Evan Gant's 3D printed Twist pendant light

As a collective whole, the 3D printing community has an impressively high technological IQ—evidenced in the strides made since the mid-80s—demonstrating a spectacular knack not only for rolling with changes in the times, but making enormous advances in technology and manufacturing too.

Backtrack to the early days of 3D printing as Chuck Hull was presented with his own lab, and famously woke his wife out of bed late one night to see his first rudimentary 3D print in the form of a rapid prototype. Fast forward, and such a scenario could now be taking place anywhere in the world. Software, hardware, and materials are more accessible and affordable than ever, leaving the world ripe for change. The initial goal of bringing 3D printers forth into the world was to encourage creativity via stereolithography; however, SLA 3D printing was almost solely emphasized as a rapid prototyping tool for engineers in the beginning.

The secret was too big to keep

Patented in 1986, SLA 3D printing was soon followed by selective laser sintering (SLS) and then fused deposition modeling (FDM). 3D printing technology—and all the opportunity behind it—was quickly bursting at the seams as automotive companies, NASA, and other entities with deep pockets wanted to take a swift turn from the conventional world of subtractive manufacturing into the additive. A handful of inventive trailblazers in their own right most likely enjoyed 3D printing behind the scenes as long as possible, with the knowledge that such innovation would be impossible to hide forever.

It wasn’t long before interlocking and moving parts (along with the potential for integrating electronics) began to pave the way for a wide range of functional components in critical applications like aerospace, automotive, and medicine.

Critical industries began to invest

Progress was particularly impressive as industries embracing 3D printing were also heavily centered around the safety of human lives. No one wants to be responsible for a rocket engine failing, an automobile causing accidents due to a defect, or an implant being rejected or a device harming an individual seeking to get better with medical treatment. The fact that researchers and scientists invested so much faith in an alternative method of manufacturing quickly gained attention, with interest continuing to accelerate at rapid speed over the past decade.

The ability to prototype and create finished products—all from the 3D printer—has had a profound effect on manufacturing. Processes like selective laser sintering (SLS) can be performed at high speeds, producing strong and durable parts. Because supports are not required (due to unsintered powder bolstering parts during the printing process), design freedom is virtually boundless, thus releasing designers from the stress associated with adding supports, and removing them.

Post-processing takes on many forms, depending on the 3D printer and the materials involved, but finished parts may be left natural, polished, or even dyed. SLS 3D printing again, is a great example as 3D prints made with Nylon 12 [Versatile Plastic] can be processed for a smooth finish, or taken to a more refined level with a premium, scratch-resistant finish. A wide variety of hues are available too.

3D printing will continue to transform manufacturing

It’s obvious that business is booming within the billion-dollar 3D printing industry, offering a vast range of options for materials alone, to include thermoplastics, powders, metals, resins, and filaments. Factories are beginning to run on a whole new type of automation, to include technology propagating itself, from 3D printers made from 3D printed parts to 3D printed robots performing 3D printing activities (and let’s not forget, this could also be happening in space to build colonies and maintain and fix crucial parts).

Warehouse space may easily begin to dwindle as a requirement for many businesses, with on-demand production eliminating the need for inventory. Instead, high-performance, customized parts can be created on demand and completely to the preferences of the consumer. With 3D printing propelling consumer-driven personalized comfort, patient-specific treatment in medicine, and the potential for making intricately customized products—the drudgery of “one-size-fits-all” may disappear altogether, and quite soon.

Intense opportunity for customization is already stretching to a variety of applications, demonstrated through powerful case studies at Shapeways. Most of the incredibly talented and innovative customers have one thing in common: 3D printing began weaving its way into their manufacturing processes over the years and to this day is allowing them to improve with each model, part, or latest design generation. In some cases, other technologies are woven in with 3D printing too for maximum effect.

Shapeways customers have evolved in tandem with 3D printing  

Shapeways verner architects case study

In architecture, for example, the ability to offer a 3D printed model or mockup as well as a virtual tour has taken the experience between designer and consumer to an unprecedented level—allowing for better communication, quality—and in the end, satisfaction. The team at Verner Architects is able to make 3D printed prototypes on-site, test them, and then order customized parts on-demand.

