Shapeways: Manufacturing in the Cloud

The Internet dramatically reduced the costs of a number of creative activities. For example, publishing written work used to require a large upfront investment. As a result, publishing was controlled by corporations who acted as creative arbiters. The Internet enabled writers to bypass those corporations, leading to an explosion of creativity and innovation.

Creative activities that involve physical things have mostly resisted this trend. Let’s say you are an entrepreneur who has designed a new line of jewelry. You need to find a factory, commit to a large batch size, and make a significant upfront investment. It is a risky and expensive endeavor.

Shapeways is a startup headquartered in NYC that eliminates the fixed costs of manufacturing. Making use of breakthrough advances in 3D printing, Shapeways manufactures objects in a variety of materials – including metals, ceramics, and plastics – with no upfront costs or minimum batch size. The results are indistinguishable from – and sometimes superior to – objects manufactured using traditional techniques.

Here’s a short video that shows the revolutionary potential of 3D printing:

Today, I’m excited to announce that Andreessen Horowitz is leading a $30M investment in Shapeways along with our friends at Union Square Ventures, Index Ventures, and Lux Capital. We believe that technology is at its best when it enables human creativity. The Internet unlocked the world of bits. 3D printing is unlocking the world of atoms.

Technology predictions

For those of us in the prediction business, it’s sometimes useful to go back and read past predictions to try to discern patterns in what they got right and wrong.

Back in the early 90s, a lot of people thought the Internet was overhyped. Here’s one example from Newsweek:

Do our computer pundits lack all common sense? The truth in no online database will replace your daily newspaper, no CD-ROM can take the place of a competent teacher and no computer network will change the way government works…. What the Internet hucksters won’t tell you is tht the Internet is one big ocean of unedited data, without any pretense of completeness. Lacking editors, reviewers or critics, the Internet has become a wasteland of unfiltered data.

Today, it’s easy to find people expressing similar skepticism about emerging technologies like the Internet of things, robotics, 3D printing, Bitcoin, etc.

What the skeptics overlook is that platforms that are open to third-party developers have the following characteristic: it’s hard to think of important use cases before they are built, and hard to find examples where important use cases weren’t developed after they were built.

Just look at the founding years of top websites. Google: 1998. Wikipedia: 2001. YouTube: 2005. Twitter: 2006. No wonder it was so hard to imagine these services early on. It took years to imagine them even after the Internet had gone mainstream.

What the smartest people do on the weekend is what everyone else will do during the week in ten years

Many breakthrough technologies were hatched by hobbyists in garages and dorm rooms. Prominent examples include the PC, the web, blogs, and most open source software.

The fact that flip-flop wearing hobbyists spawn large industries is commonly viewed as an amusing eccentricity of the technology industry. But there is a reason why hobbies are so important.

Business people vote with their dollars, and are mostly trying to create near-term financial returns. Engineers vote with their time, and are mostly trying to invent interesting new things. Hobbies are what the smartest people spend their time on when they aren’t constrained by near-term financial goals.

Today, the tech hobbies with momentum include: math-based currencies like Bitcoin, new software development tools like NoSQL databases, the internet of things, 3D printing, touch-free human/computer interfaces, and “artisanal” hardware like the kind you find on Kickstarter.

It’s a good bet these present-day hobbies will seed future industries. What the smartest people do on the weekends is what everyone else will do during the week in ten years.