This post is part of a series in partnership with MakerCon, which takes place May 12-13 in San Francisco. MakerCon connects the individuals at the forefront of the maker movement and taps into the best thinking on how to make things and get them to market, from new technologies to manufacturing models to funding methods.

For many of us shopping online the idea of pressing a print button, walking down the street in our own city and picking up the iPhone case we just bought seems fairly far fetched. The truth is, it’s already happening. 3D Hubs, a startup founded in the Netherlands in 2013 by Bram de Zwart and Brian Garret, are turning their global community of 16,000 3D printers into a distributed on-demand manufacturing network that will bring the production process back to a local-level and allow users to be a larger part of that process.

We chatted with Co-Founder Bram de Zwart, who will be speaking at MakerCon this month, about how the company began, what new partnerships they’re fostering to support their mission, and how their model is empowering  a community designers and manufacturers.

Before founding 3D Hubs you were working at 3D Systems – what made you decide to take the leap and start your own thing?

While working at 3D Systems, Brian and I saw that the install base of 3D printers was quickly increasing but at the same time discovered that most 3D printer owners only use them occasionally. 90% of the time their 3D printer just sits around. By unlocking this idle capacity and connecting it to one online platform, we saw an opportunity to bring 3D printing much closer to the end-user.

We believe the real promise of 3D printing is that we can create a future where products are made hyperlocal, instead of on the other side of the planet. We really wanted more people to get easy access to this world changing technology. We started talking to 3D  printer owners to find out if they would be open to print for others, and got an overwhelming response: our idea of 3D Hubs was born!

How does your initial vision for 3D Hubs compare to what the company has become today? Were there specific factors that have contributed to its evolution since 2013?

Our vision is that 3D printing enables a new model for manufacturing. One where an almost endless range of consumer products are made on-demand and close the end-user, instead of the currently dominating model in which products are made far away and in huge quantities.

With 3D Hubs we want to accelerate local and on-demand manufacturing by giving everyone local access to 3D printers. The speed in which we are realizing this is incredible and beyond any expectations we had when we started in 2013. In just two years we’ve built a network of over 16,000 3D printers in 147 countries. 3D Hubs is now the world’s largest and fastest growing network of 3D printers, giving over 1 billion people access to a 3D printer within 10 miles of their home.

3D_Hubs_Map (1)

What is the current count of hubs in the 3D Hubs network?

3D Hubs has a global network of over 16,000 3D printers, providing over 1 billion people access to 3D printing within 10 miles of their home. There are 3D Hubs locations in 147 countries, which is more than McDonald’s :)  Last month around 15,000 prints were ordered through our platform and this number is growing at an incredible pace.

What impact has being founded and based in Amsterdam played on the early days of 3D Hubs existence?

The Netherlands is a frontrunner in the 3D print industry, with many successful companies started off there. Also there’s a very active 3D print community, so starting out here gave us many learnings we could apply to new countries like the U.S., which is now our biggest market.

In the last month, you have closed partnerships with Instructables, SketchFab, and Thingiverse to include a “3D Print Button”. What role do these partnerships play in the future of 3D Hubs and are there others in the works?

These recent partnerships are basically about connecting 3D printable content to our production network. Our aim is to make it easier for users of the platforms we partner with to instantly get their favorite designs made, even if they don’t own a 3D printer..

Next up, we want everyone to start using 3D printing and contribute to efficient manufacturing. 3D printing enables local, community driven creation, which offers a huge opportunity for consumer product brands to engage with their fans in new ways. They can suddenly involve them in the design and manufacturing of their products.

We’ll be launching more consumer brand partnerships such as with Fairphone, for which our community has  produced more than 5,000 smartphone cases across 300 locations.

You share a really interesting 3D Printing monthly Trends Report on your website. Can you share any insights you’ve gathered around the trends in manufacturing behavior by geography?

In general we see that our platform is mostly used by creative professionals to make prototypes and scale models. We haven’t measured particular differences in geography.

Since our integrations with 3D content platforms like Thingiverse and Sketchfab, we see many more 3D prints coming from their users. This shows people are really inclined to use 3D printing more once you provide people design inspiration and simultaneously simplify the process of getting these designs made.

How would you describe a typical 3D Hubs Hub owner?

Our community is a diverse group of hobbyists, professionals and students, that all share the love for 3D printing. We see more and more professional 3D print shops joining our community too, which adds an interesting new dimension as it allows our customers to visit actual stores.

What has surprised you the most since starting 3D Hubs?

How powerful it is when manufacturing becomes community driven instead of being operated by large corporations. With our bottom up model the 3D Hubs community is truly democratising manufacturing, creating new dynamics between brands, designers and consumers. Also the dedication of our community volunteers (called ‘3D Hubs Mayors”) has positively surprised me, our community has independently organised 222 meetups last year.

What are the major benefits you see resulting from establishing a community-driven distributed production network over a our current centralized manufacturing and production process?

There are two key benefits of our distributed manufacturing model, compared to traditional centralized mass production:

  • Reducing transport: Distributed manufacturing means that we can make products much closer to end-user and eliminates much of today’s pollution coming from container ships and trucks transporting consumer products across the planet.
  • On-demand production: With digital manufacturing, like 3D printing, products are made based on digital files and can therefore be produced immediately at the push of a button. The implications of this is huge as it means production no longer requires inventory and large warehouses to store that.

You can learn more about 3D Hubs and find a Hub location near you on their website.  Get updates on Twitter and see some of the amazing designs being printed on their Instagram.