Could 3D printing bring manufacturing back to Queens?

February 26, 2016

Long Island City used to be a flourishing manufacturing hub. Factories producing everything from staplers to bubblegum dotted the landscape. Today, most of those are long-gone, replaced by luxury high rises taking advantage of an incredible view of Midtown. But, manufacturing is not completely dead in the area — and one tech company is bringing it back in a big way.

3D prints things for other people on an industrial scale. If you have something you’d like to have printed, you can upload your designs, and they’ll ship you the final product in a couple of days. 

But, what makes them remarkable, is that they’ve taken a process that is individualistic — 3D printing unique creations — and turned it into a mass-manufacturing process. They're sort of the modern version of Henry Ford's manufacturing revolution, done with 3D printers. 

When you send the plans for your creation to Shapeways, they're not printed individually, or even by themselves. Each of their industrial sized 3D printers are busily printing multiple orders at the same time, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Once your product is printed, they have a specialized team that cleans the product, another team that dyes the product, etc., until it is in a package and heading to your door. The whole process takes just a couple of days. 

Shapeways opened their Long Island City facility in 2012, and have been slowly expanding since. Today, they ship about 120,000 3D printed products every month. To put that into perspective, the Brooks Brothers tie factory around the corner puts out about 125,000 ties a month — and a lot of those are identical argyle copies.  

The company said the designs for about 40 percent of things they print come from their store. On their online store you can get predesigned, 3D printed goods like smartphone cases, keychains or, should you want one, something called a Mobius mount, which allows you to film a paintball game. The other 60 percent of products they print come from people who have designed the items themselves — think people like tinkerers, fashionistas or architecture firms. 

Interestingly, the company said they’re beginning to see a switch from people printing things for the novelty of it, to printing things for actual everyday use. Fashionistas are printing accessories and, increasingly, completely unique shoes. Since they began 3D printing in precious medals, the market for 3D printed engagement bands has heated up. They’ve even printed some clothing that is now on display at MoMa. 

It's a brave new world of manufacturing, and it looks like Queens is leading the way.

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