Create your first customized, 3D-printed object in 10 minutes

You can even create something for free, and a miniature “you” figurine.

jigsaw puzzle redThe “beginner title of this article should have made all the experienced 3D printing people click away. So if you are still with me, chances are you’ve never created your very own 3D printed object. Don’t worry, you’re in the majority.

If you’ve heard about 3D printing, and maybe seen some of the cool things people are creating, you probably would like to print something three dimensional yourself. This is your lucky day — I’ll tell you how you can customize and send to print a 3D design, in a matter of minutes.

All 3D printing begins with a 3D model, one created by a CAD program. But for this first print I’ll tell you how to do, you won’t need to touch any of these 3D modeling tools. You could find existing models that others have donated to free repositories and have them printed at various 3D print services, but I’m not going to make you do that either. And besides, simply finding and uploading a model to print doesn’t allow any personalization unless you get it into a modeling program first; and we’re not going there today.

No, I’ll tell you about some websites that you can go to and use a non-technical interface to make some changes to a 3D model, and then request that a 3D print of it be shipped to you. And the really good news is that it’s surprisingly inexpensive to do. At one of these service you can even print a customized keychain for free.

There are quite a few online 3D printing services around, and I’m not making any quality judgments by selections I’ve made. I’ve chosen these three services because they are:

  1. established and popular
  2. customer-friendly
  3. easy to use for any skill lever
  4. allow you to begin with a model
  5. allow you to customize it.

It’s important to note that all the services highlighted below provide vastly more sophisticated 3D printing services than I discuss in this article. I’m barely scratching the surface of what you can do at the sites, only focusing on how to get a 3D print into your hands with no modeling skills required.

We’ll begin with Shapeways, the most popular of the consumer-oriented sites.

Shapeways

Chances are you’ve heard of the websites Cafepress.com or Zazzle.com. They let you upload designs, apply them to various products such as shirts and mugs, and then create them. In addition, people can set up shops on the sites and they can sell products with their designs on them for a cut of the sale. You can think of Shapeways as the Cafepress or Zazzle of the 3D printing services world, only a heck of a lot more interesting (and capable of much more that is not discussed in this article).

Shapeways let’s users upload 3D design files made with their favorite modeling software, pick colors and materials, and then order a 3D print of the model. The object is printed on Shapeways’ 3D printers and delivered to the customer within 10 days. If a creator thinks others could be interested in buying their model they can offer it for sale Shapeways. When someone wants to print a copy, perhaps a customized copy, of that model, the creator gets a commission.

You can create your very first custom 3D object by buying a customizable print at Shapeways. You’ll pick an existing model, customize it on screen, and have it printed and shipped to you. To begin, go to Shapeways.com and browse their gallery. But you’ll want to show only the products that are customizable, so click on the “Show Personalize Your Own only” on the search dialog. Or, you can just click here to go to the “Personalize your own product gallery.” The resulting pages will show products made by designers, where you can choose the material, add text, draw on, change size, etc.

In addition,, Shapeways has also put together a few of their own interesting models made specifically with customization in mind. Check out the Photoshaper, LightPoem, RingPoem, Custom Cufflinks and Custom Stylus (broken link). These are all very easy to personalize and print.

And perhaps the coolest application of their’s is the Shape Me miniature figurine application. You upload a frontal photo of your face and a profile photo, do some alignment in their online app, dress it up and do some other mods, and then order your print in a 2, 3, 4 or 6 inch model.

Sculpteo

Last year French company Sculpteo opened their doors in the United States. Similar to Shapeways, it offers 3D file-to-print services, along with letting the creators set up shops to sell their products, with basic customizations made available or not.

There are some very cool items for sale in their gallery, but few can be customized. To view the objects that you can personalize, find the link named “Customizable” and click through to the gallery.

However, if you click on their Create tab, you’ll get the “Create Customized Objects with 3D printing” page. From this page you can access various modules that let you print something by designing it right on the page. You can create simple geometric objects, a 3D relief of a 2D photograph, text in 3D, a mosaic from a 2D image, and this is the hot item: 3D figurines of yourself — all you have to do is send in a frontal photo and a profile photo of your face, and your choice of clothes and accessories. A 3D artist at Sculpteo get hands on and create the 3D image for you to either approve or reject. If you approve, your little full-color, figurine will be shipped to your door in days.

In the beginning of the article I said that you can create a 3D object for free. I wasn’t lying to get your attention. Sculpteo will let you create a custom 3D keychain, printed in white plastic, for free (you do pay shipping) And it will ship within 48 hours. Brilliant marketing, Sculpteo.

i.materialize

In 2009, 3D printing services company materialise.com launched the website i.materialise.com. This site is built to meet the demands of designers and inventors. They focus on a very high quality and varied choice of materials, even printing gold in various colors. Some of the beautiful items that have been created are available for purchase, but they aren’t customizable.

i.materialise jewelryHowever, i.materialise.com does have a section on the site called Creation Corner. There’s not much to it yet, but still, you can create a custom 3D printed item that is quite interesting. One of their apps let’s you create a silver pin, pendant or set of cufflinks, customized to show the 3D topographical landscape of any place in the world you select through Google Maps. Another app lets you create a designer “Fluid Vase whose perimeter structure is defined by how a water drop would look splashing into the water in the vase; you capture the frame of your choice. It’s hard to explain, so you need to take a look. And there is also an “Appear Lamp” on whose lampshade is printed the wording of your choosing that will display on the ceiling.

Not a lot to choose from, but remember, this is not their main business. They are simply providing you a way to customize and purchase a 3D work of art, and you can get a taste of what comes out of their 3D printers, and what you can do if you learn a 3D modeling program yourself.

Be the first in your neighborhood

There you have it, three quick ways to find a 3D model, make it your own, and have it shipped to you. Within days you’ll have something in your hands that you can show your friends. By the next decade 3D printing will be commonplace, and you’ll be able to prove that you were one of the very few to have printed a 3D object in 2011.