Tuesday, 5 November 2013

3D Social Networks help find 3D Printers, Designers, Customers

The reality of 3D printing, in any material or process, is that you need skills in both 3D modeling and access to a suitable 3D printer. That means having skills in the 3D printing process, or outsourcing to a bureau service like Shapeways, iMaterialize or Sculpteo. As those companies have demonstrated, producing great prints of high quality in different materials and finishes is not so easy, demanding specialised skills and access to expensive equipment and maintenance services. Any 3D print bureau will confirm this. There is a gulf between what is achievable at home and that which is available via a reliable 3D service.

A new kind of social 3D network is appearing which fixes part of this problem: the gulf between those who can and cannot design 3D models using software tools, and those who own or do not own a suitable 3D printer. Bringing such community members together is the mission of new Web services such as MakeXYZ and 3DHubs.

These sites are more than repositories of objects. They contain the details of people, the printers they have access to, and the 3D design skills they claim, in effect creating a 3D Printing social network.

3DHubs claims to be the "Worlds largest network of 3D Printers allowing anyone to 3D print around the corner." And MakeXYZ has just one goal "To help people make stuff by linking people who need something made with 3D printers and CAD designers in their neighborhoods."

Cool indeed.

Amazingly, both sites, while of US origin, allowed me, from my home office in the UK, to find several 3D Printers local to where I live. Literally, just around the corner! That's impressive. My local office supplies, art supplies, hobby or light machine shop may not yet have a 3D Printer, but I now know where I can go to get access to one.

Even if I could find a retail outlet near me offering access to 3D Printers would they be of the right kind? Could I print in the material of my choice? Would the staff have the skills to complete my job to my satisfaction? And would they be able to connect me to qualified 3D designers to help with my project? In short, what value would they add?

As a maker or small business looking to inject additive manufacturing into my workflow, my options are 1) To invest in a printer 2) To find suitable local partners 3) To find a shop or outlet offering access to a printer or 4) Use a 3D print bureau. My choices are expanding every day. The choice I will make will depend on a cocktail of considerations ranging over process, material, control, cost, finishing and access to support and design skills. Moreover, my choice will depend on whether I am printing one off jobs where each part is unique, or related jobs with degrees of mass-customization.

For all these reasons it is not yet clear who is going to own the 3D Print experience for makers and small businesses who don't want to invest in 3D printers of their own (plus everything that entails in terms of training and maintenance.) As a first step therefore, why not try MakeXYZ and 3DHubs yourself. Type in your zip or post code.

You may be surprised by who and what you find.

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