Can't afford a professional-grade 3D printer of your own? Meet some of the online services that hope to take 3D printing mainstream by offering to do it for you.
There was a time not so long ago when we used to send our documents to the typing pool to get them typed up. Then came the advent of print services; they would happily run off a few copies of our latest brochure in full colour on glossy card. Now 3D printing is the order of the day. That's right, we can print actual things.
We can't afford the £1,000 for our own 3D printer, but there is a host of 3D printing services available online, and they provide access to gear that is considerably more sophisticated.
Home 3D printers limit you to a range of thermoplastics, whereas more sophisticated and expensive devices can handle many more media, from sandstone and metal to rubber, resin and glass. And, while the surface finish of home-printed parts is improving, it is not as good as what the high-end printers can achieve.
3D printing services come in all shapes and sizes. Some have just one or two high-end machines and work more like bureau services for those that need that type of printing; others have a range of machines and can advise on which would be best suited to a particular job. Some also work as consolidators, providing the design tools and the customer-friendly front-end, and then passing the actual print work to machine-owning manufacturing partners.
The level of expertise expected from the customer varies considerably as well. The bureau-type services are oriented towards customers who can build their own 3D models and upload them in a suitable format, most commonly STL. Many of them also offer CAD and engineering design support on a consultancy basis.
An increasing number of consolidators are reaching out to a much less technically-sophisticated customer base, however. Instead of digital prototyping or one-off manufacture, the focus is more on mass customisation, with ready-made basic designs on offer which can be personalised or otherwise modified quite simply, and then printed. They may also offer tools which automate some basic processes, such as giving printable depth to a monochrome 2D image.
There are also free design libraries such as MakerBot's Thingiverse and equivalents from Tinkercad, GrabCad and Autodesk. These offer ready-made CAD files for just about any object you can imagine. It is simply a matter of downloading them, modifying them if necessary, and sending them to be printed.
If you do take the DIY 3D modelling approach then, unless your CAD experience is pretty recent, be prepared for a fairly steep learning-curve. And even if you do have recent 3D modelling experience, designing for 3D printing is a rather different skill. You will need to take into account factors such as centres of gravity, material properties, and how thin a wall can physically be printed.
Sizing is also important because for most 3D printers, a significant element of the cost is the amount of material required, and that of course varies with the cube of the model size. Double the height of your part, and it will need eight times as much material. So then you need to think about hollowing it out to save material and weight, and this of course introduces yet more complications.
Although it is headquartered in New York and its website is largely in inches rather than millimetres, Shapeways was originally Dutch. It is a spin-out from Philips' lifestyle incubator and has an operations and production centre in Eindhoven, where it has an EOS Formiga P100 selective laser sintering (SLS) 3D printer able to produce in plastic and Alumide. A second production site in New York has a 3D Systems ProJet 3500, printing in UV-cured acrylic. Anything these cannot print, such as metal, glass, ABS and rubber, is farmed out to production partners.
Its site offers ready-made designs you can customise, plus a range of online tools. Some allow you to create simple shapes, such as a custom cookie-cutter, while others will take a black and white image and add depth to make it 3D, turn text into a cylinder - to use as a vase or tea-light holder, say - or encode a sound and print the waveform as part of an iPhone case.
There are also aids to help you determine which material to use, based on the model size and how thin the finest walls need to be. The logistics process is all automated, with delivery normally taking 10 working days.
"We want people to do anything they want, from art to lawnmower parts," says Duann Scott, Shapeways' design evangelist. "You can open a shop and sell your design with your choice of markup. There's no need to sell out to a gallery or invest in manufacturing stock - supply exactly meets demand."
He adds, "The barrier to entry is 3D modelling. So the most-used tool is probably the 2D-to-3D image pop-up - people use it as a first entry. Then it's Tinkercad, then Autodesk 123D and SketchUp."
The most popular material is SLS nylon, which is available in white or coloured, and polished or unpolished. It can be printed 0.7mm thick, more like a fabric, or in strong 2-3mm layers. Scott says the next most popular is probably bronze-infused stainless steel. Parts are printed from stainless steel powder bound with adhesive, then fired so the binder is burnt out. This result is porous so it is infused with 30 per cent bronze, yielding a material with the strength of 4020-grade steel.
French company Sculpteo has taken a very interesting tack with 3D, orienting itself more towards the art and giftware market. It will still print whatever you can upload, but it also offers a wide range of customisable products - vases, mugs, phone cases, and more, all of which can be modified to include your own imagery. The company even has an iPhone app that can be used to customise a selected list of designs.
For those uploading their own designs, its sophisticated website can identify files with broken geometry, perform solidity checks and carry out automatic or manual repairs. It can print in a wide range of materials and colours, with instant quotes online. Much of its output is laser-sintered plastics and metals, but it is also developing a business in ceramics - this is a powder-based technology like the ZCorp ZPrinters, with the difference that the printed part can then be fired and glazed, though of course this post-processing does take time.
Sculpteo CEO Clément Moreau says that while two-thirds of the company's customers are professionals wanting prototypes created or skilled non-professionals who know how to design in 3D, the other element - people happy to customise an existing design - is where the growth is.
He says that's to be expected, explaining"We discovered that a lot of people would like to create but don't have the time and energy to learn 3D software. The people we introduced the system to thought it was great but almost never ordered anything; most of us are not artists, and in 3D it's worse. So we switched to custom manufacturing. We have professional designers who create objects for the end-user to customise." Skilled users can also offer their designs for others to print.
He adds that with fewer intermediaries involved - no distributors or wholesalers or retailers, for example - 3D printing can match traditional manufacturing on price for small'items. One exception is ceramics, where 3D printing is still very new, but it is especially true for jewellery, where precious metals are the same price for everyone.
"The main problem for everyone is they forget they will get a real object," he says. "People model things that are not possible in real life or not balanced. Maybe engineering software such as Catia will calculate the centre of gravity for you, but not SketchUp. Even talented designers make these mistakes - but that's why you have prototypes."
The 3dprintuk website tells you what the material will cost to print and invites you to upload your 3D model for a full quote. Its main target is the customer who already has a 3D model ready to upload, but it is also keen to bring lass savvy users up to speed. The website offers a considerable amount of useful advice and is a very useful resource for the novice, with information on available 3D software packages, tips for designers on how to work in 3D, and plenty of background information on 3D printing in general.
Our part was printed using its Objet machine, with a layer thickness of 28'm and X-Y resolution of 40'm. White resin makes up much of 3dprintuk's output, which covers anything from props for TV, architectural models, and GCSE students' projects, says company boss Nick Allen. Anything not suitable for Objet printing is referred to other companies, he says, adding"Every machine has its limitations and fort's."
For Allen, offering a service and plenty of help via the Web is a vital part of democratising professional-standard 3D printing, as opposed to home-grade. "There is a consumer and designer market coming up that's going to explode," he says. "The [printed] results are strong enough for consumer use, for example a mobile phone case. But the UK 3D printing industry was all very formal, with no help for someone learning, prices through the roof, and no one targeting this new market."