Will 3D Printing Bring Manufacturing Back to Cities?

Instead of waiting for political policy makers to lure clean manufacturing jobs back into domestic markets, some entrepreneurs have turned to the latest 3-D printing technology to take matters into their own hands. For example, Peter Weijmarshausen, Founder and CEO of Shapeways, has big plans for his 3-D printing start up.

Targeting the “3-D printing as a service” niche, Shapeways opened the doors to its New York and Dutch locations in 2007 to creative designers of all types.  While most 3-D printing companies emphasize consumer and business equipment sales, Shapeways has designs to retool the manufacturing industry.

When manufacturers transferred their jobs into foreign markets, they also seemed to outsource some of the engineering innovation as well. Gone was the interaction between designers and local manufacturers that often resulted in improvements throughout the prototyping phase. The vision for Shapeways is to bring back that close relationship between designers and manufacturers by establishing its factories in urban centers throughout the world. While Weijmarshausen does not give details about the capacity of its two outlets, he does say that the factories currently produce 1,500 items per day. He is confident that the Shapeway business model is flexible and scalable enough to take on mass production in the future.

Weijmarshausen makes the case that 3-D printing factories like Shapeways inspire faster innovation among engineers and designers. These innovations have traditionally driven growth within free market economies. He also points out the benefits to the environment when items are produced domestically and do not require huge energy outlays for shipping and transport.

While the concept of Shapeways factories are new, they already have a close competitor in the “3-D printing as a service” niche; the global shipping giant UPS. While some businesses will not extend their services to 3-D printing because of the current high cost of equipment, UPS has taken up the challenge in one of its stores in San Diego, CA. However, they are far from developing the service to include large scale manufacturing. In this way, Shapeways has a unique mission to bring manufacturing to designers’ own back yards. Since they already will have experience working in the 3-D printing niche, it makes sense that they will be able to realize the most benefits when the equipment prices decrease over time.

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