Looking for the best 3D printing service? Join the revolution without a 3D printer, thanks to quality online 3D printing services.
A 3D printing service is a company that will professionally print objects on your behalf. It’s a smart business model that leverages economies of scale; large, industrial 3D printers are used to fabricate hundreds and thousands of small, custom print jobs for individual customers. You can either upload your own models, or you can choose from a range of models already available.
What are the benefits of using a 3D printing service, as opposed to owning a 3D printer of your own? Let’s begin with the object. You can send scans, photographs, STL files or even physical items to be fabricated using a 3D printer. You can choose any number of materials and colors for your item, plus typography and sizing where relevant (e.g. for an engagement ring), so the customization options are endless.
Secondly, there’s the convenience. It’s not just about having your item sent to you in the post, securely tracked and packaged (though that’s nice too). It’s also the fact that you don’t have to worry about the quality control of your objects, as you might with a 3D printer at home. The logistics of printing your order are handled by professionals, to an optimal standard, and typically fulfilled within a reasonable time-frame.
Below are our favorite 3D printing services in 2016. Three of the 3D printing services on this list can be accessed from a single place via the ALL3DP price comparison engine, where actual prices from Shapeways, Sculpteo and i.materialise can be compared in real-time.
Best 3D Printing Services #1: Shapeways
Shapeways is the market leading online 3D printing service for those interested in becoming involved with 3D printing, but don’t have the software or equipment to start by themselves. The 3D printing service can print objects in stainless steel, precious metals, and various plastics in full color. Pricing depends on the material you select, and the size/quantity of the object you want to print, but you’ll get instant estimates as soon as you upload your STL files.
Their marketplace is stuffed to the brim with professionally designed items that you can select and have printed, or you can use their design services to customize your items and have them printed to your exact specifications. If you have a model you want to be printed, getting it done is as simple as uploading the file, choosing your material, figuring out how much of the item you want, and then paying for it with a credit card. Even if you’re a complete novice, Shapeways offers a great introduction that doesn’t require special software to get started.
For anyone wishing to build a business, Shapeways also has a marketplace where community members can open up a storefront and sell the items they have designed, ranging from jewelry, smartphone cases, household items, and more. To sell your design, upload your files and create a product page, and if you make a sale, Shapeways’ 3D printing service will step in to handle the printing and shipping. In return, they take a cut of the profits from each sale.
Best 3D Printing Services #2: 3D Hubs
Strictly speaking, 3D Hubs isn’t actually an online 3D printing service, but it does something just as important.
Within your local vicinity, 3D Hubs connects people who have items that need to be printed with people who have 3D printers and are willing to print items for others — whether those printers are in private homes or in small businesses. Think of it as an Airbnb or Uber, but instead of accommodation and transport, 3D Hubs is concerned with 3D printing. At the time of writing, there is a network of over 27,000 hubs spanning the world.
Via the 3D Hubs interface, you can search for individuals and businesses that offer 3D printing services in your area, upload your STL file for an instant estimate, and connect with them directly to get the job done. The database also allows you to filter by materials, by user rating, by distance, and multiple other factors. Regardless of the type of item you want to have printed, there’s likely someone in your vicinity who can print it for you.
Best 3D Printing Services #3: i.materialise
Materialise is a company that works with industrial clients to produce prototypes and 3D printed products. But for the general public and individual designers, Materialise offers an online 3D printing service called i.materialise. Like Shapeways, the 3D printing service allows anyone to upload their 3D designs and have them printed out.
Objects can be manufactured in an impressive “Periodic Table of Materials” that includes ABS, alumide, brass, bronze, ceramics, copper, photocurable resins, rubber, stainless steel and titanium. Plus, once an object has been uploaded and successfully printed, a designer can offer it for sale either via the gallery on the i.materalise online store, or embedded on their own website.
