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Shapeways, the 3-D printing company based in New York, today celebrated its next step: something it’s calling the “Factory of the Future.” Shapeways held a ribbon-cutting ceremony at a 25,000-square-foot facility that will soon be humming with as many as 50 industrial-scale printers that will be able to make up to five million products per year. Shapeways calls it the biggest consumer-facing 3-D printing facility in the world.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg was there for the ribbon-cutting ceremony (in what BetaBeat says was a mostly empty space). Indeed, there was quite a DIY, on-the-fly feel to the ceremony itself—Shapeways employees simply held up a little ribbon for the mayor to cut. The twist? The scissors Mayor Bloomberg used had been printed in-house.

The scissors were 3-D printed two days prior, Shapeways’s Carine Carmy tells Technology Review. “They weren’t made of metal—they were made of nylon plastic—but they’re strong enough to cut through paper.”

Observers are of two minds about the significance of 3-D printing, which either will spark a major revolution in manufacturing—or won’t. In Technology Review, Christopher Mims has come out against 3-D printing as the Next Big Thing (see “Why 3-D Printing Will Go the Way of Virtual Reality”), whereas Tim Maly feels it’s much more than a fad (see “Why 3-D Printing Isn’t Like Virtual Reality”).

You can guess which side Shapeways is on. At the very least, they feel 3-D printing will revolutionize the way products are designed. The technology will do something similar to “what YouTube did for video content and blogs did for journalism,” Carmy says. “We’re now seeing the democratization of product design.” Mayor Bloomberg, for his part, said that he was excited to make New York a hub for 3-D printing, “an exciting new industry with virtually unlimited potential.”

In some ways, Shapeways has become a lab for experimenting with best practices in 3-D printing—how to bring down costs like a mass manufacturer while still retaining the versatility of the artisanal. “We’re essentially bridging the best of mass manufacturing with the customization of the handmade,” says Carmy. “Lots of efficiencies have been discovered over the last few years.” (Shapeways began in the Netherlands in 2007 but shifted its HQ to New York in 2010.) Shapeways has learned how to optimize printing patterns to maximize efficiency—configuring objects together like a 3-D jigsaw puzzle to be able to print as many objects as possible simultaneously, for instance.

Anyone can design and print and object through Shapeways—including you. Carmy says that jewelry makers, for instance, are increasingly experimenting with this novel form of design. The strangest requests have sometimes come from 3-D animators who want a physical model of what they’ve spent hours toying with in a virtual environment. Sometimes, after an outlandish request—a character whose minuscule limbs simply won’t support a body, say—Carmy’s colleagues have to gently explain that different rules exist for physical product design. “We have gravity, for example,” she says.

Here’s a more successful example of how an “experimental design studio” makes use of Shapeways’s services.

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Tagged: Materials, A123 Systems

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