“I’ve been aware of Shapeways since architecture school,” said architect David Swaim. “Once I graduated I worked at an architectural model shop where we would get little pieces of furniture that we could not build by hand printed and delivered to put in our models.”

Swaim’s previous positive experiences with 3D printing led him to introduce the technology into a recent high-end remodel in California. Ultimately, the project was much larger than the architects expected, and by the end also included a unique six-foot, 3D printed bathroom vanity inspired by the beauty of coral reefs. The results were outstanding, with the fixture meant to stand the test of time in terms of luxury and durability.

Groen and Boothman's Creatures bracelets

Additive manufacturing plays a role in many other unexpected areas too. Dutch design duo Hanno Groen and Joanna Boothman, Shapeways customers for years, relied on SLS 3D printing for their latest series of cuff bracelets. Many may be surprised to hear that industrial manufacturing plays such a large role in their work, but not only are the skilled designers able to create elegant, lightweight pieces of jewelry—their bracelets are durably, luxury items meant to be handed down over the years.

Each bracelet is “as unique as a fingerprint,” and the antithesis of mass-produced, disposable costume jewelry.

“3D printing gives us a chance to explore new avenues and get away from the mass production paradigm,” says Boothman.

Both designers also appreciate the way the Shapeways platform complements their artistic spirit—aside from aiding in the actual creation of jewelry—as they are able to work whenever the mood strikes and then upload their models quickly.

Evan Gant's 3D printed Twist pendant light

Boston-based industrial designer Evan Gant offers an artistic bend with his 3D printing also, designing a distinctive 3D printed pendant light that adjusts with a simple twist. Aptly named the Twist Light, Gant was using paper towel rolls for prototyping. Not only did he discover the wonders of using 3D printing to test parts—he also began manufacturing his lights with small-volume manufacturing through Shapeways.

“My favorite part of the design process is iterating and seeing the reaction to ideas,” explained Gant. “In a traditional process (like injection molding), a large portion of your time is spent optimizing from a mold, finding a vender that will make you parts, doing quality control, etc. You often need to make a lot of compromises to your design in the end.”

3D printed face shields worn by the medical staff

For the medical professionals, compromise is usually is not a luxury, with patients’ lives at stake. As the COVID-19 pandemic struck worldwide and supply chains began to show massive and unexpected vulnerability, Shapeways reached out to help the medical community by printing face shields for hospitals, using a modified version of the Prusa 3D design. The shields are manufactured via SLS technology and can be repeatedly disinfected after each use. As the need for face masks with good filtration, fit, and some modicum of smile became apparent too, Luxmea Studio stepped up to partner with Shapeways in creating bespoke face masks, ordered through a smart fitting process online.

Voytek Medical's product printed in Versatile Plastic
Image by Voytek Medical

The need for organization never ceases for medical processes and equipment either, especially as the coronavirus has raged on. Considering the needs of everyone involved—from medical equipment suppliers to nurses and doctors and patients—Voytek Medical worked with Shapeways to 3D print medical cable clasps printed in Nylon 12 [Versatile Plastic].

“Voytek Medical has been using Shapeways in every stage of production, from concept to prototype and end-user products,” said the Voytek team.

3D printing can transform your business too

As prototyping becomes more of a given, the industrial spotlight shines front and center on 3D printing for the manufacturing of finished products. Businesses of all sizes now rely on AM processes for innovating, designing, optimizing, and revolutionizing.

3D printing services from Shapeways such as SLS allow you to reap the rewards of high-performance, quality materials without having to invest all your business capital in the powerful hardware, software, and materials required for your build. Enjoy the benefits of Shapeways advanced technology and wide range of materials for printing your creations with accuracy, complex detail, and no minimum or limits in terms of mass customization or single part orders. Read about case studies, find out more about our solutions, and get instant quotes here.