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TheStreet Open House

Shapeways: The Future of 3D Printing

NEW YORK (TheStreet) - Some of the hottest items on Wall Street right now are 3D printing stocks. Two of the most notable public players are 3D Systems ( DDD) and Stratasys (SSYS). Both stocks have performed incredibly in the last 12 months, with 3D Systems up around 266% and Stratasys up 132%. While both of these appear to be great stock picks for getting into the 3D printing space, I would like to shift attention to a lesser-known player.

The firm I'd like to showcase is privately-held Shapeways, a 3D printing service. The company's business model and the services it offers will most certainly change the world as we know it. The Shapeways business model is even reminiscent of eBay (EBAY) and Amazon (AMZN) when they were just beginning. Shapeways has set up a marketplace that lets anyone with some creative intent bring ideas to the masses in an efficient and seamless manner.

In a recent interview with me, Shapeways' Social Media Manager Elisa Richardson shared some amazing stats about the company's business. Shapeways spun out of the lifestyle incubator of Royal Philips Electronics in 2010 and has printed over a million 3D products. There are over 7,000 Shapeways stores where people have set up shop to sell their ideas using the Shapeway conduit. These products can be built from more than 30 materials, ranging from silver to stainless steel, ceramics, sandstone, and many variations of plastic.

Having a 3D printer locally at your disposal may eventually become an inexpensive reality, but what Shapeways offers is much more than that. Creating a printed object with such a wide variety of materials just isn't something that most individuals can do efficiently. Shapeways is not only turning peoples' designs into realities, but also offers an instant route to market. Shapeways, in this way, resembles a nascent Apple (AAPL) App Store in that a developer could submit their coded ideas and instantly start reaping the benefits. Ideas are quickly transformed from the ethereal to the physical.

I tried this out myself to see how hard it is to get an object into the system and create my own 3D print. Amazingly, to create a 3D render, one need only go to Blender, a free, open source, 3D content creation suite. I'm a long-time user of Blender for computer-generated 3D renderings. Shapeways supports a couple of exported formats from Blender, which meant I didn't have to learn anything. I actually had a few trial balloons up on the site within about an hour. Moral of the story; download free software and start creating your product and have an idea up an hour later.

Understand that while there are some challenges to 3D prints, such as thickness, geometrical issues, and texturing, most of these can be solved with some tweaking of the object and an understanding of how the 3D print process works. Challenges aside, it has never been easier to prototype your idea and instantly send it off to the marketplace.

Many times, it's hard to understand why new technologies are exploding higher, but with Shapeways, a few minutes on the company's Web site and it's pretty crystal clear. I have my eye on this one - while there's no direct public way to get in currently, there are some venture capital funds that are listed on the company's Web site for more investor information.

--Written by Scott Jenkins.

The author is long Stratasys, Apple, and looking to get long 3D Systems on any significant pullback.

This article is commentary by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.

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