3D Printing … for people who don’t have a 3D printer

5/8/2012 9:19:08 AM

We look into the variety of 3D printing services online to find out how you can try out 3D modelling without buying your own printer.

We live in the future. The rise in popularity of 3D printing demonstrates that better than anything else. It’s a reasonably simple sounding idea: a machine lays down layer after layer of plastic, or similarly mouldable material, building it into a pre-programmed shape. However, the idea that this technology is on its way to being readily available and affordable is exciting because of the number of possibilities it opens up. What if you could print your own spare parts, your own clothes, your own tools, or anything else that occurred to you, customized to your exact specifications, within a matter of hours? What would you like?

Before we get too excited, let’s accept that we’re not quite there yet. Although consumer-level 3D printers do exist, they’re usually very small, and they’re still very expensive. In order to design your own stuff, you need to be reasonably au fait with CAD programs; you need to buy specialist materials; and you’ll probably need to be handy enough to finish off anything you’ve printed, because 3D printed objects can be a little rough around the edges.

Even without your very own 3D printer, though, you can still start experimenting with 3D printing. A number of online services have popped up, helping you through the design stages, then printing your objects and sending them to you in the post. Let’s take a look at some of those services.

3D printing very specific things


Description: 3D printing very specific things

3D printing very specific things

Some 3D printing services print only very specific things, which means the amount of design input you get is pretty minimal. Take, for example, My Robot Nation ( As the name suggests, it’s a site for designing robots. Using the web interface, you can choose the shape, features, colour, and size of your robot, and then get it printed and sent to you. Depending on size, getting your robot printed will cost between $20 and $170, so between about £11.44 and £108.12.

If you’d like a wider choice of toys, check out Maqet ( Again, you use a browser-based ‘maker’ to design your Maqet; you can choose from a variety of different shaped templates, then add design elements, choose from different colours, or paint your own patterns onto the toy. When you’ve created a masterpiece, click ‘make it real’ to order a 3D-printed version of your toy (which costs between about $25 and $45, so £15.9 to £28.62.)

The amount of customising you can do with either service is limited, but they do give you a kind of taster of the sort of customisation that’s possible with 3D printing, and they’re very easy and simple to use.

A slightly different take on personalised 3D-printed objects comes in the form of Miniature Moments ( Here, you upload a passport-sized photo to get it printed out as a 3D reproduction. Different thicknesses of plastic allow different amounts of light to shine through, so the photo is visible when the miniature is held up to the light. It’s kind of like those laser engraved glass images you can find in certain department stalls. A miniature portrait will cost you $40, and while there’s no customisation available once you’ve uploaded your photo, you could any picture you like.

Printing anything you want

Description: Printing anything you want

Printing anything you want

Beyond those veryspecialised services, there are 3D printing websites that will print any model you upload – or allow you to choose from huge catalogues of models created by other people.

Sculpteo ( is a French 3D-printing company that allows 3D models, in a wide variety of file formats, to be uploaded to the site and then printed in a range of materials. There’s the obvious white and black plastic, but also red, blue, yellow and green plastics, a porcelain-like multi-coloured material, and it also offers silver-coated objects. Pricing obviously depends on the size of the objet, as well as the material you want to print it in.

There’s also a Sculpteo shop, where you can choose the either upload your design for other people to buy, or purchase objects created by other people; creators receive a royalty on their items, unless there’s something seriously wrong with them, in which case Sculpteo will investigate and refund the buyer. All sorts of objects are available, from nuts and bolts to iPhone covers, architectural models and, yes, model robots. Items are usually dispatched within three days, although some things – like silver plated items can take longer.

i.materialise (, and yes that first dot really should be there!) is another European 3D printing company, based in Belgium. It, too, lets you upload your own designs from scratch, but also offers tools for creating specific items, which make things a bit easier. There are specific tools for creating a vase, a piece of jewellery, and a lampshade, and also ‘kits’ for making things like bookends and door handles, which makes getting started with 3D printing a bit less intimidating than a completely blank canvas.

i.materialise offers 20 different printing materials, along with a handy comparison tool so you can check the material you’ve chosen is suitable for your object (different materials are better for rendering very small or complex details, for example). The materials include several different kinds of plastic, including a transparent resin, as well as metals including titanium, silver and gold. And, again, there’s a ‘gallery’, which is basically a shop full of other people’s designs.

