Now that Christmas is over, I can finally get going on this.

I’ve been exploring the world of 3D printing. Basically, it’s taking a 3D generated image developed on the computer, whether that be a 3D figure not unlike the characters seen in 3D animated movies or complex pieces of machinery or even household gadgets, and getting them made in a device not unlike the inkjet printer you have sitting on your desk. In fact, many DIY 3D printer projects start off by ripping apart an inkjet printer. More detailed info on 3D printing can be found here.

Now I’m not always the handiest guy with tools, and some of the pre-made kits floating around are still pretty pricey (and the quality of the printed goods are not always the best) and the professional equipment used for rapid prototyping in manufacturing is even more expensive, but there is some hope. There are a few companied running around the interwebs that will have you upload your files to them and they will take care of the necessary steps involved in making your object a reality. I’ll give a list of places I’ve found at the end of this post, but I’ll be mainly focused on Shapeways, as that’s the place I dealt with.

Shapeways, is a Dutch company, so anyone reading this and is interested in checking them out, please keep that in mind. I had no problems dealing with them and was quite happy with the end results, but your mileage may vary. The company is set up that you upload a file to them (usually in STL format – lots of programs are supporting that format these days) and then you indicate what material you want it printed out in, pay then using Paypal, and then patiently wait for you object to arrive. The company will keep you up to date with how things are going with your file.

I started off with a torus knot I made in Blender. I understand the program fairly well now and it could output the file in STL format. A little word of warning, different materials that your object can be made from have different restrictions. An object made from plastic can have finer detail than an object made in stainless steel for instance. This is all indicated quite clearly once you start exploring Shapeways site. I encourage anyone wanting to give this a try to do the same before starting any project with them. That pretty much goes the same for any of the other companies I have looked at online. Keeping these things in mind, I think I slightly over-engineered the object I made, but dammit Jim, I’m a graphic designer, not an engineer! And since this was to be a Christmas gift to my wife, I wanted to make certain that this piece was going to work.

Once I made my file and was satisfied I had everything the way I needed it to be, I uploaded the file to Shapeways servers, where they automatically check things over to see if there is anything obviously wrong with your file. Then I was off to the races.

A few weeks later, my file arrived via courier. I was quite pleased with the results, but it still needed a few details. I chose the stainless steel material for my torus knot. The Shapeways team makes certain your stainless steel object is as polished as can be, but the 3D printing process on stainless steaal can still leave a bit of a stair-stepping effect on the material, especially on hard to reach details. My torus knot had many of these problems. Had I been thinking, the stainless steel option has some different finishes that can be applied to an object and their antique finish would have had any left over printing artifacts as enhancements rather than detractions, IMHO. So I needed to sand those way as much as possible. And I also needed a chain to complete the jewellery piece that I just made for my wife. Happily I have some stuff laying around from some previous projects to help with that.

So with a little sanding and some fancy knot tying work (the knot I used can be seen the photo and was taught to me by my grandfather to tie the boat up to the dock – the strangest things become more useful later on in life) the piece was complete.

I have many other ideas I want to try out. I’ll keep you posted.

Some other 3D printers:

Ponoko – They mainly specialize in laser cutting, but have a small selction of 3D printed materials. They also have a nice blog to keep you up to date on all things in computer aided manufacturing. They have facilities all over the place, including North America.

i.Materialize – They are from France 🙂 A french company with a few interesting and unique materials to choose from

Sculpteo – Another French company. Limited materials to choose from. Seem expensive.

Offload Studios – Canadian company. Specialize in high-end sculptures. They do not offer any way of figuring out costs ahead of time – they won’t give you a price until someone actually sees you model, all the other places calculate automatically based on volume of material used. I’d imagine this means they are very expensive. This would be the place to go if you were a pro 3D modeller looking to make a proper statue of your work. Their portfolio is impressive.