Make: 3D Printing (2014)
Part V. Services
Chapter 10. 3D Printing Without a Printer
How and why to use 3D printing services instead of a desktop machine.
I’m incredibly lucky to have a job that even two years ago I never would have imagined could exist. I create 3D-printed jewelry and own a business, Wearable Planter, all thanks to tools and technology that have only been available for a few years.
When I studied industrial design at Georgia Tech from 2006–2010, 3D printing wasn’t a tool we used frequently. We learned how to use 3D design programs to mock up our projects, but we typically used the resulting 3D files for product rendering. Of course we had access to a 3D printer, but few people knew how to use it, and the models it made were fragile and expensive.
It wasn’t until my last semester of college that I worked on a project that required 3D printing. I handed the flash drive with my files to the lab assistant, thinking it would never work, and then watched with amazement as my jewelry piece was printed layer by layer exactly as I had intended.
Most people with the desire to imagine and prototype a new product don’t have immediate access to a professional-quality 3D printer. The good news is that access to this technology is increasing at an unprecedented rate.
When I design a new product or piece of jewelry, I begin by creating sketches of what it will look like. This part of the process often takes the longest, as I am deciding on the form and feel of the object. I then create a 3D model in SolidWorks, Rhino, or whichever program I feel will allow me the most creativity with my knowledge of the software. After I’m done creating, I export the file for printing, and I run checks with a program like Netfabb Studio to make sure it’s suitable for printing.
I then use 3D printing services like Shapeways and Ponoko—both to prototype and to create my final products.
When I use these services, I have to wait two weeks or longer to see how my print turned out. That can seem like a long time, but it affords you a new perspective when you’re forced to step away from your project momentarily. Sometimes when I get my first print back it’s exactly what I was expecting, but often I see changes that need to be made, whether in material choice or wall thicknesses or other details.
The fantastic thing about using 3D printing services is that I’m able to run a business with tools that these companies have created—to experiment with different materials and new products inexpensively and with little overhead. In the past, creating a prototype could be costly, and production of even a limited run of items could be thousands of dollars. Also, I’m able to keep a limited inventory on hand because I can restock it quickly. This beats previous business models where I might have needed to order a cargo container full of pieces from overseas.
There are more advantages to using 3D printing services than just running a business. We’re coming into a new era where mass customization is driving the production of new objects. Access to these technologies is now open to everyone, from beginners making character models with Minecraft to doctors making personalized prosthetics.
PORTABLE GREENERY 3D-PRINTED MINI POTS FROM WEARABLE PLANTER
For example, if you’d like to create your own phone case or dishware, but don’t have any 3D modeling experience, you can use one of the many “creator” programs to make your own customized item. Sculpteo and the Society for Printable Geography recently released an app to create iPhone cases with the terrain of your favorite place. Shapeways lets you create a sake set by playing around with the shape of curves. These apps let you create your own unique manufactured item with minimal cost.
These companies have also begun to offer training so you can learn to use their tools. Ponoko offers online training classes, aimed at beginners, that are free to watch and participate in. Shapeways offers Skillshare classes to teach introductory skills as well as more complex, generative software.
Sending your work off to 3D printing services has many advantages over using equally popular desktop 3D printers. You won’t have the up front investment of $300 to $2,000, and you won’t spend time tinkering with settings and hardware. You also can create more complex and higher-resolution objects, as desktop 3D printing still doesn’t match the quality of professional machines.
The technology does come with its disadvantages. As this is a rapidly growing field, sometimes the demand is greater than the capabilities of these companies, and unexpected delays in lead times arise. The quality of materials isn’t always as good as a similar mass-produced piece; 3D-printed plastic parts, for example, can be more fragile than a similar injection-molded piece. And, importantly, not all of these materials are food-safe or suitable for use in toys. While these disadvantages may discourage you, keep in mind that this amazing technology wasn’t available to the public even five years ago, and it’s developing very quickly.
If you have an idea you’d like to bring to life, there’s no better time to see what may come from it. Check out 3D Products Now on the Market to see see how all kinds of makers are taking advantage of 3D printing services, Chapter 11 for where to have them made, and Chapter 9 for a rundown of available materials.
Colleen Jordan is a designer and maker who likes to create objects that make life more interesting. She is the founder of Wearable Planter, and dreams of one day having a pet dinosaur.