The replicators of Star Trek may still be in the future, but Shapeways is able to do the next best thing. Give them a design and they will print it in three dimensions, building a prototype out of polymer, plaster or metal.
The company, which recently moved from its base in Eindhoven in the Netherlands to New York, partners with individuals and small businesses that have 3-D printers to build things that are submitted via the Shapeways web site by users. It's a concept not unlike cafepress.com, which allows people to make their own t-shirt designs, send them in, and see if anyone else wants to buy them.
Shapeways requires a bit more sophistication - submissions usually have to be in a file format from a piece of computer aided design software. But for those who haven't got something like that on their desktop there are programs available that will render a drawing in three dimensions automatically.
Once the design is submitted, it goes out to one or more of the companies Shapeways partners with and the piece is built. The only limit on the shape is that the walls have to be thick enough to support its own weight.
Robert Schouwenburg, chief operating officer, said the premise is that 3-D printers, which start at tens of thousands of dollars, aren't going to be in many people's homes anytime soon. If you want a product in metal, the price goes even higher. So for now, sending in designs and having them built for you is likely to be the simplest and cheapest option.
He noted there are some people who have managed to sell products they design and get built via Shapeways. It lends itself best to items that will be built by the hundreds or low thousands rather than the tens of thousands that a true mass producer would make.
Index Ventures and Union Square Ventures provided a total of about $5 million.