"I used to think CEOs who didn’t know how many people worked for them were full of it," says Shapeways CEO Peter Weijmarshausen when asked to name the number of people he employees.
He thinks about it a second longer, adding up the employees in Shapeways' Netherlands and New York City offices. "57."
If all goes as planned, that number will soon double. Weijmarshausen is at the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the 25,000-square-foot factory his company opened this March. In the heart of Long Island City's manufacturing district, it sits across from a building labeled "Novelty Crystal Corp," on the second floor of what the landlord tells me was previously occupied by a bow-tie factory "or something like that."
Manufacturing jobs that once occupied buildings like this one are disappearing faster than you can say "made in China." But Shapeways plans to hire 50 engineers, distribution specialists, and machine operators to staff the factory within the next year—and more employees at even bigger factories after that.
A tech startup that is also creating manufacturing jobs in New York City attracts not just one, but five city officials to its christening. Empire State Development Corporation president Ken Adams, New York City chief digital officer Rachel Haot, Seth W. Pinsky of the New York City Economic Development Coorporation, Gayle Baron, the president of the Long Island City Partnership, and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg are all in attendance.
Mayor Bloomberg calls the factory "the future of the city" before ceremoniously cutting a white ribbon with a pair of 3-D-printed scissors. Never mind that the factory, aside a few Shapeways decals, currently looks more like an empty parking garage than the future of anything. Weijmarshausen is beaming with pride.
"This room will look a little bit of a mix of steampunk and futuristic," he says. "You will have the machines, the floors will be white, you’ll have clean rooms and at the same time, you will have a lot of conveyor belts around, people walking."
Weijmarshausen founded Shapeways inside of a Dutch startup incubator in 2007. The company manufactures finished products using 3-D printing, a technology once reserved for prototyping new products. Designers simply upload their products and pick their materials. Shapeways ships it to them within weeks.
Instead of selling a patent to a company to mass produce, creatives can independently order a small batch of their designs. They can tweak the design however they want, whenever they want—incorporating feedback from customers along the way. About 7,000 of them also sell 3-D-printed products in Etsy-style shops on the Shapeways website.
As much as printing products on demand democratizes design, it also accommodates an emerging paradigm in manufacturing. There’s a reason that Nike will let you design your own shoes, Kraft will let you mix your own flavored water, and Starbucks won’t flinch when mixing your no-foam, extra-hot, two-pumps of sugar-free vanilla latte. They’ve figured out that customers are willing to pay more for customized products.
Shapeways takes that customization to the extreme—to a place where it once again makes economic sense to set up a factory in New York City.
"Coffee cups are sold in the millions, " Weijmarshausen says. "But the coffee cups that are special to me are only made in the dozens. I have six beautifully designed coffee cups in my cupboard."
(Yes, he beautifully designed all of those coffee cups himself).
It’s not just coffee cups. Shapeways will print jewelry, vases, and just about anything smaller than a standard chair exactly to your specifications.
With the help of contract production partners, the company printed 750,000 objects last year. This year, Weijmarshausen estimates it will print between 2 million and 3 million of them. Eventually, the new factory will hold 30 to 50 industrial-sized 3-D printing machines that can each print 1,000 objects daily. Which means this factory alone could produce 5 million objects next year.
3-D-printed objects manufactured in New York are more expensive than products mass-manufactured overseas. But the willingness to pay for customization has, through Shapeways’s new factory, already begun to fill at least one of the cavernous concrete rooms that traditional manufacturing abandoned.
[Images: Flickr user Shapeways]