A Trip to Shapeways: Visting the Future of Digital Printing

Last May, a number of us from around the Museum took a field trip to Long Island City, an industrialized section of western Queens, walking over bridges and past train depots to get to a nondescript warehouse-style building whose occupants are cheekily first mentioned as you walk up the stairway:

Made in the future? It sure felt that way. Shapeways is the Dutch-founded, NYC-based 3D printing company. Online tools let anyone upload and order 3D models to be printed in a wide range of materials. The location in Long Island City is gearing up to print and distribute whatever one can image. Not only can you order physical copies of your own digital models, but, at the time of our visit, over 10,000 people were selling their items to others through their own web-based storefronts (IP lives with the original owners).

Walking into their production facility felt like walking into a Michael Creighton novel. I have done a LOT of what-you-might-call “living in the future” in my time – 1980s BBSing, one of the first people in Second Life and on Twitter, etc. – but nothing I have done felt so “future” as what I saw in this room. Their 5 machines (scaling to 50 within the year) were LOUD. In the picture below, you can see two of the machines:


Unlike your standard (is it too early to say standard?) desktop 3D printer, these machines print more than one item at a time. In face, that’s what even makes this work as a business – calculate how to print as many items as possible at the same time. They have computers that figure out how best to configure them all – what our gracious guide, Duann (official title: “Designer Evangelist”), referred to as “auto-Tetris.” Human hands then finalize the details which are then posted on the outside of each machine so, through the window, you can recognize what is being printed within.

Once printing is complete, the items need to be removed and the surrounding powder dispersed. Below is what the crazy-suited workers look like, reaching into the back of the machine to take them out.


The objects are then sorted and put onto a cart for transportation:


While the printer only manages one material at a time, Shapeways offers options that span from the expected plastics to the less-expected ceramics, silver, gold, and bronze. Below is a sample kit they offer for sale to demonstrate the properties of the different materials:


To smooth out the objects, many end up in the tumbler:

Before we left Duann chatted with us about how museum’s like ours might work with companies like theirs in the near-future. What if exhibits offered a mobile app or a physical kiosk where visitors could select an item from the hall, swipe their credit card, and receive a few days later a shipment from Shapeways? This is not just a hypothetical question but ideas based on conversations he is currently having with curators at other museums.

So if the question is no longer “if” but “when” then I am left wondering “Whom will be the first?” and “What will be the first in-museum item offered for purchased?”

For more photos from our trip, visit here.


About Barry

The Associate Director For Digital Learning, Youth Initiatives at the American Museum of Natural History.
This entry was posted in From My Work and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.