3D printing has successfully found its way into commercial applications such as product prototyping, where objects can be printed and seen before being sent for manufacturing.
But like all new technologies, it's now getting to the stage where anybody can get a 3D print done.
But as impressive and useful as 3D printing is, would you really print out a model in the same way that you'd print a photo?
Sculpteo believes it has the answer. Not only can you print out your own home-created 3D models, but you can also realise a variety of 3D trinkets and statues, which removes the more tricky technical aspects of 3D printing.
Started in 2009 just outside Paris, Sculpteo began its life as a website coupled with a pair of 3D printers. The aim, in the words of Sculpteo CEO Clément Moreau, has always been to make 3D printing technology available to the "rest of us".
Part of Sculpteo's success comes down to the innovation of being able to print out personalised 3D objects - such as figurines and keyrings. "Consumers are fascinated when enjoying this technology," says Moreau. "It enables them to create the objects they dream of. "
But there have been teething problems along the way. 3D objects are - naturally - a lot more complex than 2D ones. Often what can be visualised on a computer can't been replicated in real life.
"Preliminary versions of the website rejected three-quarters of the proposed files," says Moreau. "Today we automatically fix about 90 per cent of the 3D files."
Another issue is pricing. At €59.90 (£52), a 3-inch avatar based on your face is a bit too much to be anything more than a luxury gift.
Less complex items are far cheaper - a white plastic medallion with a silhouette of your face on it costs just €4.26 (£3.67). "Prices are going down gradually, as the technology is becoming more popular," says Moreau. "However it will never be as cheap as industrial products which make tens of thousands of objects."
At the moment, the 3D printing process is almost entirely automated, which lowers the overheads considerably. "Our machines are printing overnight, with very little human work during print time," says Moreau. "Our staff are mainly occupied in the day time by finishing, post-processing and logistics."
Sculpteo seem to have got the 3D printing process down to a fine art, but Moreau believes it's set to really take off over the coming years, perhaps even replacing traditional manufacturing techniques.
"We believe that 3D printing will be one of the different alternatives to create products very soon," he says. "Customers and providers will make a choice between traditional molding, machining or 3D printing based on the advantages of each technology. This will lead to a fantastic new era of the industry where the creation of unique pieces all over the world will be [normal]."
How 3D printing actually works
1. First of all you need a design. You can create one with 3D modeling software and upload it to Sculpteo. You can use Google Sketchup, Blender or Wings 3D. You can also create a design online using Sculpteo's "Create" tab, or even pick a design in Sculpteo's public gallery.
2. Then all you need to do to order a 3D print of your chosen design is to click on the 'See the price' button. A window will appear, asking you to select your design's print settings. Choose a print size with the scale slider or enter your object's dimensions by hand.
3. Select the material: white or black plastic or multicolored material.
4. The cost is calculated automatically, based on your settings. This a unique feature of Sculpteo's website - there is no need to wait for a quote.
5. When you are happy with your design you will be taken to the payment page. Then the design is sent to one of the Sculpteo printing facilities.
6. During the printing process, the printers use a laser sintering technique where the object is formed layer by layer depending on the material used.
7. At the end of the printing process, there is a tray full of powder with the 3D objects inside.
8. The 3D objects are usually shipped from 24 to 72 hours after your order.
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