Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Printing in 3D with Shapeways: a review

I still remember the magic of listening to my first printer (dot-matrix) clattering into life, and of watching as, ever so slowly, blank paper went in and printed words and pictures came out. It was an amazing moment of creation; how far removed from the painstaking effort of calligraphy or hand-sketching!

One ring to bind them...

Today, I opened a small cardboard box full of polystyrene chips and dug out a small packet. Within the packet, a single object, unique in the world. I had last seen it on my computer screen as 3D model which I created with the excellent NURBS modeller MOI (Moment Of Inspiration). This object - a simple wedding band - has been "printed" in 3D using a mixture of stainless steel and bronze, then sintered and finally gold plated, all by a company called Shapeways operating in the Netherlands. The same company offer a variety of other materials, including several plastics and glass. They also offer some lovely metal finishes apart from that pictured above (matt gold). For me, the combination of being able to make an object in a durable metal form, and to have the freedom to create my own one-of-a-kind was extremely exciting.

So, how did it turn out?

The good: very easy to use. Upload your model, wait for them to check it can be printed, then choose a material and await delivery. My order (this ring) turned up well within their specified timeframe.

The not-so-good: 3D printing is still in its infancy (and Shapeways are upfront about this), and, like my old dot matrix printer, the resolution is not yet pin-sharp. The digital model of the above ring is perfectly smooth, and the thin transverse pits are a product of the printing process. I like to think of it as fattura, the Italian term for the imperfections that reveal how a thing was made.

Taking this service for what it is - a very accessible route to rapid manufacturing of small numbers of prototypes, toys, jewelry based on slightly experimental technology - and you will, like me, be a very happy customer.

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