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The Economist had an article the other week, about the rise of 3D Printing and its potential to upset a lot of assumptions. It was a cool discussion with lots of entertaining examples (such as the printed and playable violin on the cover), but one of the more interesting points was the rise of companies that are making this capability mass-available, including Shapeways.

I've been exploring the Shapeways site, and it's really quite neat. It's kind of like CafePress, only for three-dimensional objects. You design something; you upload it to the site; choose things like what materials to use; and hit "Print". A couple of weeks later, they send you your thingamy. You can sell stuff through the site, and even use them for mass customization: changing extra for one-off customized versions that people can buy.

It drives home that this technology is not only for real, it's approaching the mass-market level. Shapeways is a bit expensive and a bit inconvenient to use -- but only a bit, and it's easy to see how, with a few more years of maturing of the relevant technologies, this stuff could become routine. They already let you choose any of a number of materials (glass, stainless steel, plastic, faux sandstone, etc), to get the effect you're looking for.

Very tempting, and I may find serious uses for this -- for instance, for custom game pieces. A period-style chess set, made out of gold-plated steel, could be quite snazzy. (If a bit ferociously expensive...)

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Yeah, I found Shapeways a few months ago, when I found the Makerbot. That's a thing the Economist article didn't touch on -- a 3D printer priced for the home market. Right now it's about the same price as a good laptop, about $1g, but you have to assemble it yourself. It's fascinating, though. I've got a couple videos bookmarked on Youtube of the machine in action:



I can easily see, in about 5-10 years, the price coming down to the point where anyone can afford one just as they have an inkjet printer now. The Makerbot would work great for plastic items and for checking the models before you sent them to Shapeways to be printed in other materials.

It's a gripping idea, isn't it?

Hmm. That's not too terrible a price point -- if you only do a bit of stuff Shapeways is cheaper, but it wouldn't take that much usage for the Makerbot to pay off. Certainly if I was playing seriously with making custom game pieces, it would be a reasonable investment...

Yah. When I read about that in The Economist, all I could think of was Neal Stephenson's Diamond Age.

You... you enabler!

Wow. Gonna drop some money there sometime soon, and there are things I have wanted that I could design....

Heh. I hadn't actually had in mind to give you a whole new world of projects, but I'm somehow unsurprised...

Oh, if I could afford it, they have beautiful catan hexes. Oh my. This could be dangerous indeed.

Yeah, I noticed the Catan set. It's pretty ridiculously expensive to buy an entire set of those hexes, but pretty enough to actually be a little tempting...

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Right -- when I say that the technology needs evolution, I mean both the printing *and* the design tech. But I figure that that's all pretty tractable: mostly, it's a matter of taking the existing "generic" 3D design tools and seriously re-evaluating them in light of these use cases, to come up with something specifically tuned for this. No rocket science needed, just investment and discipline. The rise of mass-market 3D printing should, in theory, provide enough incentive for someone to actually spend the real effort on it...

Exactly. Right now you have to be a tinkerer to want to do this. You have to assemble the printer, tweak it, learn the software, make a model, tweak it, and so iterate. Your average user who can barely check his email is not going to be able to do this. I give it 5-10 years before simplified software and cheaper printers allow these to show up in non-geek homes.

And if I had the cash, I'd have bought a Makerbot already.

About 13 years ago, ealdthryth worked for a startup company that built 3D printers that used a recyclable thermoplastic in the printers to build models. They closed down just as the machines became viable.... It was pretty neat technology and great because everything else on the market used lasers and/or toxic resins.... It was relatively afforabable (I think about $10K or under at the time). We've still got a few of the really delicate structures the test printers built.

But the technology (and computer hardware) have become mature enough that I've seen kits to build your own 3D printer.

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tried to use shapeways when it was still in beta

I met the folks from Shapeways at a press reception for demoing cool new things back quite a long time ago. I was given a promo to create a small object. However, when I tried to do it, it was so buggy that I finally gave up--after numerous conversations with the PM and their support person. I would imagine it has evolved a long way since then.

btw, interesting that your dad was also very taken by the same Economist article.

I can't help but see this as the inevitable evolution of the vending machine I used as a very small child to make wax animals at the zoo...

Looks like you mean the article "The printed world"? There was another one back in October, "An atom-based product, developed in bits", about a company that developed their product this way. (It's a photo tripod adapter for iPhones.)

Speaking of customized game pieces, I've long wanted rhombic d12s, and to make d24s and d60s, and different d24s than are on the market.

Some of the geometry toys I use to build models were impossible before 3d printing; they couldn't figure out how to mold them otherwise.

There was an article in this month's issue of Architect (I think that is where I read it) about 3D printing of food, basically using edible ink instead of resin or wax and sawdust. And postulating a future where people can have a 3D food printer at home and print their food. Not sure it appeals to me on a foodie level, but I could see it being very useful for gourmet chocolates or our friend's friend who is a chocolate sculptor.

Oh gods - I just realised. My set designer normally uses sketchup for his design work.

A 3D printer could give me something where I could test lighting options without having to climb up & down ladders to do so...

I looked at this a while ago, and was tempted by some of the dice available for order. Unfortunately when I got into the nitty gritty details, I was put off by two things:

1. The prices are in Euros - not insurmountable - I could find a currency site and convert before ordering
2.There's a note that the buyer is responsible for paying customs duties outside the EU. That means that without doing some moderately extensive research I have *no idea* what that might add to my purchase price.

If you do order from them, I'd be very interested to hear some numbers on what, if anything, you end up paying in extra fees above the listed price. There's stuff other people have designed that I'm fairly tempted by.

Well, I've ordered a couple of items from them -- there's one merchant who specializes in mathematically-inspired art with a few pieces that look exceptionally cool. So we'll see how that works -- ask again in about three weeks, by which time I should have the items. I didn't see the customs-duties note, so it's possible that they're gotten their import story straight...

I've also been thinking about such things for game pieces for a long time now, and was excited when I ran across shapeways maybe a month or so ago. My father works at a company that makes one brand of 3D printers, but at least his company's printer is too expensive to be feasible for me to invest for myself. Services that have the hardware however, sound very cool.

If you end up trying it out, please let me know how it goes, and I'd even love to come see the results of the process to see what the resolution/quality is. (The resolution of these printers is one of the major two differences between brands according to my father the last time I asked)

Hokay -- I've ordered a couple of pieces (in different processes, IIRC), so hopefully I'll have more info soon. Not sure if they'll be in by Mom's birthday dinner, but if so I'll try to remember to bring them...

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