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3-D Printing's Next Frontier: Mass Customization

What can you do with a 3-D printer? Make something uniquely your own.

The 3-D printing space is more exciting than it has ever been. Prices are getting more affordable, there’s an increasing diversity of printing materials and more competition is resulting in better and faster machines.

Now that the technology is so much more accessible, the fundamental question remains: What, exactly, to 3-D print?

A model of your own head? Jewelry from an independent artist? Replacement knobs to match those on your cabinets?

Sure, why not? But what else?

Perhaps the most satisfying answer might be: Something nobody else has, something uniquely yours.

The next evolution of 3-D printing may well be what some call “mass customization,” where customers get to contribute to the design process of a product like a necklace, an orthotic footbed, headphones or a toy. By printing one piece at a time, it can fit the buyer’s identity, shape or preference, and their input becomes part of the creation process.

At a basic level, mass customization is kind of like the next level of printing a face on a mug. Now, you could make the mug from scratch with a relief of the face laid into the material like a sort of personal Mount Rushmore. Or you could dream bigger.

Unlike traditional factories, which are optimized for making large quantities of the same thing and so have minimum orders and set-up costs, 3-D printers create individual objects by painstakingly layering material on top of itself.

As Shapeways marketing director Carine Carmy put it to Re/code, “The printer doesn’t care whether it’s 1,000 of one thing or one of 1,000 things.”

Shapeways is one of a few sites, including Cubify from 3-D Systems, that offers 3-D printing as a service. That’s important, because while 3-D printer costs may be coming down, this is a space where $1,375 for a MakerBot is considered a deal.

Today, Shapeways is a marketplace for 3-D printed goods. It helps connect designers and buyers, and then prints and ships each order. But the company is also trying out some mass-customized products like iPhone cases printed with handpicked, visualized sound waves taken from SoundCloud. And it has built some early developer tools that help turn JavaScript into printable geometry.

Shapeways makes itself available as an on-demand printer for other companies through its API, which new sites like (extending from “do it yourself” to “design your own”) are utilizing.

“Shapeways is awesome, but it’s kind of like using the Internet to put up the Yellow Pages,” said Matter Labs CEO and DYO co-creator Dylan Reid. “It’s a robust and exciting technology used to produce static content.”

DYO recently launched with a few pieces of jewelry that people can modify. For instance, customers can combine their own and their Valentine’s star maps on a metal pendant, or print the geographic coordinates of an important location on a ring.

While those initial pieces are pretty basic — and they take long enough to create and ship that it’s already too late to order for this Valentine’s Day — Reid said the key for DYO is its 3-D creation interface on the Web.

“It’s the marriage of solid modeling and rendering,” Reid said. “Can you actually create something that can be printed?”

3-D computations usually require a desktop computer, with dedicated design software like Tinkercad or SketchUp. Matter Labs is trying to trim that process down, so users will have less design freedom but more ability to easily play around in their browser and see a realistic rendering of what they’ll later receive in the mail.

And future products will be a bit more dynamic, Reid said — for instance, DYO plans to soon offer natural language processing on dream diaries in order to create custom charms.

Another mass-customization startup with close connections to Shapeways is SOLS; founder and CEO Kegan Schouwenburg formerly helped build and run the company’s factory in Long Island City, N.Y.

Schouwenburg is combining 3-D scanning and 3-D printing to help doctors make custom foot orthotics via a free iPad app, so they don’t have to invest $25,000 in in-office scanners.

The orthotics are made of thin, flexible antimicrobial nylon, in bright colors and leather tops. So far, about 15 podiatrists and physical therapists have agreed to use the system and resell the products — which don’t require clearance as medical devices — for $250 to $600.

“We’ve created a physical product that has no inventory, that can be updated in real time, because we have a Python script,” Schouwenburg said.

While 3-D printing costs more than injection molding today — and probably will for the next five years, Schouwenburg estimated — she aims to create flexible devices with better functionality than what’s currently available.

“Shoes should fit,” Schouwenburg said. “That doesn’t exist now.”

And SOLS could apply the same technology to other products, like the padding in bike helmets, she said.

SOLS and Matter Labs are not the first companies in the space, and they are both small and seed-funded. A prior example is Bespoke Innovations, which makes casings for prosthetics, and which was bought by 3-D Systems. There are also in-between companies like Crayon Creatures, where designers help modify kids’ drawings into physical figurines.

And more are coming. Normal is a custom headphone company with the slogan “one size fits none” from Nikki Kaufman, a founding team member at the product invention company Quirky. Kaufman, who is married to Quirky CEO Ben Kaufman, declined to provide further details ahead of Normal’s launch.

A big leap forward will come when 3-D printing a mass-customized product is as easy as going to a store, and as quick as buying something on Amazon Prime, said Shapeway’s Carmy. Perhaps then the “mass” modifier will go away, and regular people will be dreaming up products that are entirely their own, rather than slightly tweaked to be more personal.

“It’s about what you want, not just what’s for sale,” Carmy said. “If you give people tools, what they come up with is going to be incredible.”

This article originally appeared on

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