If you wanted to buy some homespun yarn or a bar of homemade soap, you might go shopping on Etsy. As one of the Internet's largest marketplaces for handmade products, Etsy boasts more than a million shops, each of which offers its own line of handcrafted products, craft supplies or vintage gear.
But Etsy also has a high-tech side. The site is home to thousands of 3D-printed objects, from the run-of-the-mill (iPhone accessories) to the truly unique (life-size dinosaur-skull replicas).
The shops that sell these 3D-printed creations often work with 3D-printing companies — like Shapeways, i.materialise, Kraftwurx, Ponoko or Sculpteo — to produce items for Etsy shoppers.
Those companies also have their own marketplaces that sell to consumers. Although marketplaces that sell only 3D-printed goods are growing in both size and popularity, it's Etsy's acceptance of 3D printing that could really draw this technology out of its geeky niche and into the mainstream.
Is 3D printed the new handmade?
3D printing may not sound like a hands-on process. But according to Etsy's "marketplace criteria" for sellers, 3D-printed pieces that are incorporated into finished products are just as "handmade" as ceramic pots or sterling-silver jewelry.
Han-Yin Hsu — a jewelry designer whose shop, Annxannx, can be found on both Etsy and Shapeways — is already proving that 3D-printed products are crafty. Hsu uses Shapeways to 3D print the pendants she designs for her necklaces. She then dyes these pendants and attaches them to chains before shipping them off to her Etsy customers.
"Unlike other jewelry makers and artists who make things by hand, 3D printing allows me to not have to worry about the quantity produced, and instead, I can focus on the quality of the design," Hsu said.
Shapeways: The Etsy of 3D Printing
Hsu isn't the only artist using the Shapeways-to-Etsy business model. In fact, she said she was inspired to run her business on both sites after learning about Nervous System, a design studio specializing in 3D-printed jewelry and home decor that also has shops on both Etsy and Shapeways.
Shapeways lets users open their own virtual stores, where their 3D-printable creations can be purchased by anyone, anywhere in the world. Currently, the site has more than 10,000 shops and does a bustling business in 3D-printed gadgets, replacement parts and baubles. Etsy boasts more than a million sellers globally, and although the site does feature several thousand 3D-printed objects, its biggest sellers are more traditional handmade items and vintage clothing.
Despite their differences, Etsy and Shapeways have some important similarities. For example, both sites offer a wide array of customizable.
"[Customization] showcases the collaborative community that makes up our marketplace," said Elisa Richardson, a spokeswoman for Shapeways. "Our users have the ability to add their own input into the items they're purchasing."
The same can be said of Etsy and other popular online marketplaces, including some of the most popular 3D-printing sites, like i.materialise and Kraftwurx.
Most of these sites enable buyers and sellers to communicate via direct messaging, which functions as a site-wide email system. When buyers want to place a custom order, they simply message the shop owner to present their ideas.
"The personal marketplace is the best part about selling on Shapeways and Etsy," Hsu said. "You can actually talk to the consumer, and know what they need and who they are."
Hsu and Richardson aren't the only ones enamored with a 3D printer's ability to churn out highly customized products. Even big names, like eBay, are jumping on the customization bandwagon. The company recently released an app for purchasing customized 3D-printed products (printed by Sculpteo and Hot Pop Factory) directly from its site.
And although it may not sound as sexy as a customizable iPhone case, 3D printing's application as a prototyping tool is also making it popular with small business owners, including those on Etsy.
Hsu, for example, uses Shapeways to make models of her jewelry in a variety of materials, which she tests for flexibility and strength before deciding on a finished product to sell to customers.
And Pad & Quill — a Minnesota-based business that sells handmade leather cases for iPhones, iPads and other gadgets on Etsy — also uses 3D prototyping to perfect its products.
Given its focus on traditional crafts, such as leatherwork and wood carved items, Pad & Quill might seem like an unlikely proponent of 3D printing. But the company relies on this technology to test the parts used with its wood-frame cases, as well as the hardware— snap hooks and buttons— on its leather and canvas bags.
"For us, 3D-[printing] is a really great tool to see if what we dreamed up in a drawing looks and feels the way we want," said Brian Holmes, co-founder of Pad & Quill. "It helps us not make expensive mistakes."
Holmes also said that if 3D technology becomes more sophisticated, Pad & Quill might one day use 3D-printed hardware and custom parts in its final products.
Cheap, high-end 3D printers coming
Holmes' dream of a more sophisticated future of 3D printing isn't far-fetched. In fact, it may happen sooner than he thinks. Low-cost, high-quality printers that can produce both functional prototypes and finished products are already starting to appear on the market, and they have 3D artisans like Hsu excited.
Hsu, who currently has to wait two to four weeks to receive her 3D-printed models from Shapeways, is eager to get her hands on her own 3D printer, even if she can only use it to test new materials. She said she's keeping her eye on the Form 1 by Formlabs, a first-of-its-kind desktop stereolithography (SL) printer that uses an ultraviolet laser to harden photo-sensitive liquid plastic into a three-dimensional object.
Access to such a printer could be a game changer for artisans like Hsu, who said she's already looking to branch out from the world of 3D-printed jewelry.
"I want to gradually make objects that relate more and more to the life around us — for example, home and kitchen accessories, then moving on to bigger things," Hsu said. "I want to learn by thinking about a thing I am interested in and then making it."
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