Exclusive Interview: Shapeways Introduces New CEO, Vision to Bridge the Gap in 3D Printing and Design
Back in August, Shapeways co-founder Peter Weijmarshausen stepped down as the company’s CEO. During the transition phase, COO Tom Finn has served as interim CEO. Today, the company announces that a permanent CEO has been appointed, as Gregory Kress takes up the reins of the New York City-based 3D printing service and marketplace.
“While excited about how far we’ve come, I look forward to accelerating Shapeways’ vision to become the complete end-to-end platform helping people, ‘design,’ ‘make,’ and ‘sell,’ regardless of their 3D modeling experience,” Kress said in the announcement of his appointment.
Founded in 2007, Shapeways has long served the creators in the 3D printing community, affording opportunities to create their own products and shops, bringing not only designs, but businesses, to life through digital technologies with the support of a dedicated team. That team has grown globally over the years, now encompassing some 250 employees working with more than one million community members and 45,000 shops. With all this growth — including milestones such as having 3D printed its 10 millionth product and reaching more than 190,000 designs uploaded monthly — it will take a real leader to helm continuing expansion efforts. Shapeways sees Kress as that leader.
Among growth objectives going forward, Shapeways is targeting both lateral and vertical expansion. Company experience at Shapeways has seen the accumulation of data and creation of a sophisticated infrastructure for production, distribution, and supply chain. For his part, Kress brings significant leadership experience including his most recent position as the President and COO of Open Education, overseeing successful expansion of the business, as well as more than a decade of leadership positions across GE prior to that appointment.
“We know people have ideas or want products that can be made and sold thanks to advanced design, production, and fulfillment technology — but most of them don’t know where to begin. Without proper support or infrastructure, the entire process seems inaccessible, complicated, intimidating and expensive. Greg is experienced at growing platform businesses and we’re thrilled that he’ll be applying that deep knowledge and energy to empower creators to realize those design dreams,” said Albert Wenger, Managing Partner at Union Square Ventures, in today’s announcement.
Kress has big shoes to fill, as both Finn and Weijmarshausen have offered insightful perspectives on the future of technology — so to learn more about what he will be bringing to the 3D printed table, I spoke with the new CEO about his background, vision, and hopes for Shapeways.
We chatted on Valentine’s Day, which was oddly fitting, as Shapeways offers a lot to love. It was also Kress’ birthday, and his appointment as CEO of one of the most imaginative platforms in the 3D printing industry was certainly cause for celebration. As of our conversation, Erie, Pennsylvania native Kress had been in his position for about a month, and has been thoroughly enjoying his transition into the prominent role.
“I’m really, really excited,” he began with what I quickly learned is a trademark enthusiasm. “It’s been a fun process so far. I’ve only been in the role for about 30 days, and I’m getting to the point of connecting a lot of dots, and gaining a good perspective in the business.”
He continued, “Over the last 30 days I’ve been able to get a really unique perspective about Shapeways. I think Shapeways has done an incredible job in paving the way for 3D printing in the consumer space. There’s been a lot of hype in the past, where quality didn’t completely match up with customer expectation, but Shapeways has done a unique job in building infrastructure, this incredible structure in bits to atoms to build up the customer experience. All that said, that’s just a small piece of what our creators go through. With my background, I think a lot about the end-to-end customer experience. Creators don’t all come in at the same level of expertise; they’re all using different types of CAD modeling software in some form or other, but ultimately need a lot of help, of support.”
Kress explained that he began his career at the GE Transportation headquarters in Erie, a “massive manufacturing facility” that was foundational to building his customer-focused approach to leadership.
Tracing his experience back to what brought him to Shapeways, Kress explained that his work with Open Education gave him an insider’s perspective on what it takes to lead “a very successful startup” to “incredible growth in EdTech and emerging markets.” Facing what he described as “several really exciting opportunities” for a next career move, Kress stepped back to really think about those opportunities in terms of innovation, paving new roads, and facing uncharted territories — with the support of a good team. Looking into Shapeways, Kress was delighted to discover a talented team in place, ready to confront the growth ahead of them — “checking all the boxes” he had been looking for.
“Joining the company, I’m seeing an even bigger opportunity than ever before. Shapeways is paving the way of how consumers should be thinking about and using 3D printing. I think we’re just scratching the surface of how to provide more,” he told me.
Particularly enticing to Kress was Shapeways’ strength of positioning as both a hardware and a software business, alongside the service aspects — and, critically, the team.
“Shapeways’ underlying technology is extremely robust; I’m impressed how we get a file from start to finish through our factories, in a cost-effective way. We have deep domain expertise to use and run our 3D printing machinery. Going in, I have experience in manufacturing from my GE days. These things [manufacturing systems] aren’t easy to pick up, and in additive we’ve had experts working for a long time,” he explained of the importance of the teamwork making the Shapeways dream work.
“We have an incredible team, top to bottom, in every facility. Our investors believe in our business, and they want to push us to grow into more markets. The executive team in place is fantastic, truly top-notch, with incredible experiences adding to the table. In every corner of the business, every single function, are incredible people who are passionate about our business and where to go. You don’t see that all the time. I’ve worked with a ton of companies, from a consulting standpoint, and you just don’t always see that. I’m humbled to inherit a business with so many passionate people surrounding it.”
For his part, Kress noted that he proved a worthy candidate from the company’s perspective due to his background, from a mechanical engineering degree and manufacturing experience to leadership in a global startup.
“A lot of my skills and experiences over the last 15 years made this a great fit, and it was almost like Shapeways wrote the job description for me,” he said. “I’m also able to work with Pete [Weijmarshausen] closely through all this; he’s still the Chairman of the Board, and there’s a great relationship there. I feel very good about where we are.”
For all his background in startups and manufacturing, a business focused on 3D printing represents a big step for Kress and his career. He’s been looking deeply into the industry (“I started doing research, and someone sent me to 3DPrint.com almost instantly”) and examining all that goes into success in additive manufacturing. His first month with Shapeways has allowed him the time to dive straight into the deep end of the business, quickly acclimating to his surroundings.
In examining 3D printing from a business perspective and understanding Shapeways’ existing and earlier initiatives, Kress found that there’s “a lot of friction in the process going from model to 3D print,” and Shapeways has long worked to address this pain point. Shapeways is looking to ease the process for creators, and to provide more obtainable, actionable services that will address users’ needs.
“That’s the beginning of the process, and there is a lot of opportunity for Shapeways to provide more for our creators. The second piece is the actual make phase, the actual turning bits into atoms, where we get a printable file and begin creating what I’m going to call inside the company finished goods. What our customers want is for us to help them do a lot of post-processing, assembly work, packaging, drop shipment, and kitting; we can be a bridge and a hub for that whole piece of the value proposition to come to life,” he said. “Finally, our biggest customers monetize by selling in our marketplace or their own website, but a lot are trying to figure it out on their own with no one to guide them. What Shapeways should be doing is helping them set up their marketplace account or their own Etsy account, helping drive a real customer relationship management to go in, target their customers, create newsletters, shift away from just throwing products up in our marketplace without a vision or strategy in place to help it grow.
“In the last 30 days, I’ve heard a lot from our team here — and our other facilities — to understand the capabilities we have. What it means is shifting to think about the customer from an end-to-end perspective, for the design, make, sell process, and to remove as much friction as possible. That’s my vision of where the business is going.”
The key word throughout our conversation is one that will be driving Kress’ leadership tactics: opportunity.
“As we are looking to grow, the opportunities in front of us are so big and so exciting; for us to grow our business, there are so many opportunities. It will come down to focus, execution, more accountability, and more of an execution focus going forward. Ultimately, there is tremendous opportunity in front of us, and this is a great thing for anyone in my shoes when looking at opportunities,” he explained.
More than a buzzword for Kress, opportunity represents the coming together of a unique cocktail of ingredients that come together to set Shapeways apart.
“In the industry, we have the unique perspective of bringing people together — users, OEMs, CAD software, even some ways to monetize, such as Shopify and Etsy — no one owns that end-to-end platform. I’ll be talking about Shapeways more as a platform. I’ve looked at the 3D printing industry; it’s very competitive. Some OEMs are almost closed off, they’re very secretive. Shapeways can be a bridge and bring that all together. Ultimately, 3D printing as a market can be huge. We can all be really successful if we work together and figure out how to grow the market as a team. I see Shapeways’ role as trying to bring people together in partnerships, helping others to create, to plug in to our system from a consumer perspective,” he said.