3D Printing Communities

Although both i.materialise and Sculpteo allow creators to upload their own items for sale to the site, there’s not much of a sense of community there. You’ll find that much more prominently on American 3D printing sites, like Shapeways (

Like the other sites, you can upload your own 3D models and pay for them to be printed and shipped to you: Shapeways offers various colours of plastic, as well as stainless steel, silver, ceramics, sandstone and glass options. But you’re actively encouraged to get involved in the community too: there’s a community tab on the website, which leads to a chat room, a forum, and a schedule of live events, and every item for sale in the shop can be commented on, rated, or saved to your favourites. You can see which user created each item, and what else they’ve made, along with some details about who they are and what they do. That aspect makes the site feel more like a community project, similar to Etsy, rather than just a shop.

There’s also Cubify (, the platform launched by 3D Systems to go along with its relatively affordable 3D printer, the Cube, at CES in January. It’s still in beta, and its website seems kind of empty compared with Shapeways, but then it’s only a couple of months old, and seems promising. The ‘Cloud 3D Print’ tab lets you buy 3D printed items, while in the store you can buy either printed items or models for printing elsewhere (obviously, it would like you to buy a Cube printer!). The community section still appears to be under construction, but the ‘Create Hubs and Teams) section suggests it’s looking at ways to get people to work together, which is nice. The Cubify Wall shows a selection of registered users, and you can click through to get info on them and their creations. Again, there’s not an awful lot of content there, but for a new website, that’s no unexpected.

Description: 3D Printing Communities

3D Printing Communities

While we’re talking about 3D-printing communities, it’d be remiss not to mention Thingiverse ( Thingiverse is for people who do have their own 3D printers, but it does have an enormous library of models by other users, which are available to be downloaded. Objects can be commented on, and users can also note that they’ve printed a particular design and upload their own photos. So even if you don’t have your own printer, it might be a useful resource for finding models and sending them to be printed via another service.

Getting started with 3D modelling

So, all that said, if you want to create a 3D model and get it printed, where should you start? There are some great free 3D modelling programs available, and all you’ll need is a bit of time and patience to get the hang of them, even if you have no previous experience with 3D modelling.

To get started immediately, try 3D Tin (, which is an in-browser modelling program. You’ll need to be using either Google Chrome or Firefox, with WebGL support, to get it going. It’s free to use, on the condition that whatever you create is shared under Creative Commons; if you want to keep your designs private, you’ll need to pay to upgrade your account.

TinkerCAD ( is another similar browser-based CAD program, and again you’ll need a browser that supports WebGL to use it.

Beyond the browser, there are some decent free CAD and animation programs: try Google SketchUp ( or Blender ( for starters. Obviously, there are plenty of commercial CAD programs around too, but it’s probably worth trying some free ones first before splashing out on something expensive.

Just how disruptive and revolutionary 3D printing will prove to be in the long run remains to be seen, but by checking out the services and programs highlighted in this article, you can at least get a taste of how useful (or utterly frivolous, in some cases!) it can be.

What if I want to buy my own 3D printer?

So what if you do want to buy your own 3D printer? A number of small 3D printers have been launched over the past year or so, all claiming to be consumer level and ‘affordable’, but they range wildly in price.

MakerBot’s Thing-O-Matic kits cost approx. $1,100 while the Replicator printer costs around $1,800. 3D Systems’ Cube printer isn’t yet available to buy, but will cost $1,300 when it is.

Printrbot, which started life as a Kickstarter project, aims to have 3D printers for sale in the near future. Buying them via Kickstarter cost between $500 (for a kit containing all the necessary parts) to $750 for a fully assembled one, so when the store gets up and running it’ll probably be around the same price. Keep an eye on the website,, for more info.

Towards the more expensive end of the affordable market is 3D System’s Project 1000, which is $10,900 or the Asiga Pico printer, an especially small model that sells for $6,990

The cheapest option is probably to get involved with the RepRap project (, which is an open-source project that aims to create self-replicating 3D printers. You’ll need to get hold of the parts, either through the RepRap community or by ordering the parts to be printed through another service, and then build the printer yourself. There are several different models, so check out the website for full details.

Setting up your own shop

‘If you’re good at creating 3D models, you might to consider setting up a shop.’

If you’re good at creating 3D models of things, you might want to consider setting up a shop on one of the 3D printing websites so other people can buy your creations. The process is the same for i.materilise, Sculpteo, and Shapeways: create an account, upload your designs, and than set your price.

As the creator of the design, you get to add a markup on the price of manufacturing and shipping, which is set by the site itself (kind of like how, when you make a book on Lulu, Lulu puts a price on it, then you can add whatever you want on top, and you keep the profit.) It’s reasonably straightforward, though you’ll need a PayPal account to receive your earnings.

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