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Just as the field of 3D printers seems to grow by the day, so does the number of 3D printing service providers. There is a provider that will transform your ideas into a physical object, be it made from ABS or gold-plated brass. Which one is right for you? It depends on what your needs are.

Some of the big service providers like Shapeways and i.Materialise try to be all things to all people by offering services and features designed to appeal to a wide class of users. But as the 3D service provider industry grows so does market differentiation. Here are five makers, each with different reasons for using 3D printing services.

Design Services

shoe2Schoenen-studenten-178-bewerkt

Belgian fashion student (and Ph.D. candidate in physics) Katrien Herdewyn is in her third year of school at the Academy of Fine Arts Sint-Niklaas (SASK). One of her assignments this year was to design a line of shoes using “now technology.” For Herdewyn 3D printing was the natural choice.

3DPrintingSIP Widget Final Printing Without a 3D Printer

“You can make things you couldn’t do with any other material,” she says.

Trouble was she had very little experience with CAD. i.Materialise, a Belgian 3D service provider, offers design services to help customers like Herdewyn translate their ideas into printable objects. And many of their designers speak Dutch, Herdewyn’s language of choice.

SIP06-Herdewyn-shoe-sketch

Herdewyn shared sketches of her shoes with a designer and they emailed back and forth for several weeks until one day her shoes arrived in the mail.

“It was very exciting,” she says. “The box was very big, but very light. I was afraid it was going to come out with very tiny shoes.”

Instead the shoes were exactly what she wanted. No adjustments necessary.

shoes Printing Without a 3D Printer

She was insistent that the shoes had to be wearable, not something that all haute couture shoes achieve. She says the flexible, polyamide construction and open-air design make them quite functional as footwear.

“They survived a fashion show,” she says.

Now that she’s got one round of 3D design under her belt, she’s thinking of working with a 3D designer again to create her final collection of shoes next year.

Quality

Outsourcing through Shapeways allows Wayne Loosey to get the quality necessary to make ModiBots Pieces snap together properly.

Outsourcing through Shapeways allows Wayne Loosey to get the quality necessary to make ModiBots Pieces snap together properly.

Wayne Losey, co-founder of Dynamo Development Labs and creator of ModiBots, is a former toy designer for Hasbro who started ModiBots to give kids and kid-like adults access to more than 400 interlocking 3D printed parts that allow them to create the kind of toys they want. It’s the antithesis of an off-the-shelf product and perfect for the kind of on-demand manufacturing that 3D printing services allow.

While owning and maintaining a printer able to print out his SLS polyamide parts is cost-prohibitive, one of his chief reasons for outsourcing his prints is the quality he gets. ModiBots join together with interlocking ball and sockets and that means the material must have a high degree of tolerance and flexibility. Outsourcing his work (he says he uses Shapeways because of their prices and good customer service) allows him to get the kind of quality necessary to make the toys snap together properly.

“SLS is the perfect material,” he says. “It’s a really good fit.”

After settling on SLS, he now designs his parts with the material in mind — the material now drives the design as much as the design has driven the material.

Volume

Nervous System's complex organic designs, such as the leaf structure-inspired Orbicular lamp, wouldn't be possible with traditional molding technology.

Nervous System’s complex organic designs, such as the leaf structure-inspired Orbicular lamp, wouldn’t be possible with traditional molding technology.

Using a 3D service provider for a high-volume production run is not the norm. Small runs of made-to-order items that eliminate the need for inventory are one of the benefits of 3D printing. But as the public becomes familiar and interested in 3D designs, demand and therefore print volume will go up. Case in point: Nervous System.

Nervous System makes distinctive jewelry, lamps, and other home accessories. The organic and modern designs are complex and wouldn’t be possible with traditional molding technology. Instead they use Shapeways to print in SLS, wax, and steel.

Jessica Rosecrantz, creative director and co-founder of Nervous System, says her primary reason for using a service provider is the access to high-end materials, printing in volume is another. As of this spring, the company had sold more than 30,000 pieces of 3D printed jewelry since they opened shop in 2009. Many of those items were printed one at a time and on-demand, but with 60% of their profits coming from wholesale, a lot is printed in bulk and ordered in quantities as large as 300.

SIP06-Nervous_Rhizome_Lamp

And yet the company strives to keep inventory for even the most popular items down to 100 items or less.

“We’re a small business [and] even if our designs were moldable, we don’t have the finances or inclination to invest in a production run,” says Rosecrantz. “We like the flexibility of 3D printing. We currently make hundreds of different designs and are constantly designing more. There’s no startup cost to make any of them and no risk to put them out there.”

Type of material

Sean Cusack's wolf head is made from several pieces of SLS printed steel TIG brazed together.

Sean Cusack’s wolf head is made from several pieces of SLS printed steel TIG brazed together.

