Running 3-D printing operations at scale

April 28, 2017

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Pieter Limburg is Head of Business Development and Sales at Shapeways.

Shapeways’ Pieter Limburg explains how his company has scaled its processes to produce 200,000 3-D-printed products each month.

Despite the rise of inexpensive hobbyist 3-D printers, production 3-D printing today remains a complex, expensive, and messy endeavor that requires purchasing expensive hardware and spending hundreds of hours determining how to use it correctly. You can undertake all of that … or you can simply send your designs to a service bureau like Shapeways. With offices in New York and the Netherlands, Shapeways is one of the industry’s largest 3-D-printing service bureaus. It enables anyone to upload a 3-D design and print it out on Shapeways’ printers using more than 50 types of materials.

Founded in 2007 by three entrepreneurs, Shapeways today employs more than 250 employees. Pieter Limburg, head of business development and sales, joined the company in 2012. Before he moved to New York and took on sales, he was made responsible for setting up a team to oversee production, manage a group of vendors, and work with two factories to produce quality products affordably and on time.


PwC: You’re making bespoke products for consumers. Are they really good enough to compete with the mass market?

Pieter Limburg: Our philosophy is that the products we deliver have to be consumer-ready. We want to give everybody the opportunity to make their own products and not have to settle for what is out there already. We started off with simple plastics. People were making 3-D puzzles and all kinds of interesting technological stuff. After a couple of years, we launched steel, so we saw more jewelry orders coming in. And then a couple years after that, we launched silver and then gold, then platinum and brass, and bronze and porcelain. Now you can even make your own coffee cup. All of these materials are completely designed to be finished goods.


PwC: What do you mean by consumer-ready?

Pieter Limburg: We have consumers involved with the making of a product, either because they just put their initials on something that was already designed, or because they went through hours and hours of design to build something from scratch. Either way, consumers are much more attached to the finished products and are more willing to wait longer to have them in their hands. As long as that connection between the product and the product owner is strong, people are willing to overlook that it might be slightly more costly or that the quality is not what they are used to from traditional manufacturing.

When we say “consumer-ready,” we look at quality, price, and lead time. And I think we’ve come a long, long way with quality. Look at silver, gold, and porcelain. If you buy a ring at Shapeways made of 925 sterling silver, it’s exactly the same 925 sterling silver ring you see in a jewelry store. The same goes for the 14K gold and porcelain products we make.

If you order your own phone case from Shapeways, you’ll pay roughly the same as if you buy one in a store. The only difference is that lead time might vary from a couple days to maybe 12 days, depending on the material. While the online retail market has dictated that it has to be “right now,” I think people are willing to wait if the product is really unique to them.

“…Consumers are much more attached to the finished products and are more willing to wait longer to have them in their hands.”


PwC: You’re printing and shipping about 200,000 products every month. What have you learned about managing that kind of volume?

Pieter Limburg: Imagine yourself in a position in which you have no advance knowledge of which products you will be expected to produce each day, in which the demand could be 10 times what it was yesterday, but it could also be one-tenth. You have extremely tight lead times to avoid making the customer wait, but you don’t want to create any waste. If you put it all together, you get quite a difficult cocktail.

It’s been a great challenge. Our CEO says that if we’d known anything about manufacturing before we went into this business, we probably wouldn’t have done it because it’s so incredibly difficult. But we did it, and we got good. And we have two enormously successful factories.

One of the key elements is building a learning organization, one in which change is the standard, in which ideas can come from anywhere throughout the company from anybody who works with the models, cleans them, packages them, or communicates with customers. For example, we might set new standards for a day, document them, monitor improvement, and then either adopt or drop them. If it doesn’t work out, in a couple weeks we might try again with a different strategy.


PwC: What have you learned about keeping the manufacturing line running smoothly with 3-D printers?

Pieter Limburg: It starts with when people place an order. We have an automated software check to fix issues such as problems with the file format. Then it goes to a manual check to make sure everything looks good. From there we send the job to a print tray. One print job could include up to 400 or 500 products per tray. And then we run these machines 24/7.

When we bought our first machines, we were told the printers were made to produce only three or four items a week, and they had to be run by two highly trained engineers. And here we are running these machines 24/7 in a factory. We’ve more than often received feedback from the manufacturer saying, “Hey, you’re crazy. You’re running these machines at a rate that they’re not built for.” That was our breakthrough. It was a combination of a brilliant team, some software that we wrote ourselves, and keeping our learnings within the organization to improve our processes bit by bit.


PwC: Has that trickled down to improve costs, too?

Pieter Limburg: Back in 2008, an iPhone case would cost us roughly $200 to $250 to print. We started offering the product at $70 to see what the demand was. Now, today, we print that same phone case for about $12 to $15. We actually make a margin on it. That is a significant reduction of cost—and still there is a lot left to automate that will continue to reduce waste. I think we have a very, very bright future ahead of us.


PwC: What about utilization of your equipment?

Pieter Limburg: The machines we use cost anywhere from between $750,000 and $1 million, so every hour that a machine is down hurts the bottom line. Having it print and turning it around quickly is essential. A part of that is rework. How many times do you have to restart a machine or print something again? And because we can print more than just one thing at a time, there’s also the question of how many parts I can get into a single run without them being too close to one another.

We’ve gotten to a scale in which that last part is easier. It’s like a game of Tetris. With some shapes, it’s easy to fit them together. But with a group of products of all different shapes and sizes, it’s more difficult. Fortunately, we have developed some proprietary ways to improve that over time.

“That is a significant reduction of cost—and still there is a lot left to automate that will continue to reduce waste. I think we have a very, very bright future ahead of us.”


PwC: What are you doing to make your services more accessible to your customers?

Pieter Limburg: In addition to making our services accessible through websites and mobile apps, we’re doubling down on developing and using APIs. For example, we just launched an effort with Disney in which you can visit disneystore.com and create your own version of R2-D2 or another Star Wars robot. That data feeds directly into our API, and we print it and ship it. On a monthly basis, we cater to hundreds of customers who have built some form of software that feeds into our system, all using our APIs. As a result, our services are accessible anywhere in the world. We offer more than 58 materials and finishes and we ship to over 130 countries.


PwC: What kind of advances are you looking forward to when it comes to creating designs for 3-D printing?

Pieter Limburg: It has to become, and it is becoming, easier for consumers to create their own 3-D files or to have some sort of a say in their products. That’s why we offer pre-designed products that people can tweak and personalize.

But looking ahead, you could think about using virtual reality (VR) to make 3-D models. HTC is coming out with a product that allows you to sketch in 3-D with your VR headset on, and Sony is launching a similar product with which you can sketch in 3-D with the Sony PlayStation VR. It makes sense that eventually you will have a button that lets you export your model to a 3-D printer and in due course get a physical product in your hand.

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