EcommerceBytes-Update, Number 288 - June 12, 2011 - ISSN 1528-6703     4 of 7

Shape of the Future: Make Your Own Products to Sell with Shapeways

By Julia Wilkinson

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Many online merchants sell products that other people have already made. But a new breed of seller is cropping up; one who designs and makes their own products through a process known as 3D printing. A company called Shapeways allows creators to upload their designs so they can be manufactured and then sold on various sites such as Etsy.com, and even from Shapeways' own Shops. And in May, the company, which started in the Lifestyle Incubator of Philips Electronics in Eindhoven, the Netherlands, announced it is now possible to create dishes and other tableware in a material that is "food safe."

"We currently have over 2,000 shop owners who are regularly making in excess of $1,000 a month," says Shapeways Founder and CEO Peter Weijmarshausen. With creative names like "Wide Mind Eyez," "Gang War Miniatures," and "Smug Jewelry," the shops offer a wide range of products in intriguing designs, from geometric rings to miniature figures like "Exo Loader," a small model of a robot in a sci-fi film.

The most used material for products is plastic, because "it is the most affordable, and also the most versatile," said Weijmarshausen. "We call it "White, Strong and Flexible."" Some pieces in metal are also very popular, like Ceramicwombat's "Thorn Dice," he said.

Cost depends on the material and the size of the object. It starts at $1 and goes up to $1000. "Rings in plastics (start) at a few dollars to rings in Silver at $40-$80. The amount of objects does not influence or impact price," said Weijmarshausen. "We can make one ring just as efficiently as 100. If one ring costs $10, then 100 cost $1000."

What's for Sale?
"The spectrum of stuff made is huge," Weijmarshausen said, ranging from a lot of contemporary jewelry, to home decor, to hobby-related items such as trains and puzzles.

Mohammad Alaswadi, owner of the Dilly Design shop on Shapeways, says he released his first product last week "after a month of exploration and a lot of designing." Currently, Dilly Design offers rings in a geometric pattern, called "Hibiscus," available from their Shapeways shop in prices ranging from $18.95 to $26.95. The ring is currently available in the White Strong & Flexible plastic in three finishes and colors, and also in Stainless Steel.

"There are many products that are in the works and I'm excited to say that they will be available very soon," says Alaswadi.

Another company that offers 3D-printed jewelry is GothamSmith. "The Internet really loves our Bicycle Cufflinks," said Peter Knocke, a maker at the firm. The cufflinks are available in Stainless Steel, Brass, or Gold Finish and start at $59.

Currently, GothamSmith only sells through its own website, although they also plan to host a store with Shapeways. "We really want to control the overall digital experience and find it easiest to communicate our story and brand through our own unique website," he said.

What about dishes? Designer Justin Hicks says "so far, dishes are not priced reasonably to the average person and they aren't selling very well at all." But he does offer a dish called the Tiny Tiny Dinnerplate, $2.80, which is geared for Barbie and Bratz-type dolls, although he says "you could actually eat off it yourself."

Duann Scott is one of a few Shapeways designers who sells on Etsy. He sells a range of jewelry for men, from classic skull rings to angular, geometric designs that have a "digital aesthetic." The skull ring is by far the most popular with men, he says, "but I get many sales to women for the angular rings."

But he prefers selling via the Shapeways shop because he does not have to handle order fulfillment. "All I do now is get a monthly check; a passive income model for an independent designer is an amazing thing." In fact, Scott was so sold on the Shapeways business model, he now also works in promotion for the company.

Creating a Product
What does it take to create a product for the 3D printing process, such as Shapeways offers? It involves not only imagining the concept, but rendering it with a 3D program. "Coming up with an idea and developing my design is always a challenging process," says Alaswadi. "This process starts with an inspiration and a lot of sketching."

GothamSmith's Knocke says, "First, you should gain a basic knowledge of 3D modeling. Google Sketchup is a great application to just learn the basics of how things can be constructed."

"There are many modeling programs to choose from, and online tutorials and forums can be of help. Many users of modeling programs are self-taught," offers Alaswadi.

This was the case for Chuck Stover, of Made by Wombat, which sells dice. "I didn't know how to create 3D models before I started using Shapeways," he said. He learned Google SketchUp to create the basic models, and then used a program called Blender to clean up the mesh of the models. "SketchUp is fairly easy to get the hang of, but the learning curve of Blender is a little steeper. Both programs are free," he said.

But it's not necessary to know how to use the modeling program: some creators come up with an idea and find a 3D modeler on Shapeways' forum. "There are a lot of 3D modelers with different backgrounds and experiences that are willing to help," says Alaswadi, adding that if he had a question, the Shapeways community was very informed and helpful.

Getting the design done in a 3D modeling program is "perhaps the biggest hurdle for someone starting," says Alaswadi. "After that, the fun begins!"

Free to Create
For Rik Juod of Smug Designs and Smug on Shapeways, which makes colorful rings and other "wearables," the 3D modeling and printing process offers an edge when they need to tweak their design. "Although it can take us many hours to design a ring using 3D design software, the advantage comes when we have to reproduce the ring or change the ring size; as it is just a case of scaling the 3D model. Also being able to produce small batches means that we can "fine tune" each design once we have the finished prototype," he says.

Another advantage to the process is "the Shapeways sales model takes the production and shipping of artwork off the hands of the creator," says Stover. "By dealing with the logistical side of things, Shapeways frees up time for the artist to work on other things. The shop is very customizable and the tools they provide make it easy to update models and keep track of sales."

But some designers caution not to fret too much over the design. "Just get out there and do it, advises Knocke. "No one knows how the world will respond to any product. Thanks to 3D printing, you can get your ideas out there in record time. Once it's out there, that's when you can gain a sincere dialogue with people who care about your products. This is really a beautiful time to be creating."


About the author:

Julia Wilkinson is the author of "The eBay Price Guide" (No Starch Press, 2006) and "eBay Top 100 Simplified Tips & Tricks" (Wiley, 2004-6). Her free "Yard Salers" newsletter is at available at YardSalers.net where you will also find her latest ebook, Flip It Again.


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