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My experience with 3d printing and Shapeways

By Gianluca Panebianco, Publishing date: 26 July 2019, Last update: 26 July 2019

In the last few years, 3D printing has been largely diffused not only in industrial sectors for prototyping, but also in the consumer market: today, almost everyone can print their own creations (in this regard I also made an article on the most interesting 3D consumer printers of 2019, in italian). Among the possibilities for converting your 3D files from digital to real, there are various 3D online printing services that, for a few euros, will provide a quality 3d printings with a wide variety of solutions: materials, dimensions, etc.

Among the services available today, I want to talk about Shapeways, one of the first 3D online printing services, and probably for options available of the best; I used this online service for some 3d printings (for example the ceramic cappuccino cup in the shape of head of Jeeg Robot (Jeegmug)): in this article I want to show you a little more detail about an old project: the 3D printing of my Jeeg in 3d.

This is what came out of it...

Let me start by saying that this is not a paid-article: I just want to provide my experience that may be useful to those who want to approach 3D printing for the first time without necessarily buying a 3D printer - because this solution can be cheaper but requires a series of additional knowledge and devices (a 3d printer...).

So, if you are simply a 3D designer wishing to see what you have designed, realized and always seen exclusively on the monitor, Shapeways, like many other 3D printing services, allows you to upload your 3D model and, through a easy to use web interface, make a series of choices that end with the sending of an order, payment of the printing service. After a waiting period that varies from a few days to a few weeks, you will finally receive your 3d printed model.

A few years ago I did this 3d printing test through the Shapeways website, trying to create a real model starting from a digital model I created with Lightwave 3d back in 1999. The print was made in 2012, so be careful that the interface of Shapeways refers to that year: today many things have changed.

Setting up the 3d model for 3d printing

As I said, I started with an old 3D Jeeg robot model made with Lightwave 3d and, after putting it in the pose I wanted it to have in the final 3d printing, I exported it as a unique object (the original model is in fact composed of different sub-models). Back in Modeler, I set the height of the 3d model to about 12 cm, which was pretty good for me. This is because at the time Shapeways did not allow modifying the model uploaded online: it was necessary to upload the final model and there were not many parameters to modify it online.

Above you can see the preview of Lightwave related to the 3D model that I decided to print.

The model is very old, and at the time when I originally created, to reduce rendering times I optimized it by reducing the number of points and polygons with a Lightwave plugin called QemLoss2 (now Reduce Poly +) which unfortunately compromised its cleanliness. Obviously when I made those changes I thought well to throw the previous versions ... gosh! :(

The above image display some statistics about the points and polygons of the model; as you can see it is not very detailed to be a statue, even if the size is not huge (but you will notice in the final result, as we will see later).

I could have increased the quality and resolution, but the process would have made me spend a good deal of time in detail optimizations; I preferred to avoid at this stage (due to the fact that Lightwave's Boolean operations sometimes generate "holes" in the model that would have turned out to be unprintable).

Once arrived at the final model, before uploading it to Shapeways I checked it on Meshlab (http://www.meshlab.net). Today this step is probably unnecessary: many 3D modeling software have now tools that allow you to generate a correct 3D model for 3D printing, and even Shapeways has online options to simplify these operations.

Uploading the 3D model on Shapeways, setting up materials and other settings

The upload procedures are pretty simple, just sign up on the website, and the option to upload your model is shown at the top-right of the screen. Uploading is also simple but requires that you have your model converted into one of the formats accepted.

Once the upload is complete, you will enter the preview panel of the model, which at the time allowed only a few changes to be made:

In these last years, however, Shapeways online control system for loaded products has improved considerably and today you can change their dimensions directly online, checking the price difference in real time and many other things.

Today, in fact, once the upload is complete you will have access to a web application with a series of parameters and will do a series of tests on the model, allowing you to change the size of the final model, verifying if there are any inconsistencies or criticalities in the model (some of them can be solved directly with their online tool), and also following you in the step of choosing materials and accessory options in order to build your final quote in a very simple and intuitive way, updating you on the cost differences with just some click.

