The Manufacturing Maven
When 3D-printing startup Shapeways held a ribbon-cutting for its new “factory of the future” last month, more pols were in attendance than at a Hurricane Sandy press conference: Mayor Mike Bloomberg, Queens Borough President Helen Marshall and Empire State Development Corporation President Ken Adams all made the trip to the cavernous building that will house 50 3D printers, churning out as many as 5 million products every year.
In the heart of Long Island City’s formerly bustling industrial district, Shapeways is bringing manufacturing back to the five boroughs, one 3D-printed sprocket at a time. Customers submit their own designs, and Shapeways makes them into reality, using massive machines that “print” the objects, layer by layer. You name it, Shapeways can probably print it, in one of 30 materials.
For the hobbyist who wants the perfect model rocket part, it’s an inexpensive alternative to a $2,199 Makerbot Replicator 2. For the hustler trying to cobble together a prototype or even an entire product line (be it robot parts or geometric jewelry) on a tight turnaround, it’s a real alternative to outsourcing. The company even has a marketplace where entrepreneurial designers can create their own stores, making Shapeways the Etsy of 3D printing. It’s almost enough to make you think the company sprang into existence as the result of a mind-meld between the city’s creative types and our tech-loving mayor.
Leading the charge is co-founder Marleen Vogelaar, who oversees production in both New York City and the Netherlands. As chief operations officer, she cheerfully rides herd on the whole enterprise. “What is most important to me is that my operations team treats every one of those single objects as the personal dream of the person who bought it,” Ms. Vogelaar told The Observer. That’s rather tough when one is doing futuristic fabrication at scale, as opposed to making iterative updates to some recommendation engine. Ms. Vogelaar spends her time sourcing flexible new plastics even as she checks in every day with her teams to make sure those big machines are still running smoothly.
“We were the first ones in the U.S. building a very high-scale, personalized manufacturing facility,” she said. Hopefully, for Long Island City’s sake, they won’t be the last.