As 3-D printing has matured over the past decade, the process has proved an effective way for artists, entrepreneurs and academics to produce custom-designed parts and prototype models. Now 3-D printing is becoming even more accessible through Web sites and apps that let iPhone and iPad users upload designs or create new ones and have the finished product delivered to their door (see video below).
France-based Sculpteo, which has offered cloud-based 3-D printing services via its Web site since 2009, in January introduced mobile applications that let iPad and iPhone users submit digital designs via those handheld devices. At the time the company also began working with designer Jean-Louis Frechin and his No Design studio to offer the design-challenged items they could customize, including mugs and vases.
Now Sculpteo is partnering with Particule 14, an association of designers, to sell a range of objects that can be customized via Sculpteo's apps. These objects include a snack tray, mugs, lamps and a flower pot, with costs (prior to customization) ranging from $46 to nearly $2,000 each.
Sculpteo's apps and outsourced services are designed to promote the growth of 3-D printing. Firms affiliated with Patricule 14 can embed Sculpteo's design software into their own Web sites and then send customer designs to Sculpteo for printing and delivery. If a design is not three-dimensional, Sculpteo's software converts it into 3-D.
3-D printed objects begin as digital files. A printer then painstakingly builds the objects through an additive process—layer by layer, some as thin as 0.1 millimeters—in a variety of materials including silver, white detail resin, plastic, mineral powder, ceramic or alumide, which combines the polymer polyamide with grey aluminium dust. Sculpteo's printers use a high-power laser to fuse small particles of these materials together—a technique called laser sintering—which fabricate a design from the bottom up. Ceramic objects also undergo a firing and glazing post-process.
This additive approach to manufacturing is used for more than making customized tchotchkes. Researchers at the University of Glasgow in Scotland have loaded a 3-D printer with the type of silicone-based sealant typically used for bathrooms to create customized lab equipment. At Lehman College in New York City scientists used digital models and a printer to make accurate fossil replicas. 3-D printing has also been proposed as a more cost-effective way of making spare parts for the International Space Station.
For those wanting to set up their own printing operations, there's good news. 3-D printers have dropped in price from tens of thousands of dollars to less than a few thousand dollars thanks to companies including Brooklyn-based MakerBot Industries, which sells its Replicator personal 3-D printer for about $1,800. 3D Systems, Inc. in Rock Hill, SC, sells its home printer for $1,300.