If you want to learn about 3D printing, try it out or even get a product made, it’s never been easier. There are some limitations but for the most part you can create any shape you can think of with 3D printing, and in some cases even create interlocking parts. This is what makes 3D printing so amazing (and addictive). Here are five ways you can get started:
1. Use a 3D printing service like Shapeways
Shapeways is the best one in my opinion but there are others like Kraftwurx and i.Materialise. All of them are pretty similar. You need to have a CAD model that you upload to their site. Then you can order the model in a number of different materials. Small plastic prints will only run a few dollars plus shipping. Larger prints will cost more. They also offer many metals, including some precious metals. Those can run anywhere from around $10 up into the hundreds of dollars. It all depends on the size and metal that is chosen.
Shapeways also is great because they have a model checker. After you upload a file, it will show you exactly where the problem areas are. This way you can go back and redesign your item without ordering to find out later that they couldn’t make it, or worse, get a print sent to you that did not turn out correctly.
2. Easy Creator Apps
There are several “Easy Creator” apps on Shapeways’ web site and there are others out there as well such as Monstermatic. These allow you to customize or create a 3D model without needing to know any CAD software. The 2D to 3D print creator takes a black and white 2D image and simply extrudes it into a third dimension to give it depth. If you know how to use any kind of graphics software, you can use this app to make it into a 3D print. With that one it will even change the depth of the print depending on the shade of gray. There are several others you can look at here.
3. Hire a designer
If what you are trying to make is too complicated to be made with any of the Easy Creator apps, then you could hire a designer to create the 3D model for you. There are a few ways you could do this. You could post a listing to a freelance hiring service such as Elance or Upwork. These are global services and you can usually find someone who will do the work for a reasonable price. You could also look in the Shapeways forums sections dedicated to linking designers with people who need something designed.
4. Use the Thingiverse
The Thingiverse may already have a 3D model of the item you want. This is a place people can share 3D models. You are free to download them and modify them. However, if you are planning to make a product from it for sale, that is frowned upon. It is meant to be more of a forum for makers and tinkerers. That’s perfect though for someone just starting out.
5. Learn a simple CAD program like Sketchup or OnShape
There are a ton of different free CAD programs out there. I use Blender to create my 3D printed jewelry. That one will take some time to learn, but there are a ton of good Youtube tutorials showing you how to use Blender, which is how I learned. Programs like Sketchup or OnShape are much easier to pick up for a beginner. Search Youtube to find tutorials for those as well. More advanced programs like Blender will have more features than Sketchup but the simple ones work just fine when you are starting out. You can also download files from the Thingiverse, bring them into Sketchup and then modify them.