You may have seen a demonstration of 3D printing — a head sweeping back and forth dribbling out liquified plastic and depositing it to build up an object, layer by layer. I have and found it fascinating. As a result, I’m extremely interested in 3D printing. It’s part of the burgeoning maker movement, which is allowing people to pursue creative passions; many do it for fun (e.g., a Lego drink-pouring setup), but for many others, the maker movement represents the foundation of entrepreneurial opportunity.
Autodesk makes a number of free 3D design tools under the family moniker of 123D — e.g., 123D Design, 123D Catch, etc. However, one of the most important Autodesk tools has a different name: Meshmixer. Meshmixer allows you to take your 3D object and prepare it for 3D printing.
I downloaded the tools and experimented with them, but frankly, I found the experience quite frustrating. They reminded me of when I tried to use Photoshop: I was very impressed with the tool and what I had heard could be done with it, but upon confronting it, found that while I believed it could accomplish everything, I couldn’t figure out how to do anything.
Autodesk provides video tutorials on YouTube for some of the tools; to be honest, they’re a bit helpful but nowhere near what you need to really learn the products. Moreover, some of the videos reflect previous versions of the products and are out of date. Frankly, I found the situation really frustrating: I knew enough about 3D printing to be inspired, but couldn’t really figure out how to get going.
However, I resolved to keep trying and found another set of videos put out by the 3D printing service Shapeways. In these 7 videos, a Shapeways evangelist walks through an introduction to 123D Design and provides an example of how to design something real — a hook.
No fool I, I decided to do the exact same project and follow her steps slavishly. Which I did. At the end of the process I had a real-deal, 3D hook design, of which I was immensely proud (one of the benefits of being a novice is simple accomplishments seem like great achievements).
I saved the file in one of the two most common object formats, .stl (the other is .obj) and then imported it into Meshmixer to prepare it for printing. Meshmixer is really powerful and a quasi-design tool in its own right. You can use it to do mashups of two (or more) 3D objects, slice parts of an object off, smooth object surfaces, and much more. It also helps you position the object for efficient printing, which is what I was interested in. When I hit the optimize button, it moved the hook from an upright orientation with tail down to on its side; it also moved it from the original position, in which it sat above the printing surface, to lying flat on the printing surface.
Meshmixer has a “print” option, in which you can select a 3D printing service (like Shapeways), the material and color you want, and then execute a print transaction. Or so the theory goes. In my experience, you are able to select the service and object options, but then Meshmixer hangs. So I downloaded the object and then uploaded it to Shapeways and Sculpteo, where I priced out printing the object. Surprisingly, there was a significant difference in price, with Sculpteo around twice as much. Of course, each service offers different printing materials and colors, so the price comparison was not perfect. But I figured this is an experiment, so I wasn’t as bothered about which material it arrived in. I was more interested in the process.
Shapeways gave me a date range that was about three or four weeks out. So I sat back and waited to see how my little experiment would play out. Then it got more interesting.
I got an email inviting me to a TechShop Redwood City tour and I decided to go along and check it out. I went to an open house in Menlo Park perhaps three years ago and found it very frustrating — disorganized and not very informative. This tour was completely different. The four people in my group were guided around by a TechShop employee, a very interesting guy in his own right — a former Stanford mechanical engineering student who started using TechShop when the Stanford facilities were booked round the clock. He liked it and, I guess, never left.
TechShop is really impressive, with industrial-grade equipment available for use by anyone who is a member (and gets trained on the equipment to avoid lost fingers and the like). As the guide took us around we stepped into a room. There were a couple of guys sitting there and I, trying to be friendly, said hi and asked what they did. They told me they run a 3D printing service as part of an offering called Fictiv — “Uber for 3D printing,” one of them said. When I inquired what that meant, he said that Fictiv allowed you to upload your design and then choose where to have it printed, but that rather than printing the object itself, Fictiv would farm it out to one of a number of 3D printing services in the locale. The benefit, according to him, is that the objects are available much more quickly, and at a lower price than the better-established services like Shapeways.
Naturally, I decided to check it out. I uploaded my awesome hook design and selected a color and material. Fictiv doesn’t display which service will actually do the printing; it is, in effect, an aggregator of individual printing job shops and encapsulates their information. In part, this may be to prevent direct ordering, but I think it’s more likely that most of the printers are very small entities not really set up for retail and online operations.
Once I made my selection, Fictiv provided a cost and estimated delivery date (a range of a few days). The cost was perhaps half of the Shapeways cost, and the delivery was scheduled for less than a week away — a significant advantage over Shapeways, which was on the order of three weeks. True to its word, my print arrived within four or five days.
A week or so later, the Shapeways print arrived, in line with its original estimate.
So how did the two stack up? Here are two pictures of my printed hooks, front and back, captioned to identify which came from which service.
The differences between the two hooks — besides color — may not be apparent from the photo. However, here is what I noticed:
Now, some of this may be due to the differences in the materials the hooks were printed in by the two services. I’m not very familiar with the ins and outs of printing materials (and frankly, the services don’t do a great job explaining the differences, they just list them with technical descriptions but no information about the object will look like after printing; fair enough, that might be something the customer should be expected to research and understand), so the differences may be down to pilot error, so to speak. If this object were something intended for actual use, I would say the Shapeways would be far more preferable. However, I have the impression that Fictiv is attempting to address the maker movement with quick-and-dirty solutions that help customers prototype and iterate quickly; for them, the quality of the print may not be important, whereas time to availability is. NOTE: subsequent to my original blog post, I received the i.materialise newsletter which has an excellent overview of the different types of 3D printing; from the descriptions, I would infer that my Shapeways print is sintering, while the Fictiv print is filament plastic).
This also speaks to the challenges of learning 3D printing. You have to be pretty motivated to learn how to do it. The jumbled collection of video tutorials is useful (thank God for YouTube!), but requires a lot of searches and clicking back and forth among videos whose quality ranges from excellent to execrable. I ordered a book on Autodesk’s tools written by one of its evangelists, but it’s currently 18 months late and not scheduled to arrive until later this year; I’ll believe that when I have it in my hands. The founders of HoneyPoint 3D, a local retail and education firm, did a Kickstarter campaign to fund a Meshmixer tutorial video series; I contributed as did enough others to completely fund the effort, so it should be along in a few months. I expect it will be quite helpful.
All in all, I feel like I’ve made significant progress in 3D printing, although I am just barely scratching the surface. It’s clear an ecosystem is springing up to help people be successful more quickly with 3D printing. Obviously, 3D printing is a tremendous enabler for innovation and I expect it will grow dramatically over the next few years. The 3D printing services make it really convenient to get started, since you don’t need to own a printer yourself in order to receive objects. The biggest barrier, I think, is the difficulty of learning the 3D design tools, and I’m not sure how that can be fixed. Slowly but surely, though, 3D skills are being built and will diffuse into the general workforce over time. Then things will get really interesting.