Section 2: Disruption in Process:
Peter Weijmarshausen, Shapeways: The New Age of Manufacturing
Peter Weijmarshausen, Shapeways
Shapeways is a technology company offering 3D printing services. Other companies in this sector include Kraftwurx, i.materialise, Ponoko and Sculpteo.
What is the need you’re addressing with Shapeways?
For almost 100 years, our society has been defined by mass manufacturing, a technology that has made it possible to make very complicated products very efficiently and very effectively. As a result, we are now surrounded by products that are super-complicated and easy to get. Everybody can afford to have a TV, a phone, a car – it’s actually astounding how many products we make and at what prices, if you think about how complex they are.
There is, however, a problem with mass manufacturing: the end user cannot provide a lot of input on the product he or she gets. Therefore, we basically reconstructed our society around mass manufacturing alongside a new activity, which is called marketing, where we try to figure out what the next big thing is that we can sell in hundreds, thousands or millions of units. And we need that because mass manufacturing only makes sense when we can sell those kinds of numbers.
We also have big companies that have access to factories and capital to run these big projects, and programmes to come up with a new product and put it into the market. And that process typically takes at least months, and sometimes even years. All of that happens because mass manufacturing is good at making loads of the same products, and not so good at making individual products.
The problem with this – and you can see that around you – is that people know what they want, so they try to customize their products. That’s why people put details on laptops; that’s why people build their own computers, if they have the chance. And actually, in the end, I think the success of the smartphone is in some part owed to the fact that we can customize it with exactly the software we want on it.
Mass manufacturing doesn’t give us exactly what we want; we cannot provide any input. And mass manufacturing can’t help there. Post-manufacturing customization is inefficient and expensive.
So how do we solve that? The technology for 3D printing has been around for almost 30 years. It has been used mainly for prototyping in this old way of thinking, but it can be used beyond prototyping for final products. That was the inspiration for Shapeways: why don’t we use 3D printers to make final products? The fun thing about it is that, because 3D printing works directly from digital to final product, you don’t need to make 10, 100, 1,000 or even more products before you start making money. You can make money as a company that provides this service, even if you make only unique products.
What is Shapeways doing?
Shapeways is the world’s biggest 3D printing community and marketplace. Shapeways is a website where people can first upload their own designs, if they have made something on their computer. So you can use software to design anything you have in your mind. And then, you can upload your design to Shapeways. We automatically check whether we can make it, we automatically price it, and then you can order it in all kinds of different materials: plastics, stainless steel and all kinds of finishes. We can print in silver, gold, platinum, ceramics, etc. And if you like one of those materials, then you pay by credit card and, 5 to 10 days later, you get your product delivered to your home.
That’s for you if you want to use 3D software, which is not always easy. What you can also do is use the tools that we provide on our website to customize existing designs. Or, if you go to our website, you can see a large number of different products that are designed by others. So, if you have an idea for a product, and you think it’s not only relevant for you but could be relevant for more people, you can design it and upload it to Shapeways yourself, but you can also open what we call a free Shapeways shop. And all of a sudden, you can promote and sell your products to a worldwide audience. It works like this: We tell you what it costs to manufacture, which gives you the floor price, but if you want to make money on top, you can mark up the manufacturing costs by $1, $10 or $100 – it really doesn’t matter. You can price it at any price you want above the manufacturing costs. Every time it sells, we will give you your markup and we will take the production costs. We now have over 15,000 people who have opened a shop on Shapeways and are selling products to a worldwide audience.
What are some issues you run into?
Contrast mass manufacturing and Shapeways. In mass manufacturing, you have a few companies that come up with products and bring them to market. This way of producing requires you to have a system of patenting smart inventions. The idea behind patents is that it incentivizes people to think hard to solve problems and, once they do, they are protected from others copying their ideas. Now, if you have a few companies, even 100 or 1,000 companies that work in the system, this is doable. In the age of 3D printing and platforms like Shapeways, any individual – and we are now not talking about thousands or tens of thousands, but millions and billions – can design products on their computer and ask us to print it. This whole concept of, “Am I infringing a patent?” by making something that has been invented before, becomes an almost impossible question. It may be possible for the person who designs the products. But definitely for a platform like Shapeways, it’s almost impossible. We get 120,000 designs uploaded each month. How can we check whether every file that we get is free of any infringement? That is very tough.
For copyrighted content, there is a system called DMCA [Digital Millennium Copyright Act] takedowns that resolves disputes between the designer and the copyright owner. So let’s say you make something that infringes upon a copyright – let’s say, Disney. Then, Disney can come to us and say, “Hey, this thing that is on Shapeways is infringing on our copyright.” What we do then is say to the designer that Disney has a problem with this and we’re taking it down. The dispute is resolved between the designer on Shapeways, the users of Shapeways, and Disney. Problem solved. That’s how it’s supposed to be: we provide a service. If people use the service in a way that is not legal, then it should be resolved between the infringer and the person that is infringed upon.
