Products and Design

Behind the Scenes: How and Why We Created Material Renders

Hey guys! I’m Emily Brick, an Interaction Designer at Shapeways.

We deeply value Shapeways community feedback across all of our teams, and we’ve heard your requests for renders that look closer to real products. We took your feedback to heart, and have been working on making this possible since 2013, and dreaming about even longer. Today, I’m excited to share that we have launched products rendered in each material!

Bathsheba’s Ora Pendant in Gold Plated Brass photo (left) and render (right):

Bathsheba’s Ora Pendant in Gold Plated Brass photo (left) and render (right):

Every product that is available for sale in your Shapeways shop will now have an automatically generated render for every material in which it is offered when a photo is not present. Moving forward, each product you offer for sale will get a high quality render representing that product in the materials you’ve enabled for sale. These renders will supplement your product photography and any videos you have, helping you present your product in the best possible light.

Why renders?

Keeping your customers happy is at the top of our list.

An important thing we’ve learned over the years at Shapeways is that your customers have very high expectations for the amazing products they’ll get from your shops, but sometimes the product detail tell a limited story that can lead to customer confusion. By encouraging you to tag materials in your product photos and now showcasing consistent renders across the site, we’re hoping to eliminate any frustrations. The best customer is a repeat customer, and we want to help facilitate these relationships.  We’ve seen many cases in which the product images don’t always match the materials enabled for sale, which confuses customers if they think they are buying a product in the image shown, when the material selected is different. For example, if you’ve only tested your product in Strong & Flexible but also offer it for sale in Sterling Silver, someone might click on the plastic option, see a higher price, and not understand that the product is not plastic but actually Silver! We really want to help you manage and exceed your customers’ expectations.

We hope to show off your products in the best way possible; the closest we can get to a real photograph of your product in each material made available – product renders. It is still important to only offer your product in materials that make sense for the model, so that you can optimize the customer experience and satisfaction. Products take time and iteration, and we hope that seeing these renders can motivate you and your communities to explore more of our finishes. We do still recommend you take photos of the products you offer for sale – it’s the best way for your customers to get a sense for what your product will look like in real life. (Here are some tips on how to best photograph your products!)

So, how did we do it? And why it takes 14 computer-years

Shapeways teamed up with an amazing 3D Blender artist and creative engineer on the West Coast, Tim Lobes. To start, we sent Tim 3D printed products in each material so he could closely examine and simulate that material into a digital “shader” on the screen.

 After the material shaders were made, they were then applied to 3d models using Blender to articulate the simulation.

 It took a lot of blood, sweat, and tears to get every material as close as we possibly could.  I worked closely with Tim on each material iteration, sometimes rendering 20 different versions of Gold Plated Steel on a given day.

 Some materials were easier than others. Tim and I spent countless video chat meetings, swapping screenshots back and forth to nail down each material render. Sometimes it was as simple as him generating a render, sending it my way, and us both going “looks right.” More often, it’d be a much heavier process; a combination of comparing the same shader with different lighting, looking at various models printed in that material, and comparing various photographs to get it just right.

 To give an idea of just how detailed we wanted to get, here are four iterations of the same material – in comparison to each other, along with an actual photograph (last):

Gold Plated Brass Iterations

Material renders can change drastically due to lighting, angle, tint, shade, and saturation. When dealing with plastics, it was tough to get an accurate color across multiple models. When dealing with ceramics, it was about applying just the right amount of “glaze” simulation. Getting it just right wasn’t always easy, but in the end it was very rewarding.

Each render takes about 10 minutes to generate, from start to finish. When you look at the number of models for sale both publicly and privately, this works out to an incredible 130,000 hours of compute time to create all those renders– or over 14 years! Thank goodness for parallel processing, so we’ll have renders on all of our Shapeways products by the end of the month.

What does this mean for you?

The goal of this is to help realize your products and motivate buyers. That being said, they won’t be as successful as real photographs, so don’t be afraid to ask you customers to send photos of your product once they’ve arrived! We’ve noticed a strong preference of shoppers to purchase products with photos and renders alike, rather than only renders.

Next time you snap a shot for your product page, make sure to tag that photograph with the associated material on the Details page (Edit Model → Details)!


Be sure to check out our new render posing feature on the Details page as well. Here you can pose your model so that it looks great in every material render, regardless of how the model was uploaded. Be patient, as it can take up to 10 minutes for the renders to appear on your model.

Screen Shot 2014-07-14 at 6.29.34 PM

Thanks for giving us the opportunity to use your amazing designs for these material renders, we hope you enjoy them as much as we did creating them. 🙂