Shapeways provides a marketplace for all things 3D-printing related. For now, it’s a successful and thriving community. Soon, however, it may become obsolete. 

Were you around in the early 1980s when early 3D-printing (then called rapid prototyping) got its start? Neither was I, but it’s true. The first patent for “3D printing” came in 1986 with Charles Hull’s Stereolithography Apparatus (SLA).

Read More: Complete Beginner’s Guide to Additive Manufacturing

As we mentioned, 3D-printing was first used for rapid prototyping. For this reason, early 3D printers were confined to developers and larger-scale manufacturers. It would be a long time until 3D printing was “democratized”. To put it another way, home desktop 3D printers weren’t available until this decade.

Nowadays, the industry has evolved. Rather than buying your own 3D printer, some services look for designers to send their product concepts in order to be prototyped. One of these services, Shapeways, is one of the top 3D printing marketplaces available today.

But can their business model carry them through the next decade?

The Increasing Availability and Decreasing Cost of 3D Printing Hardware

Though it’s difficult to say which brand came first, the 3D printing pen dates back to around 2013. You can now pick one up on Amazon with free one-day delivery for less than $70. You can even get a small SLA 3D printer for less than $85 right now.

Our world continually democratizes and decreases the costs of 3D printing.

image of 3D printing Wikipedia page for article 3D Printing Marketplaces Such as "Shapeways" Won't Last
3D printing Wikipedia page

Shapeways, founded in 2007, provides a 3D printing marketplace for individual designers.

You can upload your own designs to be made or have Shapeways handle everything. Choose from metals, steel, plastics, and other materials for your project.

They even partnered with Hasbro, Inc. in 2014, producing the concept “SuperFanArt”.

But this 3D printing marketplace operates off borrowed time and diverging objectives.

A History of Exponential Growth

“Borrowed time” may seem like hyperbole, but it tracks when you look at the history of 3D printing.

Like many technologies, 3D printing experienced exponential growth over time.

But it doesn’t cover the entire story. 

Here’s a very brief overview of 3D printing’s history:

  • Innovators produced 3D printing prototypes as early as 1977
  • The first instance of fusing materials using lasers (3D printing) in 1981
  • Artist Masaki Fujihata employs 3D printing tech in 1989
  • First instance of wax 3D printing in 1994
  • Z printers evolve using inkjet action to 3D print in 1995
  • AeroMat launches their 3D metal printer in 1997
  • First instance of a 3D-printed organ in 1999
  • Large-scale printing possible with Mammoth Stereolithography Machine in 2000
  • First instance of 3D-printed and fully articulated furniture in 2005
  • 3D printers can now use regular paper using new matrix system in 2008
  • 3D-printed animated full-color movie for ParaNorman and others in 2011
  • 2011 also saw the first 3D-printed aircraft parts, vehicle parts, and precious metal
  • First 3D-printed gun, jaw implant, gold, and candy in 2012

Again, this a very truncated history of 3D printing, but you can see the leaps of the technology.

The same kind of technological leaps enabled the ubiquity of smartphones and computers. This further informs the decreasing cost of 3D printing technology and increasing availability.

The applications in medical technology only further enhance the necessity for 3D printing to be widely available and accessible. That means availability will continue to go up and the price will continue to go down.

Shapeways risks its own business model by functioning as part marketplace/part 3D printing service.

image of Shapeways 3D printers for article 3D Printing Marketplaces Such as "Shapeways" Won't Last
When everyone can make their own products at home, there’s no need for a middleman | Shapeways via Xconomy

Middling User Sales and Shifting Toward Services

Having raised more than $100-million USD to date, Shapeways established itself as a 3D printing powerhouse. This informs the $30-million USD Series E funding Lux Capital awarded to Shapeways this year.

Shapeways shifted its focus as well this year, offering more personalized services to users for fabrication. They want to empower creators by offering 3D-printing services in a variety of materials.

Greg Kress, Shapeways CEO, recently told Xconomy:

“Being able to offer these [additional services] will enable entrepreneurial creators to further scale their creativity into viable small businesses…

For many creators, they’re designing incredible products but don’t have the technical know-how in areas like web design or marketing and/or the budget to reach out to companies with niche expertise [in those areas].

Our team will give creators a one-stop service for an affordable, bundled price.”

Shapeways now allows creators to upload their own designs, as well as design with Shapeways proprietary technology. So it is one part services and one part goods, but is that enough to weather adaptations to 3D printing technology?

image of comment from User Shea_Design for article 3D Printing Marketplaces Such as "Shapeways" Won't Last
User Shea_Design on Shapeways forum

User Concerns Over Operating Costs

Users voiced concerns over transparency in 2016, but Shapeways provided some insight in 2017. They listed some of the “top selling” products in a blog post.

All of this centers around how plausible it is to operate a business using Shapeways. As Shea_Design pointed out in 2016, the outlook appeared bleak.

Despite these concerns, Shapeways says that its new direction it aimed specifically at small businesses. Think designers on Etsy or other websites that craft unique, one-of-a-kind products.

Some creators might balk at the long-term costs of this arrangement. Luckily, there’s an alternative.

Will Shapeways Be Extinct by 2025?

While Shapeways shifts towards operating like a third party platform, its competitors go right to the source.

One competitor, Glowforge, offers a highly capable 3D laser printer that 3D prints designs. You can use a variety of materials including edible ones like chocolate.

Glowforge touts itself as being the “biggest 30-day crowdfunding campaign in history”. It opened for public orders just a few days ago and also empowers creators to fabricate.

But, Glowforge cuts out the “middleman” that companies like Shapeways represent.

However, the cost still excludes a large market portion of the market. Even the “Glowforge Basic” class 1 laser product starts at $2,495-USD. The highest level product offered — the Glowforge Pro class 4 laser product — starts at $5,995-USD.

image of a 3D printer in a local library for article 3D Printing Marketplaces Such as "Shapeways" Won't Last
Example of a 3D printer in a local library | artchitectmagazine.com

But, when you compare the long-term costs of operating with Shapeways vs your personal Glowforge, some businesses and creators might opt against Shapeways. They could even make use of 3D printers at a nearby UPS or their local library.

The “marketplace” of Shapeways only works if there are enough people shopping. By 2025, no one will need a digital 3D printing marketplace. They will either have their own equipment or simply use one at an available coworking space. 

Unless they pivot their business plans, Shapeways and other platforms like it are doomed.

If Shapeways pivots their focus again, how could they avoid their inevitable extinction?

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