We still have a ways to go before being able to print out an entire PC's worth of components ordered through Newegg, but imagine taking that killer motherboard layout you've been brewing in your head and printing out a 3D mockup. Then the only question is do you send your design to your favorite motherboard maker, or start up your own company and show the competition what a real enthusiast's layout is supposed to look like? Forget about Fatal1ty, and slap your own forum nick on your custom mobo!
Sound farfetched? It is, but only because of the high costs associated with 3D printing. Looking to break that barrier is Netherlands-based Shapeways, an ambitious startup who hopes to help you transform your 3D modeling designs from software creations into hard printouts, all without breaking the bank. After submitting your object, Shapeways decides whether or not it can be produced and provides a real-time cost estimate, which the company claims usually runs between $50-$150.
It's all part of Shapeways' private beta for a new online consumer co-creation community and do-it-yourself 3D printing service. The site beta has just gone live, but the only way you'll get to try it out is with an invite. That's no problem for Maximum PC readers, as we've secured 250 exclusive invitations! But first, let's get familiar with how this is all made possible.
While you don't need a custom scanner or specialized printing tools, you do need 3D modeling software to flesh out your ideas. Shapeways accepts formats in STL, Collada, and X3D, all of which should be familiar to any CAD guru. Once submitted and approved, budding 3D designers can select both the size and material, and within 10 working days the company says it will have a tangible product "produced and delivered to the consumer globally."
Such a quick turnaround without an enormous price tag might sound too good to be true, and while it normally is, Shapeways says they're able to do this by creating a large community. But how exactly does the technology work?
"Man-in-Man" 3D Object Designed by Sacha Goedebure
Selective Laser Sintering
To bring your 3D creations to life, Shapeways uses an additive production method called Selective Laster Sintering (SLS). This entails spreading extremely thin layers of a nylon-based powder just 0.1mm thick on the build platform, which a laser then melts together. Once a layer is completed, a new one gets stacked on the top of the model and the process starts anew.
The overall size of the model depends on the machine being used, and Shapeways says their limit currently stands at about 70 x 38 x 58cm. Details up to 0.1mm can be printed, and all walls should be at least 0.4mm thick to ensure the structural integrity of the object and avoid any Humpty Dumpty-like catastrophes.
Fused Deposition Modeling
Another additive production method Shapeways employs is called Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM). Instead of a nylon-based powder, FDM models feed ABS thermoplastics through the machine as a wire. Once inside, the material gets heated through a nozzle and then squeezed out like toothpaste (don't try sticking it in your mouth). To make the model structurally intact, support material is used during the building process to support unfinished parts, and then can either be broken away once the model is complete or dissolved in water.
Using FDM, Shapeways can create slightly larger models checking in at 91 x 61 x 91cm, with details up to 0.25mm. Want to see the process in action? Shapeways has posted a video on YouTube detailing a 3D creation from start to finish, and it even comes with snazzy music.
Groovy, I Want to Try!
Hey, this is Maximum PC, and if the site could communicate without human mediators, it would say "Do you know who I am? I don't know how to put this, but, I'm kind of a big deal. People know me." That's not lip service folks, and Shapeways has given Maximum PC 250 exclusive invitationss to access the beta site. But hurry - these invites are first come, first served: