Shapeways CEO On 3D Printing Gold, Generation Minecraft And Bringing Memes To Life

What’s the future of additive manufacturing?  In a wide-ranging talk here at TechCrunch Disrupt NY with John Biggs, Shapeways CEO Peter Weijmarshausen, discussed the current state of play for the 3D printing services business which was founded back in 2007 — and recently added gold to its playbook of maker materials.

The business, which can turn out about 1,500 products per day, still prints the majority of its output in plastic — the material accounts for about half of its output, according to Weijmarshausen — but has diversified to add multiple higher end materials, including ceramic, stainless steel, brass, bronze and most recently gold.

How does 3D printing in gold work? Weijmarshausen explained that for higher end materials the process becomes a mix of old and new manufacturing techniques.

“We use the term 3D printing and actually it’s a misnomer, right, because it’s just the term that we now use for all the technologies that are also called additive manufacturing. And with gold it’s a mix of the new and the old — where we print in wax actually,” he said.

The memes are coming into real life

“Then the wax model is added to this tree of wax models and you encase that in gypsum. You burn out the wax and then you cast the gold — or the silver — into that empty space. You take away the gypsum after it’s cooled down, and you polish the model.”

“I think 3D printing will displace some part of manufacturing but a large part of mass manufacturing will always be around,” he added. “The insight that we got at Shapeways is that where do you want to use 3D printing, for what kind of things — it’s for things that you’re really passionate about.”

He also talked about how Shapeways’ 3D printing services business will mesh with a future of mass adoption of home 3D printers.

Home 3D printers are tools, said Weijmarshausen, whereas Shapeways’ business stands out by being an end-to-end service that removes the effort and expertise required by DIY.

“There will be printers at home, and there will be services and I think the proposition will be completely different. The printer at home is a tool — and if you’re good at using a tool you can make amazing things. But currently there is also limitations and if you want to keep up to date you need to buy a new printer every year or so,” he said.

“We have a totally different proposition — not only that we can use high end machines, and different materials already, and we will keep investing in having the best of the best, but we also offer an end to end service. It’s the same with paper; to me if you go to ShutterFly you can get a photo album. You have a printer at home that can print photos but making the photo album would take a lot of time and handiwork.”

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Offering higher end materials mean Shapeways is also able to support niche manufacturing use-cases — including having a customer who is building a DIY nuclear fusion reactor, using ceramic parts printed by Shapeways.

“We were really surprised that a guy in Brooklyn was working on a fusion reactor – and he reached out to us and said without Shapeways, without the ceramic parts that you guys print for me this would never be possible for me to do,” added Weijmarshausen.

Another unexpected development being powered by 3D printing is that people are using Shapeways to make 3D versions of Internet memes, such as Sad Keanu, according to Weijmarshausen.

“They used to be only in pictures on the web but now what is happening is that people are modeling those memes are we see the next big thing like Success Kid or Mobius Bacon Strip. The memes are coming into real life,” he said.

He also touched on the need for 3D modeling skills to become more mainstream to help shape and drive a future of mass adoption of micro manufacturing.

On the education point he was hopeful, noting that there has been an “explosion” of people able to use 3D modeling software since Shapeways was founded, and expressing specific excitement about the current generation of kids who are effectively acquiring 3D modeling skills by stealth by playing block-building game Minecraft.

“One of the things that surprised me when I went through this experience at Shapeways over the last seven years is the explosion of people who can use 3D software,” he said. “Plenty of people are learning at schools, even high schools here in the United States. Lots of people are downloading [3D modeling software like] SketchUp and they’re learning.”

“I believe if you learn something young enough it becomes natural to you. I was at a science festival in Washington a few weeks ago, and I asked a crowd which was filled with kids between 10 and 18 years old, and I asked so who’s on Minecraft? And the whole audience put their hands in the air. And I said, what if you can hold your Minecraft design in your hands? And they all wanted that. It was fun to see the reactions.

“As a result you could argue that Minecraft now is a 3D software modeling tool — which it was never intended to be.”