Tested: Three of the best 3D printing services

You don't have to fork out for your own 3D printer – these services will do it all for you

On-demand 3D printing services are a good way to release just a little of that pent-up creativity without blowing the budget (or expending the heartache) on your own printer.

We've tried out three of the best to see which one is the prince of 3D prints.

Sculpteo

What’s on the menu?

Putting your face on a monster’s body and other 3D gimmickry is only a sideline for Sculpteo. The French company has been on the 3D printing block for a while, handling everything up to industrial prototypes.

It offers an idiot-proof selection of ways to design or upload 3D models as well as customise everything from iPhone cases to key rings via compatible apps. There’s also an online marketplace to get inspiration, sell your designs and buy 3D printed objects. 

Printed real good?

It’s almost impossible to put a foot wrong on Sculpteo’s site. Create a geometric shape, spin it around in the 3D Viewer and alter the size, material and finish options to automagically change the price. Choose from plastics, resins and ceramics – though the exotic stuff introduces thickness and size constraints. Printing and delivery are pretty swift too. This is all good… but too easy.

We elected to get freaky using Autodesk’s 123D Creatures iPad app to create Tom (blue head) and Super Frog, then export them to Sculpteo for printing. What did we learn? That 3D sketching takes many, many hours; that your models can only be printed in a rough (but tough) sandstone material; and that the final colours are more muted than they appeared on screen. But we don’t care. They’re ours. We made them.

Price

Tom: US$34, Super Frog: US$77.50 / sculpteo.com

Stuff says

Perfect for beginners, Sculpteo’s site and associated apps are all great fun.

More after the break...

Shapeways

What’s on the menu? 

Shapeways is similar to Sculpteo – just bigger and, in some ways, better. It’s geared towards folk who already have 3D files, but there’s also “easy creator” apps, quickly creating rings, cufflinks, etc. Add its nicely curated online bazaar, designers-on-demand service and swathe of available materials (including stainless steel and silver) and it’s obvious why it has 250,000+ devotees. 

Printed real good?

Shapeways’ web pixies quickly send out an email to tell you if the file you uploaded is viable – in our case the awesome Mars Curiosity Rover as digitally sculpted by Thingiverse user ThePlanetMike. It printed perfectly, even with its fine details, but then it wasn’t a design that a home 3D printer couldn’t manage. Shapeways’ algorithm works out the cost of your model, printed in your chosen material, but setting the size is tricky.

We missed Sculpteo’s simple “scale” slider. Delivery comes via UPS from either the Netherlands or New York but is affordable either way. The only drawback is time: it aims for a delivery two to three weeks from your order. Sculpteo and iMakr are generally quicker, depending on the object and material. Waiting time aside, from custom jobs to quick prints, Shapeways is the most comprehensive 3D printing service out there.  

Price

Mars Curiosity Rover: US$85 / shapeways.com

Stuff says 

Loads of designs and materials, but you might have to be patient. 

iMakr

What’s on the menu? 

Like its rivals, iMakr has a website. You can email your designs to get a same-day quote for 48-hour printing, or choose from its file-sharing platform MyMiniFactory. But, excitingly, it also exists in realspace – a dedicated 3D emporium selling printers, filament and art in London’s trendy Clerkenwell. And, a design-on-demand service that we were itching to try.

Printed real good?

The shop is a design studio and next-gen toy shop rolled into one, with primary-coloured delights upstairs and a platoon of human designers in the basement. Walk in with ideas, walk out with your finished print a week later. (You’re allowed to go home in-between.) iMakr currently only prints in plastics, polycarbonate and rubber-like materials, but we’re told silicon and metals are on the way. Our Stuffbot (left) is a mixture of ABS and PLA, designed with the help of iMakr’s Gianmarco Colalongo using Autodesk’s 3ds Max software and printed on both a Makerbot Replicator 2 and UP! Plus – proof that the products in our test aren’t just for n00bs.

It’s the expert design and finishing that justifies the £800+ asking price, though: the shiny body and articulated joints are way beyond what we managed to produce on the same machinery. Less casual print then, more dream project. 

Price

Design: £500-£1000; print: £100; finishing: £200 / imakr.com 

Stuff says

We’ve seen the future of 3D printing services, and it’s made of bricks.

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