Complex designs: The fabrication possibilities enabled by a new 3-D printing service include objects inside of other objects, such as this figurine, and even objects with working mechanical parts.
While some 3-D printing services already exist, they are geared to professionals familiar with rendering designs in software suitable for 3-D printers. Shapeways makes this process far easier. Its proprietary software checks customers’ designs to ensure that they are printable, and it tweaks them if necessary. “You need to check that the object is a closed volume,” Weijmarshausen says. “That’s quite hard to do.” But precisely how Shapeways does this is proprietary, he says. “If we see a small mistake, we will fix it” and then review the proposed changes with the customer.
Ponoko’s Elley says that the average consumer’s understanding of design software today is probably comparable to his or her understanding of word-processing software in the 1980s, but he predicts that this will improve.
“What’s interesting about these kinds of services is that the cost does not depend upon the complexity of the object,” says Cornell’s Lipson. In a traditional parts shop, complexity is a significant factor, whereas with 3-D printing, the main cost factor is the amount of material needed, he says.
“Ultimately, I think people will have these printers at home,” says Lipson. The idea is that people will pay a nominal amount for blueprints and then download them, in much the same way that music is shared over the Internet now, he says.