Like Shapeways, this 3D printing service enables anyone to create and sell a product without having to invest in any tools of their own, since all items are 3D printed and shipped to order by i.materialise. The designer receives a commission, and — if the design is good enough — they can sit back and watch the money roll in.
3D Printing Services #4: Ponoko
Ponoko provides online 3D printing services plus laser etching and engraving too. The company has designers, 3D printers and robots on hand, and pricing starts as low at $5 depending on what needs printing and the materials chosen.
Whether you’re looking to bootstrap an idea, or you just want to make custom gifts for friends and family, the 3D printing service can accommodate your requirements in materials that range from pressed cardboard and acrylic to bamboo and wood, all the way up to stronger materials and various types of plastic.
Ponoko also offers same-day shipping if you order before a cut-off point. In theory, that means it’s possible to convert your STL or CAD files into actual physical products and have them in your hands within the space of a day.
The Ponoko has rapid prototyping and conversion services if you don’t have all of the files you need right away, and you don’t have to pay until your model has been drafted the way you want it. That’s because the 3D printing service provides an “inspection stage”, where you can verify everything looks okay before it’s sent off for a final print, and then boxed up and shipped to you.
Best 3D Printing Services #5: Your Local Fab Lab
If there’s a Fab Lab near you, then you’ll have access to a wealth of educational resources and services, including low-cost 3D printing. This is a great option for people who want to learn how to design and print their own items, but don’t have the time or money to invest in a dedicated machine.
Check with your local FabLab to learn about workshop schedules, costs, and what kind of resources are available. Similarly, each FabLab has different rules about whether printing is free, limited to a specific number of items or size of items per user, material types you can print, printing time, or something else.
If you can work around these limitations — usually imposed to guarantee universal access — it may prove cheaper than a commercial 3D printing service. FabLabs are definitely worth investigating and supporting.
Best 3D Printing Services #6: Sculpteo
Like Shapeways and i.materialise, Sculpteo is an online 3D printing service that allows anyone to upload 3D models and have them fabricated in a wide variety of materials. In keeping with its competitors, Sculpteo also allows individuals and professionals to open up an online storefront and sell their designs to the public.
Sculpteo has worked hard to make their online 3D printing services as accessible as possible. Their website allows digital design files to be uploaded in a variety of formats so that 3D objects created in a diverse range of software packages can be accepted for printing. Sculpteo also provides a number of plugins that allow design software like SketchUp to directly integrate with its service.
Also available are a number of apps that allow you to create simple, customized objects like key rings, smartphone cases, or 3D pictures based on a favorite photo.
Best 3D Printing Services #7: MeltWerk
The philosophy underpinning MeltWerk is to do one thing and to do one thing well. So, in contrast to the other 3D printing services on this list, you won’t get a wide range of options or choices. You can only print your objects in one color and one material, which is white polyamide plastic that has been laser sintered.
The upside to this approach is that MeltWerk is offering a best-price guarantee on their products. So, if after placing your order, you can find another 3D printing service that offers a better price for the same object and material, you’ll get a full refund. Those are the kind of consumer-friendly terms we can all get behind.
Best 3D Printing Service #8: Trinckle
Just in case you do need something more elaborate, the same company backing MeltWerk also has a comprehensive online 3D printing service called Trinckle.
The 3D printing service offers the same features as some of the other players on this list; a marketplace to buy 3D printed goods, tools to check the structural integrity of your model (thereby saving time and money), plus detailed guides on the pros and cons of each material. Plus, they accept commissions from small businesses and individuals alike.
What sets Trinckle apart, however, are their detailed corporate communications on the environmental impact of 3D printing. Issues like toxic emissions and recycling of materials are not addressed often enough by the industry, so it’s refreshing to see at least one company adopt a position of responsibility and transparency. When selecting the best vendor for the job, this small but significant detail might be enough to tip the balance in their favor.
License: The text of "8 Best 3D Printing Services 2016" by All3DP is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.