Sean Cusack owns Sheet Metal Alchemist, a San Francisco-based company that does technical installation artwork, metalworking for furniture, architecture, sculpture, and interactive electronics. He says he uses 3D printing services primarily for the high-performance materials available and the ease of use.

“Pretty much all extruder-based technologies produce a surface finish which is unacceptable for any kind of final product that our company would make,” he says.

He wants to make products out of materials that simply can’t be made with a home- or shop-based printer — at least not one that most people could afford.

Cusack's wolf head up close.

Cusack’s wolf head up close.

“The ‘hot glue gun’ look of melted PLA or ABS is not something that people are willing to pay big bucks for in a final product. Additionally, even as a prototyping platform, we run into trouble using extruder-based technologies because of the lack of support material present in the process. This means we are forced to design a part specifically for 3D printing which isn’t very useful to us down the road.

“SLS, DMLS, and Polyjet technologies have served us well in certain situations. SLS and DMLS for producing metal and metal-ish parts with crazy geometries, without having to worry about where we will add filler material. We’ve actually printed a ~2x scale wolf head out of several pieces of SLS printed steel, and TIG brazed them together to make the full piece. It was pretty cool, but really expensive.

“From what I have been seeing from the installation-art realm, it looks like consumer 3D printers are primarily used to make small knickknacks or tchotchkes that end up as paper weights or pen holders. I’m excited to see the day when we can all afford our own SLS, DMLS, or Polyjet printers — some big gates will swing open, and some amazing things will be made!”

No 3D printer

Utilizing a 3D service provider because you don’t have a printer at home or in the shop is a pretty basic reason. But Steve Hoefer — Maker, inventor, video documentarian, and MAKE contributing writer — says he’s got enough to keep him busy and he doesn’t actually want a printer of his own. At least not at this stage of the industry. He says fiddling with a printer would take time away from his many hobbies.

“Right now owning a consumer-level 3D printer is like car ownership in the 19th century,” he says. “Owning one is a hobby all by itself. Owners can spend as much time maintaining the machine as operating it. You can’t use one without knowing complete details of how it works. Each machine behaves a little differently so there’s no one guide that will help you achieve mastery. And even when everything is working right, prints still go wrong. And of course that’s exactly what makes them great machines for makers!”

Rather than start a new hobby, he wants a 3D printing service to support his other hobbies.

“When I need a part I don’t need to spend time testing the best way to avoid print warping or try several fill patterns and slicing algorithms to see which gives the best results,” he says. “One answer would be to buy a professional level 3D printer, but they still run around $10,000 which is a little steep. The other answer is to use a service bureau like Shapeways or Ponoko. Time to get a finished part is much slower, but I don’t have to spend any time dealing with printers, bad prints, or putting a nice finish on a print. They take care of all of that, and have more experience doing it than I could ever get.”

The biggest downside, he says, is that iteration can be slow and expensive. Those 1-millimeter adjustments take time.

“So in short I think 3D printing is fantastic, and I’m glad to see it spread so widely. But right now it doesn’t provide what I need, which is precision plastic bits with no hassle.”

Cost comparison

SIP06-Ultimaker2_-make-robotWhat does sending off a design to a service provider cost? It depends on the material, of course, but also what provider you use. Here’s a quick print comparison for Makey, MAKE’s robot mascot, in various materials from five of the top service providers. The model stands about 2 inches tall.

Shapeways

  • White polyamide: $44.53
  • Glazed ceramic: $19.31
  • Alumide: $74.08
  • Gold plated glossy: $340.78

i.Materialize

  • White polyamide: $16.59
  • Gloss white ceramic: $19.30
  • Alumide: $19.91
  • Brass: $648.47

Ponoko

  • White polyamide: $101.01
  • Glazed white ceramic: $46.45
  • Stainless steel: $598.54
  • Gold plate: $605.54

Sculpteo

  • White polyamide: $69.42
  • White glossy ceramic: $26.51
  • Alumide: $83.29
  • Stainless steel mirror finish: $2,813.22

Kraftwurx

  • White polyamide: $113.59
  • Fire glazed ceramic: $28.96
  • Cast stainless steel: $2,660.90
  • 10K gold: $17,052.80 (with gold selling for $1,400 an ounce a hollow or “shelled” print would be cheaper.

Ultimate Guide to 3D Printing 2014This article first appeared in MAKE’s Ultimate Guide to 3D Printing 2014, page 40. Check out the full issue for more!

Stett Holbrook

Stett Holbrook is editor of the Bohemian, an alternative weekly in Santa Rosa, California. He is a former senior editor at Maker Media.

He is also the co-creator of Food Forward, a documentary TV series for PBS about the innovators and pioneers changing our food system.


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