The problem is that we didn’t think about this for patents. The DMCA process was created mainly to protect copyright on the internet, which had been an issue for a long time. For patents, however, we have no such process. So now, if you upload something to Shapeways that is an infringement of a patent, Shapeways is also party to this problem. And that is, of course, not good, because we didn’t design anything; we are just offering a service. I would say we have to think about a DMCA takedown process around patents, just like we have for copyright. In the end, it’s the person who designs something that needs to be held responsible for whether he or she is infringing a patent. And if by an unlucky circumstance there is an infringement, he or she should talk to the patent owner and resolve the issue.
How do you see government facilitating this process?
My personal belief is that government should be involved to the minimal amount. Governments exist to protect us and facilitate processes that we otherwise wouldn’t do ourselves. I’m not a fan of over-regulation. However, since the system around copyright and DMCA works well, what government can do is extend the law to patents and create a similar system for patents. It works well for copyright; it should work well for patents.
3D printers have been around for a long time, especially for prototyping in the commercial space. Why do you think it’s taken a start-up like Shapeways to make this technology available to consumers?
There’s an obvious answer: that’s always the case. Incumbents always have inertia. If you are doing something a certain way and are successful, you keep doing it that way. If you are a company that mass manufactures products and you make a lot of money, why change if it works? So if new technology pops up, you don’t pay attention because it’s still small while you’re making billions.
For me as a start-up entrepreneur, I don’t make billions. We started with just an idea; this is how it typically happens. And you see this everywhere. USPS [United States Postal Service] didn’t offer the biggest email platform, to give you an example. They were so good at delivering the letters that they were inert. I can remember when they were asked, “Is email going to disrupt the idea of sending mail to each other?”, and they responded, “Absolutely no chance”. In hindsight, they were wrong. That’s because big companies have inertia. Lots of people are paid to do a certain thing in a certain way, and it’s really hard to change that. One of the reasons why some big corporates have incubators is to protect small groups of people from the rest of the company by thinking differently, but this is hard. That’s the reason why I think big companies don’t do breakaway innovation. They are driven by key performance indicators and they are expected to optimize what they already do well.
How do you envision a society after mass manufacturing?
I don’t think mass manufacturing will be completely replaced. Ninety per cent of products that we use will still be mass manufactured because it is so effective and efficient. But for the 10% of products that we really care about – think jewellery; things for our hobby; things that we use to decorate our homes; things that we really use to identify who we are, including clothing and shoes – they will be 3D-printed in the future. The impact of that is pretty profound because it means that over time, we will no longer buy the products that someone else comes up with. We will be influenced by that, but we won’t buy exactly what they come up with; we’ll buy what we think is cool. It is not that we want to have a white piece of paper – I don’t believe that. What happens is that you see multiple products in a shop and you say, “This is cool, this is cool. I wish I could mix the inspiration of these products and get something that is truly unique.” You go to a store and see a shirt that has a certain cut; you see a pattern on another shirt and, thanks to 3D printing, you can combine the shape and the pattern. That is one element.
The second element is even more profound. The notion that you need to be a huge company to bring a product to market will completely disappear. Remember the days when software manufacturers were big companies? We still have a few. But with the internet, anyone can launch a web service. Anyone with a great idea can build a piece of software and make it available for download. The moment it hits the internet, anyone with an internet connection has access to it. That’s astounding. It used to be the case that you had to ship software in a floppy disk. Getting it in front of everyone in the world was impossible for a small entrepreneur.
What has happened to software will now happen to products. What we’ve seen with software is that the amount available has exploded. How fast software improves, has exploded. It used to be a new version every year; now, it’s a new version every week. The same will happen to products. There will be many more different products; there will be many more iterations; there will be many more people trying to bring products to market. And the necessity of selling hundreds of thousands of products will be removed, so you will have many more unique products. The way we think about products will completely change.
I started working on this in 2007; I’m used to thinking about this issue. But even for me, when I talk about it, it still hits me that this is profound. I can imagine if you hear this for the first time and you start to think about the implications, you have a hard time wrapping your head around it. And that’s why it probably takes some time. I can still remember 1990, when the internet really took off. I was online in 1991. It still took a few years for the mass adoption of the internet, and the first really useful websites started to pop up. It took from 1990 to the middle of the 2000s before everybody was online with broadband access, so around 15 years. We launched in 2008, MakerBot did in 2009, and I think the real starting point for the 3D printing revolution was 2010, so we’re now five years in. I would imagine that it can take another two to three years before real mass adoption hits.