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
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 (www.myrobotnation.com). 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 (www.maqet.com). 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 (www.miniaturemoments.com). 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
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 (www.sculteo.com/en) 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 (i.materialise.com, 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 (www.shapeways.com).
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
There’s also Cubify (www.cubify.com), 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.
3D Printing Communities
While we’re talking about 3D-printing
communities, it’d be remiss not to mention Thingiverse (www.thingiverse.com). 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
To get started immediately, try 3D Tin (www.3dtin.com), 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 (tinkercad.com) 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 (sketchup.google.com) or
Blender (www.blender.org) 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
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
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, printrbot.com, 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 (www.reprap.org),
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