Shapeways however publishes a descriptive table of each material in which the minimum thickness recommended for the 3d object is also reported.

Price of 3d printing with Shapeways

So, the price... it is important to always keep in mind that the price of a model is composed by two parameters.

  • the amount of material used for printing;
  • the type of material used. You can print in plastic, metal, aluminum, porcelain, bronze, silver, gold, etc. In some cases you can also define the color or as I said before, for some materials you have the possibility of include to the 3D model their related textures with atlas mapping to obtain a real color model! Quantity and type of material will determine the solidity of the model as well as the price.

Remember that depending on the material the detail will also change: there are materials whose printing will give a more defined model, other materials that will give a less detailed result (rough, to which you can add a polishing of the model at an additional cost)..

Being a test print, I chose a cheap material (named "Natural Sandstone") with average detail definition. The model is 12 cm tall, and the cost is 23 euros plus tax and shipping (total 36 euros).

Certainly not a chep solution, someone will say "ok but it is an order placed in 2012, and at that time the 3D consumer printing services was still at the beginning"; sure, but it is the same price required today for its reprint. A little too much in my opinion, especially considering that my Creality CR10S purchased in 2018 can print it at a considerably lower cost. Obviously they are two different plans, and you will also pay Shapeways to avoid all potential problems you can have with a self-made 3d printing.

Shipping, packaging and waiting times

Once the order has been placed, you will have to wait several days for the model to be in your hands: in fact, printing the 3D model will take some days to be ready (depending on the material chosen, you can have to wait up to some weeks), so you will have to wait a few days for the shipment. Printing is done in the United States (if I remember correctly in the factory near New York), so depending of your location you can have to wait long periods..

However, the package you will receive will be excellently packaged, an enormous size compared to what you would expect, to prevent your model from being damaged.

Final result: the 3d printed model

In the following photos you can see the result obtained: I placed the 3d model printed next to a DVD so that you can realize its real dimensions.

Some considerations on the model:

  • The model has not a good qualityquality - resolution of the original model and by observing it in detail in some cases it is possible to identify the polygons (today I would not send a model like this to print!)
  • The quality of the material is not good: it is very porous, and by touching it you will feel as it is very fragile (despite the filling of the model is 100%): for example the base (which I had made very thin) recently broke taking a small hit (sigh!). Comparing it to prints made in PLA with my CR10S (which are usually set with filling at 40%), there are no comparisons in terms of overall quality, consistency to the touch and solidity / impact resistance (PLA is much more better!). Of course the material used with Shapeways was the cheapest, but still we are talking about a "relatively cheap" material, having a cost of 23 euros + taxes, and the weight of the printed model is only 56 grams! (the equivalent in PLA would cost 1.12 euros considering a good standard 1kg of PLA at a rate of 20 euros, eg Sunlu).

Final considerations

Above all I feel satisfied: Shapeways is a very good 3D printing service, the site is very well done and placing an order is very simple and helpful (despite the year 2012). Each step - from uploading the 3D model to the payment and tracking of the package - is intuitive and the interface guides the user through each step.

In addition, all orders are tracked and logged: you can review even several years after each detail (material, cost, etc.), and maybe decide to make a new print, all in a few clicks and without having to upload the 3d file again.

Surely if you want to make a 3D print but you don't want or you can have a 3D printer I recommend it, but watch the final price because it can vary a lot depending on the model you provide and the material, and the shipping times that could be long.

Shapeways is the ideal if you want to print models with "luxury" materials such as gold, platinum, silver, bronze (which you can plate in gold or silver), or aluminum. Perfect for making a unique gift as a jewel. I did it, and maybe next time I'll tell you more about it ...

Or even to start a small business, since you can sell your achievements through their marketplace.

Last thing: over the years it seems to me that prices have risen contrary to what one could imagine and some interesting materials, such as ceramics, have disappeared. Doesn't it seem to you?

And what experience do you have with real 3D model printing using online service?



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