Here we continue our 3D printing feature by looking at online services which allow you to print your own designs, without the expense of buying a 3D printer.
3D printing services
It has to be admitted that in the world of 3D printers, the word “budget” is a relative one and even the cheapest models have a price tag that’s a lot more than most home users will be prepared to pay.
Undoubtedly this will change in the coming years but you don’t have to wait for prices to fall further before taking your first steps in 3D printing. Just as photo processing companies provided a service for making photographic prints before photo-quality inkjets were affordable (for top-notch results many people still use these services instead of printing at home), the same is true of 3D printing.
The web is now awash with 3D printing companies and several have launched services - even apps - which will appeal specifically to home users. In addition to being cheaper than buying your own 3D printer, these bureaux use more expensive equipment so the quality of the output will be better than with DIY printing. In addition, you’ll probably be offered a wider choice of materials and the size of the output will often be less of a limitation.
At its simplest, the process is similar to ordering photographic prints online. You upload a file that defines the 3D object, a check is carried out to ensure that the model is printable, you select the size and other options such as material and colour, and finally you make a payment. Now all you have to do is wait, normally just a few days, for your 3D print to arrive in the post. However, as we’ll see when we look at specific companies, some of these services offer a lot more.
One of the first companies to target 3D printing at consumers, and still one of the leading suppliers, is French-based Sculpteo. The basic service is much as we described above although there’s a bewildering array of materials to choose from including plastics and resins in various colours, full-colour, and even plastic with a silver coloured plating.
Before you place an order you’re able to see and manipulate a virtual model of your creation so you can view it from all angles and you can fine tune the output size, observing how the price alters as you move the size slider.
In addition to printing your own unique design, Sculpteo also offers various semi-customised designs allowing you, for example, to print 3D geometrical shapes or even your own iPhone case. You can read how we created a unique iPhone 5 case here.
The Sculpteo website includes a huge library of objects that others have designed that you can have printed in your chosen material. Included here is anything and everything from down-to-earth practical items such as lampshades and tableware, through games including chess sets and dice, to decorative objects and jewellery.
The maximum size depends on which machine is used and your choice of material, but can be as large as 677mm x 368mm x 565mm. It’s hard to say how much a design will cost because the bottom line depends on the overall size of the object, the amount of material used (so a hollow object will cost less than a solid one), and the material that you choose. However, to take the iPhone 5 case as an example, this would cost from around £20.
If you’d prefer to work with a company that’s closer to home – although, in reality, there really aren’t any drawbacks to ordering online from a European company – there is no shortage of companies based in the UK as a Google search for “3D printing service UK” will reveal.
However, few offer the same range of materials as Sculpteo and many are set up primarily to provide a service to companies rather than individuals. This means that some of the convenience and ease of a consumer-oriented online service might not be available.
However, one UK-based company that does deserve a mention is Replicator Warehouse.
Pricing is competitive with small prints starting from £2.95 and you can choose from a couple of types of plastic in a wide range of colours including glow in the dark blue. However, the main reason for choosing this company – so long as you live in London – is the walk-in shop at the Elephant & Castle shopping centre.
The benefit of using a retail store in preference to a web-based service is marginal for photographic prints, unless you're in a real hurry. With 3D printing, the advantage of being able to chat through your requirements face-to-face before placing your order is not to be under-estimated. In addition, the shop sells parts for those intent on building the RepRap as well as offering courses on building it. Plus, there are plans to offer fully built RepRap printers in the near future.