I am neither an artist (I can barely draw a decent tree), nor am I a computer programmer (unless knowing how to add links to WordPress posts counts, which it doesn't). That makes me a terrible candidate to make and sell things on Shapeways, a sort of Etsy for the tech set that helps designers and programmers turn computer models into 3-D–printed objects for sale to the masses. Shapeways also handles order processing, manufacturing, and shipping, allowing users to focus on designing cool stuff. Launched in the Netherlands in 2008, the company sold more than a million user-designed objects in its first half-decade. The business moved to New York in 2010, and it now operates America's largest consumer 3-D–printing facility. In April, it raised $30 million in a round of financing led by Andreessen Horowitz.
Shapeways's 10,000 or so "shops"—designer-created product pages that live on its site—make the concept seem easy: Everything from anvil-shaped cuff links to tiny sculptures of popular online memes are hot sellers (I came frighteningly close to dropping $45 on a "Sad Keanu" figurine). So I set out to make my own project, put it up for sale, learn a little about the burgeoning business of 3-D printing, and, if everything went according to plan, create a thriving side business that would fund future jaunts to Europe.
I soon realize that one of the site's main bragging points—users can create pretty much anything—makes it tough to come up with a standout among the 60,000 new designs uploaded every month. "We wanted to create a community where anyone can make anything," says Marleen Vogelaar, who cofounded the company with Peter Weijmarshausen. "A big difference between us and Etsy is that we use skill in a much different way. People can become millionaires at Shapeways because they can sell thousands of products." (And Shapeways takes a cut, though it's cagey about how much.) In other words, you don't have to handcraft and paint 1,000 bird sculptures to sell 1,000 bird sculptures; you need make only one computer file and let Shapeways do the rest. Sounds inspiring as I dream up a list of sure-to-be-hit products. Among the finalists: a Steve Jobs action figure, @ symbol and # sign paperweights, and emoji sculptures.
I'm further buoyed by the story of Nancy Liang, who left a job overseeing materials at Shapeways to cofound Mixee Labs last year. Now she's one of Shapeways's most popular creators, selling those Sad Keanus, among other products. "A few months ago, there was an interview where someone gave Sad Keanu to Keanu Reeves," Liang says. "I was so happy. Not only because it showed it had a whole life of its own but also because I was like, 'Yes, I'm not getting sued!'"
Oh, that. Suddenly those emoji and Steve Jobs ideas start to seem problematic. I'm no expert in intellectual-property law, but I'm worried enough to nix my two best ideas. Soon other limitations help narrow things down even more. For starters, 3-D modeling programs are not for amateurs. Weijmarshausen came up with the idea for Shapeways after he helped develop Blender, an early 3-D modeling software product; Shapeways was intended to serve people who could use it, not to hold novices' hands through the process. The site does have a system for pairing visionaries with programmers for hire (prices can range from $30 to $100 an hour), though that requires a pretty clear vision, rather than a nebulous request like, "Hey, can you make me a little Steve Jobs?"
Shapeways also offers 27 apps that allow us unskilled masses to make simpler objects, including one that converts children's drawings into 3-D creatures. Alas, the apps don't always let you put those creations up for sale to the public. "It's a matter of what we prioritize," Vogelaar explains. "Those people who really sell with Shapeways are familiar with the software." But I forge ahead, finally settling on the paperweights and persuading my softwaredeveloper boyfriend to tackle the 3-D modeling. He proves to be a natural, teaching himself Blender in a few hours and soon presenting me with great-looking files.
A few weeks later, I head to Shapeways's airy, 25,000-square-foot factory in a warehouse strewn part of Queens to witness the printing process. There, my design passes muster with a roomful of programmers perched in front of computers, whose main job is to make sure it's printable. Then it enters the printer queues. Shapeways offers buyers 30 different materials, including nylon, sandstone, silver, and stainless steel, and each requires a slightly different printing process. My inch-high paperweights take about 45 minutes to materialize inside one of the company's 13 printers, which resemble 6-foot-tall microwaves. (Seventeen more will be added in January.)
I end up with versions of my paperweights in red and white plastic, as well as one in a dark bronze—the material best suited to the actual weighting of paper. The metal one is gorgeous. It will also run you $176, I'm afraid to say—the kind of detail a real designer might have realized in the conception phase.
That's solid proof that although anyone can make and sell whatever she wants through Shapeways, it doesn't mean she should. More evidence: My shop's total sales to date are $0. That's not to say Shapeways isn't useful for pros; if you know what you're doing, it could pay off. "What's great about Shapeways is that as a designer, you can earn money from your couch just by tweeting about your product," Vogelaar says. "You don't have to worry about negotiating with vendors and setting up manufacturing. You can multiply your talent by focusing on what you do best." In my case, unfortunately, that meant making really expensive, virtually obsolete, apparently undesirable items. Wanna buy one?
A version of this article appeared in the December 2013 / January 2014 issue of Fast Company magazine.
Slideshow Credits: 01 / Photos by Landon Nordeman;