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.
I had known about “rapid prototyping” for a while, which is what 3D printing was called for many years. My mind was blown though when I discovered Shapeways and saw how inexpensive 3D printing had become in 2012. Part of the reason I got into Celtic jewelry design is because I wanted to learn about 3D printing.
The hype around 3D printing was sky high as recently as a year ago. Amazing new products that could only be made with 3D printing were everywhere. Clothing designs made with 3D printing were in fashion shows. People were 3D printing food. 3D printing stocks were sky high. It seemed like the potential for this technology was limitless. Since then the stocks have tanked and enthusiasm has waned. What happened?
Nothing has really changed. The hype just got way ahead of the technology. 3D printing is still going to change the world eventually. It still may be many decades before all of us have a 3D printer in our house that we use to print products rather than buying them in a physical store or online retailer. Hobbyists and tinkerers will largely be the ones still buying them for personal use for a while.
This is normal for a new technology. Look at another technology that everyone was supposed to have in their home: personal computers. Computers existed in the 1960s. It wasn’t until the 1970s that the very first mass produced PC models were introduced. The only people using them at that time though were some businesses and hobbyists. I can remember way back to the 1980s when they started to spread a bit. Even then, this was still a fairly “early adoption” stage. It wasn’t until really the advent of the internet that really made them take off. The internet was the killer application that made everyone that didn’t already own one, want to buy one. The entire cycle took 30 to 40 years to run its course.
3D printing is basically in that early stage that PCs were in the 1970s or maybe early 1980s. It could easily be another 10 or 20 years before everyone decides that they want one. Like the PC, some product may come along that can only be made with a 3D printer that everyone might suddenly want. Time will tell.
This article talks about the “hype cycle” around new technologies like this. We are in the trough after the big peak on the graph. Ahead is slow and steady growth for many years to come.
The Impact on Manufacturing Will Be Enormous
In the meantime, 3D printing is going to make a bigger and more immediate impact in manufacturing. 3D printing has already been used for years by industry just to make mock-ups or prototypes of new products. 3D printers are finally reaching the stage where the quality is good enough to make products right out of the printer.
There are tons and tons of industries just drooling over 3D printing (or if they aren’t, they should be). The reason is because 3D printing is potentially the leanest of any manufacturing process to ever exist. If you can create a product with 3D printing then there is hardly any inventory. Everything can be made to order, and go from raw material directly to finished product in one step. This is just an example to illustrate what I’m talking about:
The process that 3D printing seems to be replacing fairly often is casting. Casting metals or plastics is a pretty efficient and inexpensive process today, but it has drawbacks. Casting only makes sense if you are going to produce big quantities of identical products, because you have to buy a mold. Molds can vary in price. In cases where molds are expensive, you need to buy large quantities to spread the cost of the mold over a large number of products. Then, because you just mass produced a large number of products, you have to carry all that inventory. Also in the flowchart I put a couple secondary operations. It is unusual for cast products to come directly out of the mold and not require some kind of secondary operation. And if you made 1,000 items in the casting step, now 1,000 items are waiting in the queue to go through the next step in the process.
3D printing is kind of the Holy Grail of lean manufacturing. It eliminates the need for a mold. So there is no need to buy a huge quantity of products to offset the cost of the mold. You can now make items one at a time, made to order. There is no more inventory to carry. The entire goal of lean manufacturing is to eliminate inventory at every step in the process. Inventory is money, and therefore waste. Today a lot of 3D printed products require secondary processes that I did not show. However, the need for secondary operations will be reduced as 3D printing quality improves. Also, since you are only making one piece at a time, at most there will be one piece waiting in the queue at that secondary operation, not 1,000.
Another thing that 3D printing provides is infinite customization. Instead of using a mold to make 1,000 identical products, you could use a 3D printer to make 1,000 unique products tailored specifically to each customer’s wants or needs. Here is one example. Athletic shoe behemoth Nike is looking at using 3D printing to make custom cushioning in their shoes:
Nike (NYSE:NKE) announced last week at its investor day that it’s turbocharging its 3D-printing efforts. The athletic shoe and apparel behemoth has been increasingly embracing the innovative technology for prototyping. However, several comments from top management suggest that the company intends to use 3D printing for general manufacturing of new cushioning systems, and for the production of custom cushioning systems tailored to an individual’s needs.
Large-scale manufacturing is surely a ways off, but the customized cushions could be a nearer-term goal. Said Chief Operating Officer Eric Sprunk: “Very recently, we’ve made a series of design and manufacturing discoveries with 3D printing that we believe will allow us to deliver a completely new, personal, performance cushioning system.”
Warehouses Will Shrink And Possibly Become Obsolete
When 3D printing becomes better at making final products, then the need for storing huge amounts of products in warehouses will diminish. Imagine Amazon in the distant future. Instead of needing to have enormous warehouses full of products with elaborate storage and retrieval systems, they could in theory just have several 3D printers that make products to order. Perhaps they would need to store the raw materials required for the 3D printing process, but this is much, much simpler (and far cheaper) than storing thousands and thousands of finished products.
The other application that could be impacted greatly is the service parts industry for cars, tractors, and other equipment. Let’s just look at cars. Right now, automotive companies have to store service parts in a warehouse. They could sit there for years, just waiting for someone that needs one to order one. This is very expensive. For a new part, they don’t know exactly how many are going to sell, so they have to make an educated guess at how many to stock. They also have to decide how many years they are going to store them. If you happen to own an older car, you may have a really hard time finding certain parts, because they only decided to store the parts for 10 years after the model went out of production, for example.
