At Shapeways facility, order emerges from 3D-printed chaos

One of the leading companies in the 3D-printing services industry, Shapeways has figured out a very efficient way to print hundreds of items. It looks like the aftermath of a flood.

Daniel Terdiman
Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
3 min read
Two 3D-printed skulls, one in the white that emerges from the high-end machines, and one that has been dyed, at the Shapeways production facility in Queens. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

NEW YORK -- Looking at the diagram in front of me, which shows a pile of random things jumbled together, I can't help but think that I'm looking at the aftermath of something like a hurricane or a flood.

Actually, however, this is optimized organization of the highest order. It's a chart showing the dozens of item that will emerge in a little while from the 3D printer I'm standing next to.

Here at the Shapeways production facility in Queens, nine high-end 3D printers chug along continuously, churning out hundreds, or even thousands, of individual products a day. And the diagram represents one of the amazing things about 3D-printing technology: the fact that as long as there are digital 3D models to follow, the machines can turn out whatever they're told to produce, and can even jam dozens or hundreds of individual items together into a single print job.

I've come to visit Shapeways during one of the startup's better weeks. A day before my arrival, the company announced that it had just closed a $30 million C round of funding led by the A-list VC firm Andreessen Horowitz. As I walk around the Queens facility, it's evident to me where at least part of that new bounty will go: Today, Shapeways has nine EOS 3D printers, machines that can cost between $1 million and $3 million. It plans on expanding to between 30 and 50 of the machines, not to mention staffing up its research and development team. The company, which also has a production facility in Eindhoven, Holland, has very big ambitions.

Behind the scenes at Shapeways' New York 3D-printing facility (pictures)

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As well it should. Shapeways is one of the leaders on the service side of the 3D-printing industry. It is, in some ways, the Etsy of the business, allowing anyone to launch a store that sells his or her own 3D-printed items. From rings to iPhone cases to jewelry to cups to lamps, and so much more, Shapeways creators have sold more than a million items. And every day, thousands more items come out of these machines, stacked together like so much poststorm driftwood, yet somehow perfectly configured.

The trick, I'm told during my visit, is what's called tray optimization. As orders come flooding in through Shapeways' thousands of seller stores, production staff figures out the most efficient combinations of items to produce in single print runs.

On average, the trays can hold about 200 items. But if a run is all iPhone cases, for example, that number could hit 1,000.

When a print job is done, a Shapeways team member pulls out the tray and wheels it over to a postproduction area, where he or she "blasts" apart the dozens or hundreds of items. The diagrams showing all the items are essential for figuring out how to pull the whole stack of products apart.

Some Shapeways print runs feature mesh boxes that are designed to help optimize the stack, while at the same time protecting some of the more fragile items. The method is proprietary, I'm told, so I can't photograph the boxes.

I've also been asked not to photograph the diagrams too closely because it might be possible to make out items that are not intended for sale, or which are otherwise private. Suffice it to say that the trays are full of rather interesting items, including a fork that is inexplicably sticking out the side of one, a model airplane, egg-holders, and on another, 15 rings that are part of a rush job.

My host, Shapeways public relations representative Elisa Richardson, recalled that she saw a wedding ring in a print run not too long ago. "Apparently, she said yes," Richardson tells me. "He e-mailed to tell us."

Though Shapeways sells 3D-printed items made from a wide variety of materials, the Queens facility prints only in nylon, and only in white. But products shipped out of here come in many different colors, thanks to a series of dyes that are used on many items. For now, those colors include black, red, purple, blue, and, Richardson said, a "sort of pink we're still trying to figure out."