Partnership and platform are certainly two major themes coming into play more than ever for the industry surrounding 3D printing. Shapeways is taking advantage of both, as the company often works with collaborators to offer more to their customers through licensing and other partnerships, as well as offering platform thinking that encompasses a full experience for its community.
There’s still a difference between having the right resources and actually using them to greatest effectiveness, and it’s the latter that Kress is targeting with his vision for the company going forward.
“Short term, we have to get focused. Growth priorities for us are, first, features and functionalities,” he said, getting into his plans.
“It’ll be a process the team goes through to identify these best candidates for growth; we’ll figure out those couple things and get really focused. Some things we’ve done in the past — a lean startup methodology, deploying products — have built a foundation where we know enough now about our business to pick a few focuses and dive really deep in, and create the best user experience we can. Rather than going really wide, we’ll be picking a few things and going really deep into them. Over the next six months that’ll be my key focus. Now that we’re aligning on the north star of the business, we’ll be heading toward that.”
Kress sees as critical to Shapeways’ market positioning its mainstage role in lowering the barrier into 3D printing; the bridge aspect of his plans expands across several workable areas of address. Stripping away the barriers holding back higher adoption of 3D printing, including design for additive manufacturing (DfAM), will make the technology more accessible to more creators who might put it to greater use.
“We want to ship away from needing a deep expertise in CAD modeling, focusing on how do we get more people interested in how to take an idea in a designer’s head and turn it into a physical model, or into a business. There are these creators developing things and finding ways to monetize, and Shapeways’ role is to lower the barrier as much as possible. We’re helping our customers with really great designer capabilities. We have access to some of the most amazing 3D printing modelers out there; we can drive business toward them and enable them to build business,” he said.
“The configurators we have behind the scenes are incredible; we need to work on the UI behind them. There are some things we’ll be doing to remove barriers to really create something in 3D printing. It starts with everyone needing to take a step back and look at the whole user experience. When someone is going through something and runs into friction, that’s a huge barrier. Getting a file that gets you the quality of goods you want is quite complicated — the things we can do behind the scenes are pretty powerful. There are simple friction points we should never allow our customers to go through.”
Here, he used the example of a beautifully designed iPhone case that was a stunning model — but couldn’t work as an actual product, because the original base design had the size of the iPhone wrong. In Kress’ view, that shouldn’t be allowed to happen, that a well thought-out design might be rendered functionally useless because of some early flaw; he sees it as part of the Shapeways mission to help adjust that error into something viable without disrupting the designer. Thinking of single case uses and focusing on the nitty gritty is important to the whole of the Shapeways plan, he noted: “We need to see what the user actually goes through.”
Further bridging the gap for Shapeways customers is the sheer variety of technologies designers gain access to through working with the large platform. With more than 60 materials available now for 3D printing, including a variety of colors, textures, and finishes, users have a wide range of tools at their disposal. Particularly exciting has been, of course, the increasing availability of metal 3D printing.
“The fact that we’re 3D printing end-use products, specifically jewelry, with necklaces, bracelets, and rings, in gold, silver, and bronze is really opening up our creators to new possibilities. We look at how to use advanced OEM technologies that 3D printing is on the cusp of, and how to relate these to consumer uses, to enterprise use cases. I think we are doing interesting things to drive to the consumer,” he continued.
“Best practices, cutting-edge technologies, let us bridge the gap. When we think about 3D printing as a service, there’s a lot of applications that are a great starting point for our customers. They’ll find as they scale and become more sophisticated in design and in expectations of final goods, final products, they’ll have to graduate to a Shapeways professional offering. We’ll be able to provide them with a lot more solutions than they’ll be able to have all on their own.”
For Kress, Shapeways represents a platform of opportunity — for his career, for 3D printing as a growing technology and industry, yes, but most importantly opportunities for the community of users around the globe who use Shapways for services and businesses of their own.
Let us know your thoughts on this appointment; join the discussion of this and other 3D printing topics at 3DPrintBoard.com or share your comments below.[Images provided by Shapeways]
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