Now we can 3D Pring chocolate bars, human tissue, spare parts, prototypes, just about anything you can think of using 3-D printers. Lose a button on your jacket? Need a new pair of glasses? No problem. Just print one up. There are many 3D Printing Videos which show the capabilities of the technology and ways makers and firms are using it.
And now, as we progress in 2013, there’s an easier way to explore this brave new world: online 3-D printing services. These websites are similar to photo services like Shutterfly, except instead of printing pictures that users upload, they print objects. The quality of their products can be a lot better than anything a home machine can produce, and they offer a broader choice of materials, including glazed ceramic, sandstone, brass, silver and titanium. Below, three ways to get your very own souvenir from the future.
SHOP Certain sections of the 3-D printing sites Cubify ( cubify.com ), i.materialise ( i.materialise.com ) and Shapeways ( shapeways.com ) are like online bazaars of print-on-demand products. There, you can purchase objects that others have designed and uploaded. Think of it as Etsy without the yarn.
The breadth of products is vast. Although there are a lot of over-engineered smartphone cases and Dr. Who jewelry to sift through, you’ll also find wares that are beautiful, practical and genuinely unique.
As mentioned in a popular 3D Printing Book, the sites are also a good source for hard-to-find replacement parts. Search for “replacement” on Shapeways, and you’ll find connecting pegs for Thomas & Friends train sets, an array of camera-lens caps, even parts for a jet ski. Susan Parker, an engineer in London, created a replacement latch for her Panasonic breadmaker, thereby saving the appliance from the trash heap. In the 18 months since she uploaded her design, more than 200 people have ordered one, she said.
CUSTOMIZE If you want to create your own 3-D printed product, but don’t have any design chops, fear not. A number of sites let you tweak products exactly to your liking—or likeness.
On i.materialise, you can make a lampshade with up to 140 characters of text embossed on the inside or exterior. On Shapeways, creating a 3-D printed ring is as simple as uploading a 2-D pattern, entering your ring size and selecting a material, like 22-karat-gold-plated brass.
Bakers who want to move beyond the traditional cookie-cutter shapes should check out Cookie Caster ( cookiecaster.com ). This free online tool lets you draw a shape that you can have printed as a cookie cutter on Shapeways and most other 3-D printing services.
And if you want to get really personal, let Cubify create a 6-inch-tall, full-color figurine with your face on it. Upload your photo to put your mug on an array of 3-D-printable characters (blushing bride, surfer dude or even a Formula 1 driver).
DESIGN Virtually all 3-D-printed objects start with what’s known as a CAD file (short for Computer-Aided Design), which is usually created using fairly complicated drafting software intended for architects, engineers and animators.
But you don’t have to get down and dirty with CAD. Plenty of apps make the process as simple as dragging and dropping. Most of us have no desire to learn CAD at all.
Tinkercad ( tinkercad.com ) a simple browser-based design tool, starts you off with a helpful tutorial. It has you connect simple shapes—like a sphere and cylinder—to make new ones. Want to create a rudimentary house? Just place a pyramid on top of a box.
123D Design ( 123dapp.com ) is a free, beginner-friendly design app for browsers, iPads, Macs and PCs. It’s most fun to use on a tablet—the iPad’s touchscreen makes designing in three dimensions feel more intuitive.
If you’re looking for the most basic option, try Cubify Draw for iOS. This dead-simple app lets you draw a single-line sketch with your finger and turn that into a 3-D-printed form with one tap. Magic, indeed. And easy enough for a child to do it.