New York-based Shapeways began life as an incubator project and has high-profile, demanding backers, which helps explain how well thought-out the service is, soup to nuts. Everything from the Web interface, print options, delivery and print quality to customer service interactions is exemplary. When I did run into an issue, the company was attentive and responsive, and satisfied me without issue.
I tested Shapeways by selecting an iPhone case from its catalog of products by third-party designers and by uploading a popular .STL 3D model file of an owl statue that I found on the free design-repository thingiverse.com.
iPhone case: $14.44
Owl print: $29.99
To pick an iPhone case, I clicked the Accessories dropdown menu at the top of the home page. I then browsed and found iPhone 5 Case - Cell by user shengchiehchang, a nylon plastic version. The product page shows color options (I chose red), and dimensions, as well as comments from other users.
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I then clicked the Create link on the home page to upload my owl statue file. Within a dozen or so seconds my model had loaded up, with a display showing its dimensions, and then an exhaustive list of printing material options, ranging from simple resin to precious metals.
Helpfully, a real-time grid shows which materials your model is available in, and updates as you switch sizes (which can involve big price swings). About 5 minutes after I uploaded my model, an email arrived confirming that it had been fully scanned and vetted as being printable.
Shapeways' huge range of material options takes 3D printing to another level. It offers the standard, and perfectly nice, semi-flexible plastic in a dozen colors. In addition, Shapeways has a range of options in acrylic, ceramic, sandstone, wax, stainless steel and other metals, from brass to platinum. My 2-inch-tall owl, in solid platinum, would've rung in it at nearly $35,000, plus taxes. Instead, I opted for the more-affordable plain-white plastic.
Shapeways provides an extensive and well-organized FAQ for both creating and printing models, as well as tutorials, a detailed troubleshooting guide and even an Ask an Engineer archive of weekly Hangouts. There, Shapeways employees field questions. There's also a fanatically enthusiastic fan base ready to answer questions in the forums.
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The order I placed on June 16 arrived on June 24, a few days earlier than was estimated. The company has a factory in New York City; yet, for whatever reason, my items shipped from Shapeways' Netherlands facility (which, incidentally, added a week to the process). Both items arrived in a single box.
Quality of finished product
The iPhone case was nicely pliable and has a subtle, soft, grippy texture. But the case was a tad too small. It took a lot of effort to get it on one iPhone 5, and part of it snapped another time we tried.
I wrote to Shapeways, and customer support promptly replied, attributing the problem to a defective design, and issued me a refund. While I would have preferred a working iPhone case, this was likely an error by the third-party designer in the market. Shapeways' attention to service would keep me as a loyal customer.
One of my favorite prints from all of the services I tried, the owl has crisp, precisely hollowed-out eyes, and sharp detail around each of the feathers and especially in the claws. Upon very close inspection, I saw a bit of fuzziness on the surface of the feathers, but this isn't easily visible.
Whether you're new to the 3D game or an experienced maker, Shapeways is an all-around winner with an easy to understand interface, loads of printing options and price points, excellent resources for learning the process, and responsive customer service in case things go awry.
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