How Shapeways’ announcement on yesterday’s 5in5NYC changes the game for 3D printing.

Launching 5in5NYC yesterday was exciting for a number of reasons – new show, great lineup, the tech worked beautifully – it really was an amazing thing… but in the middle of the show there was a hidden gem that you might have missed.

Brad Dickason from Shapeways dropped a HUGE announcement in his demo at around the 5 minute mark that has implications for the entire landscape of 3D printing. Shapeways is developing a new, flexible material – Brad demoed it as a squishy, flexible pikachu-like character in his segment. The print looked fantastic, and it seemed durable and strong.

If you’ve ever seen a 3D printed object in person, you’re probably familiar with how they look and feel. Depending on the material, they either feel like a gritty sandstone (with a feeling that you could smash it into 1000 pieces if you threw it to the floor) or a rough, layered plastic that gives away how it was constructed. They’re amazing, but still clearly 3D printed.

Printing resolution is getting better in leaps and bounds, and prints from Shapeways (and the newest edition of the DIY Makerbot 3D printer) are very high quality, so these issues are becoming less and less noticeable, but even with high quality prints, you were still limited to solid objects.

Shapeways announcement today changes that, and opens the door to an entire new class of 3D printed things. Soft toys, flexible wearables, custom gaskets and fittings, flexible iPhone cases or designer coffee-cup holders, you name it.. The ability to test and prototype yet another class of things will cause a sea-change for manufacturing and creating these types of objects.

The path for inventors keeps getting shorter and easier. For example, I have a design for “Mudflops: Flip-flops with mud-flaps” that keep mud from splattering up while people walk around the city in their summer shoes (great idea, right? right?… Anyone?…). Anyway, the idea has been on the shelf for nearly 10 years, because I don’t know the first thing about manufacturing something like that. I imagine you’d need to injection-mold it, which means a large upfront expense for a product I have no idea if people will want.

Now that there’s a flexible material available from Shapeways, I could print a few and test them, refine my design, and then test-market the result. If they started selling well, I’ll have the proof needed to make the upfront investment of having a bunch made to bring the cost-per-unit down.

As Shapeways pushes into more and more materials, stories like this are becoming the norm for testing ideas for physical things. Depending on demand for your thing and the price of manufacturing, it may even make sense to keep printing on demand and selling right through Shapeways, which a whole ecosystem of creators are already doing.

Shapeways is truly changing the face of prototyping and production, and yesterday’s announcement opens up a whole new chapter in that story.

I’m pretty proud to have that announcement in our first episode.