If you could use a 3D printer to make service parts to order, all these problems are eliminated. No need to guess how many parts to store because they will all be made to order. No need to decide how many years to store the parts for, because the file will reside on a hard drive, ready to be made by a 3D printer at any time, even decades from now. If you own an old car then you would not have a problem obtaining the parts you need. Jay Leno owns a 3D printer that he uses to make parts for his antique car collection. There’s no reason this idea couldn’t be replicated on a larger scale.
People who are bearish on 3D printing stocks may want to re-think their position (full disclosure: I own a few shares of 3D Systems Stock and Stratasys stock). Even if every house doesn’t own a 3D printer someday, they will still be widely used by industry. The most important research going on right now isn’t necessarily in making 3D printers faster and better (although that effort will never really end). The important research is in materials technology, and coming up with new materials that 3D printers can use to make products faster, sturdier, and more attractive. The materials used by 3D printers will likely be proprietary. Whichever company can come up with the best materials will likely win. A 3D printing company may sell only one 3D printer to a company like Nike, but they will be providing the material that the printer needs to make those shoe cushions for many years to come.
3D printing is here to stay. It’s just going to take a bit longer for it’s full impact to be felt to individuals. Smart manufacturing companies should be trying to figure out how to incorporate this powerful technology right now.
I try to stay to keep up with the developments going on in 3D printing. There is so much going on it’s hard to keep track. Some time last year I had read about a new 3D printing service coming out called Matter.io. I signed up for their email list and then forgot about it. In November I finally got an email from them. It was an invitation to try out the service. They were looking for small batch jewelry makers to try out their service on a “beta” basis.
The first thing they suggested that I try was this pricing estimator. I tried the version where you don’t have to upload a model or create an account. The estimate is based on the size and weight you enter. I put in the estimated size and weight of one of my models. The estimate that came back was quite high compared to what I get from other services. So I emailed them and asked about it. They responded quickly. They were surprised that I felt the price was high, and said their pricing should be in-line with competition. So I tried again. This time I then created an account and uploaded one of my models to get a more accurate estimate. This time the price was much more in line expectations.
I started looking at the materials they offer. They offer bronze, sterling silver, yellow brass and white brass. They offer several secondary finishes to these as well: matte finish, tumble finish, or mirror polish finish. Finally, you can also have these metals treated or plated at the end. The options there are oxidation, Rhodium-plated, Black Rhodium, Gold-plated or Rose-gold plated. Some of these options are very intriguing, and ones I haven’t seen elsewhere.
I ordered my Celtic Knot Leaf Pendant model in the white brass material. My customers normally prefer the white- or silver-colored metals better than the gold-colored. I ordered it in the “mirror-polished” finish. You can see the result in the picture. At the time of ordering, you also have the option of getting a volume discount. If you order 10 pieces, you can save 16% per item. If you go up to just 14 pieces, you could save 20% per piece. It goes up from there. This is a very nice feature. I’m not quite ready to order in large quantities yet. Someday!
I placed my order on December 16. The confirmation email said I would get my shipment by December 26! This was incredibly fast, especially during the holiday season. I’d have been surprised if they had met that date (they didn’t – more on that later). I got an email on the 17th that my design had been approved. They must do some kind of manual model check to review printability.
Matter.io was unable to meet the December 26 delivery date, which was no surprise. I got an email on January 2 apologizing for the delay and offering 10% off my next order. They said the new estimated delivery date was January 8th. Unfortunately, they were not able to meet this date either. Now I was starting to get a bit nervous. I wondered if there was a problem with my model. I emailed them on January 13 but did not get a response. Finally, I got an automated email on January 16 that my order had shipped! It finally arrived today, January 23. In all, it took 5 weeks from the time I placed my order to the time it shipped. This is not bad at all for a service in Beta testing, and for a brass object with secondary operations done to it (polishing). Until they work out the kinks and get their processes done faster, they should simply adjust their estimated ship date a bit.
Another feature they offer which I have not yet explored is design services. They have a feature where you can upload pictures of an object, and they will create a model from that. You need to take four pictures – a front view, side view, back view and an isometric view. The object has to be on a white background, so it can’t just be anything. This may be something I have to try out in the future.
Overall I am very happy with the way the pendant turned out. This is definitely a service I will give serious consideration in the future for my orders.
In summary, here are the things which makes Matter.io a bit unique from other services:
Volume discounts. This could be a a game-changer.
Unique materials and finishes. I have not seen some of these offered by other 3D printing services. Two examples are Rhodium plating and white brass.
Create a model from pictures. You don’t need to know how to use CAD to create a 3D printable object.
Recently I was interviewed by Jessica Hedstrom who is starting a new web site called Printing Everyday. She is interviewing a number of Shpaeways shop owners and others using 3D printing to teach people about 3D printing and how it is used. It was a real pleasure talking with Jessica, and I wish her luck in starting up her new site.
It’s fun to look back at where we came from once in a while. I started designing for 3D printing in the Summer of 2012. It took me several months to learn the 3D modeling software. Then it took me another several months to learn the limitations of 3D printing. A ton of my early designs were rejected by Shapeways as “unprintable”. Then some of my others that were printable just didn’t quite turn out as I had hoped. After about a year of learning and trial and error I was finally turning out some decent designs. It was during the summer of 2013 that I did a lot of my early designs. I only got serious about selling these designs in the Fall of 2013. I did good enough last Fall that I decided to stick with it in 2014. So 2014 has really only been my first full year of selling my designs. Thanks to all of you for making it a very fun and successful year! Here are some highlights from the year: