyone can be in control of the products that they make. Big companies will lose control in the shift to digital, as individuals gain more ability to be at the helm of their own projects, from research to prototyping to setting up factories. While now mass manufacturing is good for making millions of products, as well, the ‘what’ will change here, too, as the process is currently by nature risk-averse. Companies now are only bringing to market products they can be reasonably sure of selling. These products, as well, are currently manufactured where it’s cheap; this can shift around the world as the ‘where’ changes. A significant portion, Weijmarshausen noted, of the world’s oil is currently consumed by container ships that bring goods from China and other low-cost areas to the US, Europe, and other far-off customer destinations. By localizing production, these costs (monetary and environmental) can be cut drastically. Time to market, of course, can be cut back, as we’ve seen, bringing the process down to a matter of days as the prototyping and finalizing processes are sped substantially. Weijmarshausen used the example here of a newly released iPhone, for which in only days new accessories will appear on the market, with perfectly fitted cases showing up very quickly.
What, Weijmarshausen asked, is the catalyst to this revolution? He noted several big trends that will fuel this next industrial revolution:
- Defined as cities with more than 10 million inhabitants, within the next few years the world will have 40 such urban areas, meaning that 5 billion of the projected 8 billion world population will live in cities. This puts enormous strain on logistics due to the fact that many products are made elsewhere and need to be shipped, leading to traffic congestion and other issues.
- By 2025, 45% of Fortune 500 companies will be located in emerging markets
- Digital Disruption
- For example, the Internet of Things. Every decade, computer power becomes exponentially cheaper. We are relying more on digitization and digital tools, and so we will ultimately begin to ship digitally rather than physically. We can scan it here, transport it there to manufacture.
In nine years with Shapeways, Weijmarshausen explained, they have seen a few trends: the rise of the home printer, for one, and limited innovation, for another. As he’d noted to me earlier, what people want from Shapeways boils down to just a few things, which seem fairly universal: faster, cheaper, better. Despite limitations of current 3D printing technology, though, we’ve all seen some phenomenal creations, many showcased on Shapeways, where jewelry, ceramic bowls, home decor, and miniatures are all supremely popular for both designers and customers.
“I think now we’re at the eve of a very quick expansion of this industry,” Weijmarshausen explained. “We’re going to see very quick innovation across the board.”
Among the big remaining questions are how to get more people involved, and what the future might look like.
“Of course this is the hardest question, so people always ask me that,” Weijmarshausen said, to laughter. “Technology has a tendency to be free, so new generations of machines will be ten times, one hundred times cheaper. The amount of materials will explode. We will start making everything local. We will start making materials we have never seen before. I think that’s the future of 3D printing, and I’m excited to see it all happen right in front of you.”
Weijmarshausen’s views of the realities of 3D printing as it stands and his optimism for the future are filled with both caution and enthusiasm. What he has to say — specifically regarding near-term potential and the trend toward hyper-localization in manufacturing — certainly has a ring of truth to it, and sounds like a viable means of reaching that illustrious and much-lauded third industrial revolution.
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