Behind the scenes at Shapeways, New York's 3D-printing marketplace

Shapeways churns out everything from designer gowns to iPhone cases, using nothing but a printer and some nylon powder.

Made in New York

3D printing is one of the hottest trends in tech, mainly because what was once an esoteric, expensive process is now as simple as uploading a file.

People can buy 3D printers to use at home, but companies like Shapeways offer commercial-grade printing at prices low enough to discourage anyone but an enthusiast to bother investing in a printer of their own.

TechHive took a peek inside Shapeways' Queens factory, which opened last October. If you can dream it, Shapeways can probably print it, all from the nondescript New York warehouse it calls home.

Fresh from the oven

In its Queens factory, Shapeways currently has 13 Eos 3D printers, each resembling a space-age kiln. The printers heat the nylon powder that will become iPhone cases, plastic toys, and anything else their 350,000 users create. When the space is built out, Shapeways will operate anywhere from 30 to 50 printers.

So fresh and so clean

A printing tray that takes 12 hours to heat up also takes 12 hours to cool down. After the trays have cooled, Shapeways uses compressed air to clean the products. Not surprisingly, a fine layer of nylon powder coats pretty much every surface in the factory.

Frosted flakes

You can print tiny objects composed of Frosted Ultra Detail acrylic polymers that let you see every facet of an item. The material, which can be brittle, is typically used to print miniature products such as a 1-centimeter-long race car. The finished items are nearly translucent when they emerge from the printer.

Print your own bling

Shapeways works with a third- party supplier in Boston, where it prints jewelry (among other things). Designers can print their own pieces and sell them in the company’s own marketplace or on sites like Etsy. If users choose to sell their wares through Shapeways, the company takes a 3.5 percent cut of the mark-up. The upside: They handle the printing, shipping, and customer service side of the business.

All that glitters

Dita Von Teese was the muse and model for this 3D-printed gown designed by Michael Schmidt and Francis Bitonti. Made of intricately woven nylon mesh that was printed and constructed at Shapeways’ Queens factory, the dress is now on display at New York’s Museum of Arts and Design.

The dress was assembled from 17 3D-printed pieces, and it flashes with more than 13,000 Swarovski crystals.

Strike a pose

Shapeways is helping the Museum of Arts and Design create an interactive 3D printing experience for its new exhibit, “Out of Hand: Materializing the Postdigital.” Museum-goers can choose to go through a full body scan, which becomes a model for a 3D-printed miniature figurine.

Finished product

At the Museum of Arts and Design, a scanner using Microsoft’s Kinect technology renders a 3D model of your body (with your permission), and a 3D printer then uses that model to generate a miniature acrylic figurine that looks sort of like you.

Toys, toys, toys

Shapeways users love printing plastic toys and iPhone cases in 3D. The company sees 60,000 uploads every month, and it's adding several new materials, including gold-plated brass, ceramics, and flexible materials. Fabric remains a long way off.

Take a dip

Shapeways also printed Continuum Fashion’s N12 bikini, which is on display at the Museum of Arts and Design’s new exhibit. (The exhibit which runs through July 6, 2014.) The swimsuit—the first 3D-printed, ready-to-wear piece of clothing ever produced—is composed of nylon 12.

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