Inside Shapeways: Building an Infrastructure for Growth

Our VP of Engineering Josh Levine shares the process of making our site performance as nimble and innovative as the 3D printing technology we use:

Inside Shapeways, we all have the highest aspirations and the deepest admiration for our community. We remind each other daily of the service level we seek to provide, and the multitude of ways we can improve.  

We’ve been pushing out new code on a weekly basis, so you may have noticed some of the major improvements we’ve accomplished over the last nine months. I want you to feel and know that your priorities are our priorities – it gets complicated because this Rubik’s cube of technical debt is taking several steps to solve.  Here’s how we’re explaining our path and future towards excellence.

Starting last August…

Our site was originally built (starting in 2008) much like an ancient monolithic temple.  All software development was outsourced until the first in-house software engineer started in early 2011. 

Notice the little man standing next to this massive 200 ton stone in the temple Baalbek. This stone is a metaphor for ~60% of our current software architecture.  Most of what you’d like us to build (including simple things like “this has been printed before” flags) involves moving the “little” stones (several tons each!) laid neatly beneath the 200 ton monster.

We know this is painful. We know the features you want and need. 

We are working on the next generation of Shapeways — we are calling it Inshape 2.0 or I2 for short. The project is a major undertaking, and we know we need to execute and deliver as quickly as possible. We are constantly evaluating the perfect balance between hacking a feature together today and building the right platform for tomorrow.  Today we’ve executed ~33% of what we need to deliver in order to ensure your happiness.

Here’s whats in the 33%.

  1. Site Performance 1.0 (September 2011): In late August 2011, some pages on our site were taking 30 seconds to load. Some pages would not load at all. Clearly, this was unacceptable. We fixed this by showing some love to our database (e.g. turning off several globally applied “slow” buttons).
  2. Improved e-commerce and playing experience (November 2011): As our first major surgery, we improved our checkout experience, which also involved storing the shopping cart in our database instead of in cookies. We also released our Sake Set Creator, a webGL application that makes it incredible easy to create a unique ceramic cup or vase. And our kickoff on community curation – Shapeways Holiday Gift Guide.
  3. Faster Order Delivery (January 2012): Since January of this year, our average production time from order to delivery has been less than ten days. This was the first time in-house developers made a major change to our database and data model.
  4. Site Performance 2.0 (March 2012): In March we released our home grown php framework “RoadRunner” which improved site performance by 200-500% on all pages. We also released
  • The Vibe, an app that lets you 3D print a custom iPhone case with SoundCloud
  • New search and search results
  • New product detail page
  • New homepage and signup / login functions
The first third of our journey is just the tip of the iceberg for what’s to come.  Because of these major surgeries, we’ve been able to increase velocity and deliver more awesome features to you guys like My Models and Shop Inventory.

What’s next?

Improved Overall Service (August 2012): Based on the feedback received in product, marketing, CS, CEO, and every other arm of our organization, here’s my understanding of what would bring our level of service to “Wow!”  Solving these issues is our top priority.

  1. Rejection handling: We will do everything possible to get your models printed successfully, communicating early and often.
  2. Global shipping: We’re a global business, and you should not suffer if you live in a country with tax or import duties, handling fees, or other UPS drudgery.  We’re moving to understand and alleviate these issues.
  3. Late or inconsistent markup payments: For the shop owners among you, we must ensure you have full confidence in your payments.  We’re going to continue to improve transparency and insights into your shop and sales.
  4. Order management and combined shipments: Giving you more flexibility to change and track orders. 
  5. Account credits: Providing the flexibility you need to manage and use Shapeways coupons and Gift Cards.
  6. Inconsistent look and feel: Shapeways to me is a brand for everyone.  Our new look will inspire delight and ensure a contiguous experience from order to unboxing.

What about right now? 

We thought carefully about what we can offer our community today that will have a positive impact for everyone.  This is why our homepage and signup process got a major facelift in our latest release. Though many of you are already 3D masters, for most, 3D printing and personalized manufacturing is a brave new world. We’ve redesigned the homepage so that when someone new sees Shapeways.com for the first time, they see your products in the best possible light. We are creating the context people need to understand how wildly amazing your work is. 

The stuff you are creating is the future, and we want to be a great partner to you on your journey.




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