WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
With 3-D printing on track to revolutionize manufacturing as we know it, Shapeways co-founder Marleen Vogelaar is making the technology more accessible than ever — to anyone, anywhere, anytime.
By Lorraine Sanders
At first, Sad Keanu was just an average Internet meme spawned by a paparazzi image of the actor Keanu Reeves sitting on a New York City park bench and looking very, very sad. Countless derivative images, Tumblr blogs and tabloid mentions ensued. And that might have been the end of it, if it weren’t for Marleen Vogelaar and Shapeways, the 3-D printing company spun out of Royal Phillips Electronics six years ago that’s responsible for printing over a million consumer products in the past year.
Instead, Sad Keanu became real, albeit sandstone and barely over an inch tall.
It’s a boon for designers and small business owners: no supply chains, no manufacturing relationships, no prototyping, no inventory.
“Shapeways is the first company that actual physical products have gone viral on,” says Vogelaar in a tone that’s equal parts wonder and fan-like enthusiasm for the company she co-founded in 2007 with longtime friend Peter Weijmarshausen, now CEO, and Robert Schouwenburg.
Designed by a Shapeways member who goes by ”neuralfirings,” and printed using one of the company’s fleet of thirty 3-D printers, the figurine was soon enjoying its own celebrity status, including television appearances, adventures with notable journalists and a meeting with the actor himself.
While Sad Keanu is but one of many toys, novelty products and accessories available for purchase on Shapeways, it illustrates what the company — and Vogelaar — have made possible: the affordable transformation of original designs into physical objects produced quickly and on demand, then sold to anyone, anywhere in the world. Whether they’re selling ceramic mugs or GoPro camera accessories, it’s a boon for designers and small business owners: no supply chains, no manufacturing relationships, no expensive prototyping, no inventory.
“You’re not limited and bound by traditional manufacturing technology to get you what you want,” says the Dutch-born Vogelaar, a wavy-haired brunette with a steady, soft-spoken voice who roved from roles as the company’s chief financial officer and chief operating officer to her current title of chief strategy officer as Shapeways grew, relocated operations from the Netherlands to New York, and built a 110-person team to support a marketplace of 350,000 buyers and sellers.
Manufacturing what people want when they want it will ultimately win out over large runs based on anticipated demand.
A perch on the cutting edge of the emerging 3-D printing industry is, in many ways, an unlikely place for Vogelaar. When Weijmarshausen, whom she’d met through a friend while in school, approached her with an idea for a new company that would eventually be spun out of an incubator at Royal Phillips Electronics, she was working on mergers and acquisition deals with a firm that’s now part of international consulting group Solving Efeso. She’d started her career in supply chain management with paper company SCA Hygiene Products after studying industrial engineering and management science at Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands. Vogelaar admits that, initially, she knew so little about 3-D printing that she had to Google it. But her attraction was immediate — and strong.
“I was like, ‘Wow, this is fantastic. It is groundbreaking, it can change the world,’” recalls Vogelaar in language that could easily induce eye-rolling if she wasn’t so darn convincing.
Her conviction is based as much on a business hunch drawn from her years of experience working with supply chains — that manufacturing exactly what people want when they want it will ultimately win out over producing large runs of items based on anticipated demand — as it is on pure emotion.
She says, “You can make anything you want, anything. And that whole magic to me was reason to think this can be really, really big. Giving people what they want instead of what’s available is really, really huge.”
And while it’s fair to describe her as a 3-D printing evangelist, Vogelaar is — unlike Sad Keanu — contentedly behind the scenes at Shapeways, where she’s played a key role in the company’s evolution, including its decisions to eschew at-home printers in favor of a manufacturing service model, invest heavily to build a community of buyers and sellers, and partner on high-profile projects designed to show the world what 3-D printing can do. Examples include a 3-D printed gown created earlier this year for burlesque star Dita Von Teese, participation in the Museum of Arts and Design’s exhibition Out of Hand: Materializing the Postdigital in New York this fall and, revealed last week, limited-edition holiday gifts for Neiman Marcus.
At a time when tech entrepreneurs are increasingly public-facing figures, becoming everything from celebrities in their own right to political power brokers, this mother-of-two stands out for her quiet yet notable presence at the forefront of an industry drawing big bets, including Shapeways’ own $30 million series C funding round earlier this year led by Andreessen Horowitz. As 3-D printing proliferates, the market for 3-D printer shipments is growing at 95.4 percent, with revenue projected to increase 81.9 percent to reach more than $5.7 billion by 2017, according to Gartner findings. Experts say consumer interest fueled by companies such as Shapeways is driving adoption of the technology at the enterprise level.
“The hype around the consumer market has made senior managers at a wide range of companies aware of 3-D printing in a way that they had not been before,” says Pete Basiliere, research director at Gartner.
That hype may be influencing more large companies to fold 3-D printing into their daily operations, but it also obscures key challenges that stand in the way of wider adoption, especially when it comes to consumers and small business owners who may want to use the technology to customize or create unique products.
It’s the difference between being able to create a simple plastic iPhone case and a customized, gold-plated ring.
“It’s exciting, and it’s sexy, and it’s cool, and it’s so fun to watch, but it’s not actually easy for the average person to use … if you’re not a CAD designer or product designer,” says Liza Kindred, a 3-D printing enthusiast and founder of Third Wave Fashion, a New York consultancy that works with fashion technology start-ups.
3-D printers are just machines that translate a set of instructions into physical objects. Creating a sophisticated product, she says, still requires computer-aided design skills and training.
At the same time, most 3-D printed products aimed at consumers are novelty items by individual designers or small brands. Building big business out of a sea of relatively inexpensive, non-essential goods is no small task for Shapeways.
Still, there’s wisdom in the service-based approach.
“Going to a service such as Shapeways gives the consumer, as well as the business person, access to output in a variety of media and materials,” Gartner’s Basiliere says.
The market for 3-D printer shipments is growing at 95.4%.
That’s because even as 3-D printers become cheaper and cheaper, with at-home versions available to hobbyists for as little as $1,300, they’re limited in the materials they can work with, as well as the size and complexity of the objects they can produce. Shapeways aims to offer its members a place to access many machines and a range of materials — currently, more than 30 — to produce more sophisticated designs than individuals could reasonably afford to manage on their own. It’s the difference between being able to create a simple plastic iPhone case and a customized, gold-plated ring.
And while Shapeways does offer its makers a relatively generous menu of materials to work with, materials still present the most serious obstacle for Vogelaar and the industry as it moves forward. The reason? For all its drawbacks, traditional manufacturing still offers thousands of materials 3-D printing has not yet conquered.
It’s a challenge Vogelaar is ready for.
She says, “I love executing. I love solving complicated and complex problems.”
- Lorraine Sanders, OZY AuthorContact Lorraine Sanders