Shapeways, the Dutch 3D printing startup that moved out to New York after a $5.1 million investment from Union Square Ventures and Index Ventures, has been on a steady crusade to introduce the future-facing practice of 3D-printing to the mainstream.
After a year in New York, the Esty of 3D printing, which makes it easy for people to create and sell their own designs on its open source 3D printers, got that hockey stick growth on its way to becoming the factory behind a growing maker community. (MakerBot is also a fan.)
Today, the company announced its first U.S. distribution center, a 5,000 sq. ft. facility in Long Island City in Queens with a nearby factory in the range of 15,000 sq. ft. to follow. Betabeat talked to Kegan Fisher, Shapeways’s director of industrial engineering, about the particular challenges of building out production and shipping for a company that processes hundreds of thousands of completely unique items on demand.
(We have it on good authority from one of her coworkers that in addition to being a “serious rockstar” in the office, Ms. Fisher also “wears the coolest heels” in New York.)
Until now, Ms. Fisher explained, Shapeways based its shipping and production in Eindhoven in the Netherlands and New York as the base for its developer and product team. Having a distribution center in New York, lead time and allows for faster deliveries. “We don’t have to route through customs/another continent,” Ms. Fisher said via Skype. “Also way more environmentally-friendly in that respect because we aren’t shipping all over.” Once it’s up-and-running, the distribution center will be processing a few hundred orders a day and growing.
“But more importantly,” noted Ms. Fisher, “It’s the first step towards opening up production that will be slated for some time in Q2 and will be in Long Island City as well.” When dealing with on-demand manufacturing, she added, “One of the things that makes it so special is the locality and immedicay of it. It’s what really differentiates it from other production methods.”
Ms. Fisher doesn’t have a machine count yet for the production facility yet, but offered some details about materials. “We’ll be bringing in SLS – white strong and flexible, FUD, and ZCORP,” she said. “FUD is a highly detailed plastic material and ZCORP is full color sandstone – lately its been getting a ton of buzz attached to the Minecraft figures. FUD and ZCORP will come first, and then the SLS which is our highest-volume material.”
As director of industrial engineering, Ms. Fisher’s role at the company has been project-focused, she said. “Basically setting up operations in the U.S., designing the factory of the future, pulling together the appropriate team and making sure if all happens yesterday.” Going forward, however, “I’ll move more towards new technologies, automation, etc.”
The challenge is unique. “There’s not too many companies that process hundreds of thousands of completely unique items and we’re really defining how you do that,” said Ms. Fisher. “There’s a lot of trial and error, designing new systems. Tons of white-boarding obviously. All of our order processing and production technology is designed and developed in house. Some of which I had my hands in last fall. It’s pretty amazing to sit down and say, ‘Hey, we have this unique problem, in which there is no existing distribution production model to look to–let’s design a solution.’”