Shapeways allows users to design and print objects using a 3D printer. The company just added silver to its range of materials. Objects could previously be printed in glass, steel, plastic and a high-performance composite that hardens like a cement to produce full-color objects. To print an object, users either use 3D modeling software and upload a model to the site or customize a pre-designed object. The model is then printed and shipped.

The Shapeways community has been requesting precious metals for some time, but CEO Peter Weijmarshausen said it has been difficult to strike the right balance between price and quality. The final price of $48/cubic cm means that a ring can be printed for $35-40 dollars. Optional polishing costs an extra $15.

I asked Weijmarshausen where Shapeways fits into the wider trend for customized products. He said that people buy mass-produced good because they are cheap and convenient but they are also rarely ideal for a particular individual. There is a growing demand for items that are more unique and personalized. The DIY and maker cultures, as exemplified by web sites like Etsy, are at the vanguard of this trend but the mass market will follow.

He also points out that the design shops hosted on Shapeways form a long tail factory for production. Designers can manufacture products with very short lead times, e.g. iPad covers were available almost immediately after the iPad launched, and can test the market without manufacturing large volumes as in the mass production model. Products can also improve very quickly based on feedback from buyers, a process Weijmarshausen calls “evolutionary design”. Shapeways is also practicing evolutionary design as a company by feeding demand from its community (such as for more intricate models than can currently be printed) back to the 3-D printer manufacturers.

Shapeways also plans to bring local manufacturing close to user “hotspots”. Local production reduces cost and delivery times as well as being more environmentally sound. Weijmarshausen points out that the Shapeways model introduces a completely new type of supply chain, since only a few raw materials are needed to produce many types of product.

Shapeways was originally a spinoff from Philips Electronics Lifestyle Incubator program but recently received funding of $5 million from Union Square Ventures in New York and Index Ventures in London. The company was founded in 2007, is based in Eindhoven in the Netherlands and has 10 employees.