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3-D printing industry finds home in Long Island City

An engineer at Shapeways in Long Island City

An engineer at Shapeways in Long Island City removes finished products from a 3-D printer at the company's factory in Long Island City. Shapeways takes orders through it's website and ships to its customers. (June 19, 2013) Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS Mary Altaffer

It looks like a bakery. A warm glow emanates from the windows of big, ovenlike machines, and a dusting of white powder covers everything.

This space in an nondescript building in Long Island City isn't cooking up breads and pastries, however. It's a factory, filled with 3-D printers "baking" items by blasting a fine plastic dust with lasers.

When a production run is done, a cubic foot of white dust comes out of each machine. Packed inside the loose powder like dinosaur bones in sand are hundreds of unique products, from custom iPhone cases to action figures to egg cups.

Manufacturing is coming back to New York, but not in a shape anyone's seen before. The movement to take 3-D printing into the mainstream has found a home in one of the most expensive cities in the country.

New York's factories used to build battleships, stitch clothing and refine sugar, but those industries have largely departed. In recent years manufacturing has been leaving the United States. But 3-D printing is an industry that doesn't require large machinery or smokestacks.

"Now technology has caught up, and we're capable of doing manufacturing locally again," says Peter Weijmarshausen, chief executive of Shapeways, the company that runs the Long Island City factory.

He moved the company here from The Netherlands. Another company that makes 3-D printers, MakerBot, just opened a factory in Brooklyn. And in Brooklyn's Navy Yard, where warships were once built to supply the Arsenal of Democracy, there's a "New Lab," a collaborative workspace for designers, engineers and 3-D printers.

3-D printing, long used by industrial engineers to produce prototypes, in the last few years has broken out of its old niche to reach tinkerers and early tech adopters. It's the consumerization of 3-D printing that's found a hub in New York. The technology brings manufacturing closer to designers, which New York has in droves.

Shapeways' production process is fairly simple. Anyone can upload a 3-D design to Shapeways' website and submit an order to have it "printed" in plastic at the factory. The company charges based on the amount of material a design uses and then ships the final product to the customer.

Cases for iPhones are popular, but many items are so unique they can only be identified by their designer, such as the replacement dispenser latch for a Panasonic bread maker. There's an active group of designers who are "Bronies" -- adult fans of the show "My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic" -- who print their own ponies. The company prints in a wider range of materials, including sandstone and ceramic, at its original factory in Eindhoven, the Netherlands.

Anyone can set up a "shop" on the Shapeways site and let people order prints from their designs. Want a replica skeleton of a Death's-head Hawkmoth? That's $15. How about a full-color sandstone sculpture of actor Keanu Reeves? He's $45.

Under the old mass-production model, Weijmarshausen says, designers first need to figure out if there's a market for their product, then raise money for production, and then find a manufacturer, who usually has to custom-make dies for molding plastic. The cost can run to tens of thousands of dollars.

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