3D printing has experienced a surge in popularity over the past few years. What’s also known as desktop fabrication or additive manufacturing, 3D printing allows consumers to take their three-dimensional designs and create physical, malleable objects that usually serve as a prototype for a much larger idea. As many consumers might expect, 3D printing is often a commercial or industrial application and the footprint for these peripherals doesn’t usually suit a home environment (though this isn’t necessarily the case as small scale 3D printers do exist for home users; the end results are obviously much smaller than their commercial counterparts though). So, where does this leave consumers who want to have their 3D designs printed? Online printers.
What’s Involved in Online 3D Printing?
As with anything of this nature, it all begins with a design. Users can freely acquire 3D models on the Internet, hire a designer to create a bespoke design, or go about learning about three-dimensional modelling themselves. However, the latter option is not recommended for those who are strapped for time. 3D modelling is a highly complex skill that requires quite a bit of technical mastery. That’s not to say it’s impossible to learn how to construct 3D models, but those who are in a rush won’t find themselves making accurate, printable models that can be used with online printers. If they do manage to have something printed, then it’ll generally be prone to failure or end up as a complete mess of an item. It’s probably best to avoid losses and costs when it comes to this!
When hiring a designer or downloading a 3D model, users will end up with a .STL file. This is known as Standard Tessellation Language, which contains the framework or language for 3D models to exist on computers. This is the most commonly used file type for 3D models because of its cross compatibility with the majority of design applications though it’s by no means the only one out there. However, the majority of designers will choose to use this file format to ensure their designs will be readable by online 3D printing services.
.STL files are by no means small. Depending on the complexity of the design, the largest scale 3D designs can easily exceed 50 GB. These would understandably be rare for smaller designs, such as figurines and jewelry, which usually amount to no more than a few megabytes. Most online printers impose file size restrictions, such as Shapeways which limits files to 64 MB or 1 million polygons. This is usually more than enough for general purpose designs that most consumers will demand.
So, now that you have your .STL file, what’s next? The next step is relatively intuitive. Most of the 3D online printers will have blatantly obvious upload functions marked on their websites. This allows users to click on their design files and queue them in the printer’s job line. In the case of multiple linking .STL files for slightly more advanced designs, it’s recommended that users create a .zip archive with each of their files bundled together. This is supported by default on Windows 7 and above and is done by highlighting the associated files, right clicking, and going to send to> compressed folder. This folder should now be selected as the file to upload to a printer rather than any individual file.
Websites that Print 3D Designs
It’s important for consumers to remember that 3D printing is rapidly evolving and technologies change on a regular basis. Consumers should never underestimate the importance of their own graft and research in order to keep up with the latest trends. However, the following websites should definitely be your initial ports of call when it comes to printing 3D designs:
Receiving over 40,000 unique hits per day, Shapeways has been the undisputed leader in 3D printing since its launch in mid-2011. The business itself is worth an estimated $5 Million USD, which is partly thanks to the sheer volume of customers that they attract. It’s unlikely that this business is going to disappear anytime soon, so Shapeways would definitely be a great first stop for those seeking a 3D printing service.
Coming in a close second is Ponoko. However, it becomes quite apparent what kind of market lead Shapeways holds as Ponoko attracts an estimated 10,354 unique visitors per day. Its net worth is also considerably less and amounts to just shy of $1.3 Million USD. What sets this business apart is its designer. Unlike other applications, consumers can design their 3D printer files directly from within their web browser, which are then validated and ensured to print by a business representative prior to printing. This ensures consumers will get exactly what they’re after the first time around.
Following closely behind Ponoko is Sculpteo. This business is a newcomer to the scene by comparison, but is already hotly trailing Ponoko in terms of its average unique hits per day (9,300) and net worth ($1.1 Million USD). Sculpteo also provides a platform for designers to sell their wares directly to consumers through it, which should increase profits substantially as objects will be made to order rather than being stockpiled.
These are by no means the only online 3D printers in existence, but are three of the top names to consider. Of course, it is always best to do your own research to ensure your findings are in line with these suggested printers. There’s no substitute for your own discoveries!