If you weren’t sure whether this whole consumer 3D printing thing was going take off, Chris Dixon and Andreessen Horowitz  may help alleviate your doubt.

Dixon and company are making a hugely symbolic $30 million investment in Shapeways, a 3D printing marketplace that lets designers upload and print their 3D creations.

Shapeways is not only Dixon’s first investment at Andreessen Horowitz, it’s also the first one the firm is making in a 3D printing company. Which makes all of this something of a big deal.

So why 3D printing? And why Shapeways? And why now? Dixon’s reasoning is simple: 3D printing’s moment has come, and Shapeways is leading the charge.

“3D printing is important because so much of what we’ve done over the last 20 years has been moving bits around. Now we’re starting to see tech impact the physical world,” said Dixon, who is joining the Shapeways board of directors.

According to Dixon, Shapeways does three things well: Not only has it created a strong community, but it’s also built a strong service model and factory footprint. (It opened a New York City factory in October.) “It’s like building three different companies at once,” Dixon told me. “We think they’ve executed well on all those things. They’re the clear leader in the space.”

(Sidenote: If you follow Dixon’s blog, it should be clear that he’s been thinking about this stuff for a while. As he noted in a post earlier this month, people tend to be skeptical of new technologies before there are obvious uses for them, and 3D printing is no exception.)

Shapeways’ focus on 3D printing as a service rather than just a technology is also an important factor. Unlike hardware-focused companies like MakerBot and 3D Systems, Shapeways’ strategy assumes — probably correctly — that people will be more likely to adopt 3D printing if they don’t have to invest in their own printers.

And yet, Shapeways’ take on 3D printing still faces a major hurdle — awareness.

“Our challenge now is making sure more people see the use in our service. We want to make this real for people,” Shapeways CEO Peter Weijmarshausen told me. “Making 3D printing accessible is a big challenge,” he said.

“A lot of it is an education thing,” said Dixon. “People are often very surprised by the quality of the printed things — but you can’t fully tell by looking at a website. Awareness will take some time.”

Still, despite the challenges facing Shapeways, the company is doing pretty well for itself so far: Weijmarshausen said the company’s 300,000 users upload 60,000 product designs each month — so the community is certainly there.

Much of that interest certainly ties into the fact that Shapeways is not only helping to make manufacturing local again, but is also opening the door for many more designers to make cash off their creations.

“In the same way the Internet unlocked the long tail of publishing, Shapeways is trying to do that with manufacturing,” said Dixon.

All of this, again, is still in its early stages, but Weijmarshausen is confident the industry is on the verge of something big. “We’re just scratching the surface of what the future of products will look like,” Weijmarshausen said.

Perhaps Dixon and Andreessen Horowitz will help Shapeways scratch a bit deeper.


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