Monday, 11 March 2013

i.Materialise or Shapeways?

Shapeways attracts a lot of press, but there are other interesting companies out there.

i.Materialise is a 3D printing service based in Belgium. Just like Shapeways they offer range of processes and materials. Just like Shapeways they offer a marketplace for designers to showcase their wares to drive on-demand sales. And just like Shapeways they offer product finishing services.

Browsing the i.Materialize gallery one cannot escape the conclusion that the 3D printed objects look very similar to those found in the Shapeways gallery. So why would a designer or consumer choose i.Materialise over Shapeways or vice versa?

A consumer with no intention to learn 3D design would probably just browse both galleries to find an attractive product. The winner will be the service offering the most desirable products at the right prices.

As a designer, both companies would be able to realize the majority of their 3D designs, but one or the other will probably provide higher quality, larger size, subtle finish or a service more relevant to their business model. The choice will depend on many tiny details to do with the additive manufacturing process options provided, or the terms of finance, e.g. designer fee percentages.

Since both service bureaus operate a buyer-marketplace, designers will probably choose to host their product designs in each, even if they decide to work with one company as their primary relationship.

For makers, however, just starting out and learning about the complexity of 3D design, the company that offers the best tools, learning and start-up experience will win.

The end game for companies like i.Materialise and Shapeways will be their ability to attract venture capital, broaden the range of services offered, to scale their operation and to provide exemplary service.

The winner is likely to be the company that offers the most comprehensive and reliable marketplace of 3D designers, 3D data and 3D processes.

So what happens to both of these pioneering companies when Amazon enter the market? Will Amazon build its own factory of the future? Or will Shapeways and i.Materialise appear inside Amazon's retail front end?

Consider this scenario:

Shapeways and i.Materialise have both created an entirely new product category. The unique 3D-printable products on show in their galleries are available no where else, literally. The additive manufacturing processes that create theses products are themselves a product, hard to find elsewhere in quite the same convenient and accessible form.

And then what happens when every company producing similar items also provide a 3D-printer powered mass-customization 'Make App' or 'Make Button' of their own?

Just as Amazon has become the channel to market for so many companies, won't Amazon want to absorb the 'Make' feature in every viable product category it covers? As as it does so, how will Amazon's CEO think about that factory of the future?

1 comment:

  1. While its true that Shapeways does get a lot of press, mostly as a result of spending millions in venture capital from three rounds of raises (i.materalise is also popular but operates on a much smaller marketing budget).

    Shapeways must be commended for driving awareness. Without their enormous financial contributions, the public would not be nearly so aware of 3D printing. Shapeways has indeed helped to 'shape' the future of digital manufacturing but there are many other movers in this young market.

    Sculpteo, founded in 2009 in France is pushing forward diligently with online customization capabilities in-browser. Their focus seems to be personalization. Ponoko also joined the party when they added 3D printing to their long standing laser cutting business. Even i.materalise has begun to see dividends from their efforts and obvious leadership in software on the Materialise side of their business.

    Their are in fact a dozen startups in this market. Some newer upstarts include,,, thingiverse and many, many more.

    Arguably the oldest and least known until recently is Kraftwurx has remained a bit of a mystery until CES 2013. The company made major announcements at CES including recently awarded patents and logistics nobody had a clue about!

    Kraftwurx recently acquired Digital Reality. Digital Reality is the backstory. Founded in 2006, Digital Reality published a demo in June 2006 for what we believe to be the first example of online mass customization and 3D printed e-commerce in an online Marketplace. The demo followed another crucial step...patent protection filed in May 2006 (

    The Digital Reality demo was picked up in 2007 by Make Magazine's online blog. It was in fact the same year that Shapeways first applied to the Philips incubator and two Yeats before Shapeways had a working beta (

    Reading the patent, Digital Reality was obviously trying to build exactly what Shapeways has built. In fact, drawings in the patent have an uncanny resemblance to business models of every 3D printing marketplace, especially those of Shapeways and Sculpteo. What's more, Digital Reality's business model patent was wrapped in a commercial product called Digital Factory in 2006. The purpose appears to be to license this software to companies like Shapeways and Sculpteo.  Instead of being competitors, they might have been customers.

    Even more surprising is the fact that Kraftwurx has apparently been working in stealth mode, without any significant funding, yet has virtually all of the same technology as companies with 10 times their staff and millions more in capital. Other significant observations about Kraftwurx include:

    Kraftwurx is the only firm actually established in the United States by citizens of the United States. The rest are all foreigners from The Netherlands, New Zealand, Brazil, Germany, Israel and France.

    Kraftwurx is the only company on this list touting intellectual property. Considering that the business model of the company they acquired (Digital Reality) was building software to license to companies like Shapeways, this could be very important issue in the future.

    Kraftwurx has amassed the largest selection of Materials of any competitor. With 70 Materials kraftwurx is the undisputed king of Materials. Who knew?

    Capacity is also a strong point for Kraftwurx. They claim to have 111 production facilities worldwide and half a million SF of factory floor between them, including 15,000 at their headquarters in Houston.

    So let's recap, kraftwurx has more capacity, more materials, is older, has patents, and no debt. Beware, these guys are going to change the game!