3D printers are amazing tools that let you make almost any kind of physical object you can think of (or at least design in a 3D modeling program). The one downside? They’re stupidly expensive, and you probably can’t justify the cost. Fortunately, you don’t need to own one to print your own stuff—there are many services that’ll do it for you.
There are plenty of reasons you might want to 3D print something, but few that justify owning one. You could print anything from a custom GPS mount for your bike to Dungeons & Dragons miniatures to wearable armor for your next Star Wars cosplay. Unless you’ll be printing a ton of stuff on the regular, though, none of them are worth the hundreds you’d need to spend for a 3D printer (or the thousands you’d spend on a really good one).
To help people like you who want to print stuff but don’t want to shell out a ton of money for the privilege, services like Shapeways, Kraftwurx, Ponoko, and 3D Hubs have made 3D printing accessible even if you don’t own your printer. Some offer stores of 3D models that you can print directly, or you can upload models you made yourself or found online. Each service is a little different, so we’ll go through each one and highlight the strengths and weaknesses of each one.
Shapeways Lets You Shop for 3D Prints in a Ton of Materials, or Upload Your Own
Shapeways is one of the biggest and most versatile 3D print shops around. The company has a substantial community of 3D modelers and designers that upload their creations for anyone to buy. You can head to the Shapways Shop to find jewelry, phone cases, Raspberry Pi parts, tabletop game accessories, and tons more. The models you find there are designed to print without problems, and each model is checked by Shapeways employees to make sure they’re structurally sound. Printable 3D models need to be made with extra care to ensure that the pieces are thick enough to not break, and avoid a host of other problems that most of us won’t think about. Some models like keychains and pendants are even customizable, so you can add your name or personal message.
You can also get prints in a variety of materials. If you’ve ever seen something that was 3D printed, it was probably plastic. Shapeways offers prints in steel, bronze, brass, silver, gold, wax, porcelain, aluminum, and several types of plastic. Not every model is available in every kind of material, of course. Some models will print fine in plastic, but would fall apart if made in metal or porcelain. Still, it’s awesome to get a set of stainless steel gaming dice without buying a printer.
3D prints from Shapeways are made-to-order. Since the company uses industrial-grade printers that can make hundreds of models at once, prices are relatively low for what you’re getting. For simple, plastic prints, you can spend as little as $10 for basic figurines. Even some metal jewelry or trinkets can be as low as $25, though metal is obviously more costly than plastic. In general, the bigger the print, the more expensive it will be. However, you’ll have to go for something pretty big to rival the cost of buying a 3D printer that can print in a comparable quality.
If you can’t find a model for something you want on Shapeways, you can upload your own. However, things get trickier when you do this. For example, you can find 3D models on sites like TurboSquid, but those aren’t necessarily going to be designed for printing. Sites like Thingiverse offer models designed for 3D printing, but they don’t undergo testing for printability. You may still find that a design you uploaded has walls that are too thin, or won’t print properly. That’s fine if you’re used to 3D modeling yourself, but for amateurs, you may run into problems. To help deal with this problem, Shapeways offers a directory where you can hire a designer. Obviously, this will be more costly than finding a ready-made print, but if you really need a professional’s opinion, you can find one in Shapeways’ community.
Speaking of which, Shapeways’ primary advantage over other services…