Currently, such 3-D printers--in which successive layers of different polymers are sprayed gradually, building up a 3-D object--are very expensive, says Peter Weijmarshausen, CEO of Shapeways, a spinout from Philips Research, in Eindhoven, the Netherlands.
But the new service, launched last week, makes this technology accessible to anyone: budding artists, architects, product designers, and general hobbyists. A small design company might want to make samples to show a client, or an artist might want to make copies of the same sculpture created digitally, for example.
"From a technology viewpoint, Shapeways is not that new," says Weijmarshausen. "Rapid prototyping has been used by the aircraft and automotive industries for years, but now we're making it accessible to consumers."
Users submit their design in digital form, after which Shapeways's software checks it over to ensure that it can be made. Shapeways then passes the design to its production line of polymer printers, delivering the tangible object within 10 days of ordering, with prices typically between $50 and $150.
Making this kind of technology accessible enables people to be more creative, says Hod Lipson, an engineer at Cornell University, in Ithaca, NY, and founder of Fab@Home, a 3-D printing community that helps people learn how to build their own cheap printers. "People might have an idea of something they want to create, but don't have the skills or resources to make it," he says.
The 3-D printers that Shapeways is using are commercially available, made by Israeli firm Objet and Stratsys in Eden Prairie, MN. The company also aims to increase the range of plastic materials that can be printed, and eventually move on to metals and ceramics. But currently, these tend to require laser sintering and thus are considerably more expensive and time consuming, says Weijmarshausen.
Some services, such as Ponoko, based in New Zealand, already let people create customized parts and objects--anything from jewelry to fully functional tables, says Derek Elley, Ponoko's chief strategy officer. But this is achieved using two-dimensional laser cutters; 3-D objects need to be assembled afterward.
According to Weijmarshausen, Shapeways's use of 3-D printers takes this concept further. Objects are built in one piece and can include moving parts. "You can even make a working clock," Weijmarshausen says.
While some 3-D printing services already exist, they are geared to professionals familiar with rendering designs in software suitable for 3-D printers. Shapeways makes this process far easier. Its proprietary software checks customers' designs to ensure that they are printable, and it tweaks them if necessary. "You need to check that the object is a closed volume," Weijmarshausen says. "That's quite hard to do." But precisely how Shapeways does this is proprietary, he says. "If we see a small mistake, we will fix it" and then review the proposed changes with the customer.
Ponoko's Elley says that the average consumer's understanding of design software today is probably comparable to his or her understanding of word-processing software in the 1980s, but he predicts that this will improve.
"What's interesting about these kinds of services is that the cost does not depend upon the complexity of the object," says Cornell's Lipson. In a traditional parts shop, complexity is a significant factor, whereas with 3-D printing, the main cost factor is the amount of material needed, he says.
"Ultimately, I think people will have these printers at home," says Lipson. The idea is that people will pay a nominal amount for blueprints and then download them, in much the same way that music is shared over the Internet now, he says.