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April 2013

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Leading 3D Printing Services

by Glen Emerson Morris

3D printing services are beginning to spring up online and in larger local markets for much the same reason desktop publishing service bureaus sprang up some 25 years ago. Some of these companies have even integrated the online printing service with 3D design applications. The result is that's it's getting easier and easier to create 3D objects and have them printed remotely.

Still, issues remain. One of the problems is that there are many CAD applications on the market and service bureaus can only afford to support a finite level of applications. The situation is somewhat similar to the production issues involved getting a magazine through the printing cycle. Lot's can go wrong in the prepress process for 3D objects especially in the software that creates the slices of the object the printer needs to print. As with a print service bureau, you need to make sure a 3D printing can support the design application you are using.

3D printing services tend to fall into two categories, those with marketplaces and those without. The addition of a marketplace means the vendor also offers an online library of items to be sold or shared with the online community, in effect offering a manufacturing on demand service. 3D marketplaces are going to be major economic force over the next 10 years. Imagine Amazon's print on demand book service but printing real items instead of books.

Company URL Materials 3D Marketplace
Shapeways 12 Types Yes
i.materialize 13 Types Yes
Sculpteo 35 Types Yes
Ponoko 11 Types Yes
ZoomRP 6 Types Yes
Redeye 20 Types No
ProParts 18 Types No

Based in the Netherlands, Shapeways is one of the major players in the 3D marketplace space, and an excellent Website to visit if you want to learn more about, or actually start using, 3D printing. In addition to having x thousand objects available for printing, Shapeways also has an excellent tutorial section with many articles and videos on the process of designing and printing 3D objects, materials issues. They also link to many of the free 3D authoring applications available, in effect becoming a one stop destination for those wanting to create and share 3D objects.

i.materialize is part of a company that is one of the oldest rapid protyping services in Europe. The shots on this page are of their factory floor and their industrial size printers. Lower right is a picture of one of the architectural models the company made. They have a beautifully designed Website that functions as a catalog for the many objects creative artists, inventors and engineers have posted on the site. In many ways the site seems like the usual general online store, but there's no inventory of anything anywhere except raw materials. Some of the unique (and impossible to make any other way) art objects available on i.materialize would be worth giving to premium clients as appreciations.

Sculpteo is a French 3D printing service noted for having a robust 3D object marketplace and one of the largest selections of materials available from any online printing service. They recently won the 2013 CES Best Innovations Award for Best Software and Mobile App, and not surprisingly they've designed their printing service to allow it to be embedded, or integrated, into any Website.

ZoomRP is a self service rapid prototyping service noted for a very short turn around time, as in same day printing and delivery, if needed, if you have the budget. The service is owned by Solid Concepts, one of the major 3D manufacturing services, so the level of support provide can't be beat.

Ponoko is one of the primary innovators behind the 3D marketplace concept. The Ponoko Website let's people use browser based 3D design apps, including Autocad 123D. Based in New Zeland, but with offices in several companies, Ponoko can provide faster turn around time for America based businesses than can services with facilities only in Europe or Asia.

Redeye is one of the oldest players in the 3D rapid prototyping services at an industrial level. Their clients include many of the largest aerospace, manufacturing and engineering firms in the world, and not surprisingly they don't feature a marketplace, or have much of a tutorial section. They're for pros who know what they're doing.

ProParts is the service division of 3D Objects, one of the oldest and largest manufacturers of commercial grade 3D printing systems, and one of the main drivers of innovation in commercial 3D printing. Like Redeye, they server the world's upper levels of clientele.

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