3D printing has revolutionized how many companies design and prototype. However, small businesses, individual makers, and consulting engineers continue to struggle with both access and affordability.
The worldwide market for 3D printing grew at a compound annual growth rate of 35 percent to $4.1 billion in 2014, according to Wohlers Report 2015. The industry expanded by more than $1 billion in 2014, with 49 manufacturers selling industrial-grade 3D-printing machines. But for the individual user or startup, the problem comes down to, well, cost.
But not all hope is lost. Whether you’re 3D printing a product, a design, or an early or professional-grade prototype, these four options help make available 3D printing for everyone.
1. Head Over to The UPS Store or Staples. Both The UPS Store and Staples have entered the 3D-printing game. Staples currently offers 3D-printing services that enable you to either drop off a design file at the store or upload it online. The company also now stocks affordable 3D printers on its shelves.
To meet growing business and hobbyist demand for printed objects, The UPS Store first began offering 3D-printing services in six markets in 2013. Earlier this year, the company expanded its plans to reach 100 locations. The UPS Store’s prices start as low as $20 for a 3D-printed object.
According to The UPS Store’s Small Business Technology Leader Daniel Remba, the demand has extended dramatically to serious applications as well. “We’ve seen people from all types of different industries, with the common denominator being people making prototypes of new products,” Remba told Fast Company.
2. Have Your Product Designed, Uploaded, and Delivered With Shapeways. Shapeways helps you step-by-step from start to finish. You can design your own product with a 3D-printing app, with a supported software program, or by hiring a designer.
For design, the site offers material guidelines, tutorials, and access to support. You select the product quantity and material for printing—whether it’s sandstone, nylon plastic, stainless steel, or another material—and receive an instant price quote with your uploaded model. Shipping is global. Shapeways also includes a large marketplace where you can purchase items, from jewelry to gadgets, or sell your own creations.
3. Go Local on 3D Hubs. This service differs from Shapeways in that it prints your uploaded design not on its own printers at a central location, but on a printer at a location you select—even in your own neighborhood. With more than 23,000 local 3D printers, most users can find a printer close to their home or business, and printed products can be picked up on-site.
If you already have a design from Autodesk Fusion 360 or other software, you can directly upload your model to 3D Hubs for printing. But if you’re just starting out and want to print pre-existing designs, 3D Hubs has you covered. Through partnerships with a variety of content platforms, including Instructables, you can discover an entire world of ready-to-print 3D models.
4. Get Fast, Professional Prototyping With Fictiv. Co-founded two years ago by Nathan and Dave Evans, Fictiv is a hardware-development platform for engineers and designers and includes a tool for next-day 3D-printed parts.
Upload your design, and it will intelligently route your order to a distributed network of machines. After processing, Fictiv picks up your parts, hand-inspects them, and delivers them via courier or post. You can also pick up parts yourself at Fictiv’s headquarters in San Francisco.
The platform is specifically focused on helping teams reduce time between prototype iterations. “When it can take you up to two weeks to get a part back from a service bureau, it’s hard to develop commercially viable products,” Nathan Evans says. “By streamlining the ordering process, we can reduce lead times substantially and help companies iterate daily on their designs to get to market as quickly as possible.”
According to Dave Evans, individuals, small shops, and large companies comprise Fictiv’s distributed network of machines. For example, a large company might own a professional-grade 3D printer that sits idle a lot of the time. Fictiv helps brings that machine online. This business model gives startups and engineers access to professional tools while allowing the company that owns the 3D printer to pay off its expensive machine by monetizing idle time.
As more businesses, hardware startups, and everyday tinkerers and hobbyists discover how 3D printing fits with their needs, expect to see 3D printing become as ubiquitous and as easy as printing words and images on paper. With these four services, getting your part, product, or prototype in hand is as easy as design, order, and receive.