The 3-D Printing Tech You’ll Actually Use

Some people are artists. Some people are engineers. They are rarely the same person. That’s where the startup comes in. And they want to make everyone’s Valentine’s Day 3-D-ier than ever.

There are plenty of artists with ideas for new products. And there are plenty of engineers who know how to use product design software. The problem with “3-D printing for everyone” is that they’re very rarely the same people.


When a startup called set out to solve this problem, it pursued the obvious solution first. If the software was too difficult for the average user, its founders thought, they would just make a version that was easier to use. Being a team made up of MIT- and Cornell-educated engineers, however, they had overlooked the bias of their own aptitude.

It turns out there’s more that goes into making things than a drag-and-drop interface. When people who weren’t used to thinking spatially tried the software, they kept getting lost in space. They thought disjointed pieces of their products were touching because they were looking at them from a weird angle. They would forget to design half of an object or build something that couldn’t physically exist.

Though some of these problems the team could solve, for instance by building gravity into the application, it eventually came to a more powerful conclusion.“What we found,” says CEO Dylan Reid, “is that most people say they want [to design products], but most people actually don’t. What most people want is the outcome of it, the output of it. They want something that they played some role in, designed in the broadest sense of the word.”

They launched their first attempt at this new purpose, called (for Design Your Own), with a pilot line of Valentine’s Day gifts this month. It is built on the 3-D product design API they initially developed, but instead of asking people to make a new object, it focuses on a new type of personalization. “Personalization is an incredibly low-tech thing, because mass-manufacturing is not designed for customization,” Reid says. ”But the promise of digital fabrication and bringing the manufacturing process to the digital world is that you can do things that have never been done before.”

Rather than slapping your name on a coffee mug,’s personalization features call on databases and APIs to create something unique for each customer. The idea is to create a new type of personalization that takes a piece of information from an individual and uses the powers of the Internet to turn it into something completely new. The app can reference, say, a constellation database to engrave the “Starscape Pendant” with stars that represent the signs of two birthdays. Or it can look up GPS coordinates from a significant address to print them on a ring or necklace. Reid says future ideas might be to map the fingerprint of a dream (an MIT researcher would supply shape maps for emotional profiles, an app called Shadow would provide the dream data), on a surface or use people’s biometric information–the size of their face, the arc of their foot–to customize objects.

Designers of’s base products get a cut of sales, and the company uses Shapeways to fill orders.


Personalization in 3-D printing itself isn’t exactly a new idea. Shapeways allows customers to ask some designers to tweak their designs. The manufacturing company has also promoted apps that allow customers to personalize objects without navigating product design software, but they are usually straightforward. One app, for instance, turns my drawing into a ring. Another builds my message into a vase.

But that was before started pursuing customizable 3-D printing by leveraging the Internet’s vast API landscape.

“They’re using a cutting-edge technology in a really old-school way,” Reid says of most products currently printed in Shapeways’s shop. “It would be like putting the yellow pages on the Internet, which of course people did, but it was so much more.”

About the author

Sarah Kessler is a senior writer at Fast Company, where she writes about the on-demand/gig/sharing "economies" and the future of work.