Companies providing 3D printing technology promise to turn any idea — from an action figure concept to a replacement organ—into reality. Home devices that print in plastic are now readily available for less than $1,000. But you can get started for even less by ordering prints from companies that operate industrial-scale printing facilities and ship the finished product to your door. These services may also offer printing in more-exotic materials, including metals and ceramic.
Most 3D printing services let you choose from catalogs of products created by third-party designers, and will also let you upload your own digital design, typically in the .STL file format. You can create designs from scratch in modeling software such as the free Google SketchUp or Autodesk 123D, or download models from community repositories such as thingiverse.com (operated by MakerBot).
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To find out how good these services are, I tried four popular companies: Cubify (which also sells home printers), iMaterialize, Sculpteo and Shapeways. For each service, I printed two projects: I found a roughly similar iPhone 5 case from each service's catalog, and I uploaded a popular Thingiverse design for a 2-inch-tall owl statue to each service.
I assessed each company's prices, ordering process, print options, customer support, delivery and quality. Here's a summary of what I found, with links to the full reviews.
The 3D printing services offer a lot of the same materials, and they have roughly the same overall model of shopping for products or uploading files. Print quality varies a bit among the services. But the real differences become instantly apparent in the ordering process and in terms of customer service and support.
Shapeways was the overall standout, making a generally complex process simple enough for most novices. However, 3D printing services still feel like a hobbyist's pursuit. When buying 3D-printed products, you often sacrifice quality for the novelty of getting a custom-printed piece that looks different from mass-market options. Printing your own designs is essentially a crafting process for those who want to get into the nitty-gritty and don't mind fiddling and troubleshooting.
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