Outsourcing Your 3d Printing
For many people that want to get into 3d printing, the first question they ask is “Which 3d printer should I buy?” If you want to explore 3d printing as a hobby, this is probably the wrong question. My response is almost always, do you want to make 3d printing your hobby, or do you want to make owning and maintaining a 3d printer your hobby? Only when a creator finds that they want to rapidly prototype designs and have the time and skill do they need immediate access to a 3d printer. In many cases, the right way to start 3d printing is to outsource your printing.
The main ways to outsource your 3d printing are through commercial 3d printers, through local hacker/makerspaces, and through individuals. Each of these has benefits, and ideally someone getting into 3d printing would explore all three before settling into one option.
Commerical 3d Printers
Commercial 3d printers such as shapeways and iMaterialize have websites where users can upload their 3d models for printing. They charge per cubic centimeter and add on shipping and handling. Many of the online services also will do basic cleanup of your 3d model before printing if it needs cleanup. The main benefit of the commercial 3d printer services is that they handle all the details of structural integrity checks, scaffolding, build orientation, etc. This lets you focus on creating 3d models without worrying too much about how they’ll be printed. You don’t have to invest in a machine, and can experiment with materials you wouldn’t have access to because of price issues, like 3d printing stainless steel, or silver. The downsides are that commercial services end up costing more per model, and usually you have to wait a few weeks before you see the results of your work.
Hackerspace 3d Printing
Hackerspaces and Makerspaces are local groups of hobbyists and tinkerers. Together they rent space and as a pool, own industrial machine tools, sometimes including 3d printing machines. If you live in a big city, chances are there’s a hackerspace or makerspace near you. By joining a hackerspace, you’ll learn about how to operate the machine, and usually pay dues towards the space before you’ll be allowed to use their machinery. The hands-on approach will expose you to the reality of running and maintaining your own 3d printer. You’ll have to think about structural issues more as you build and print things, and you’ll probably experience quite a few bad prints before you get the hang of it. But as long as you reserve the machine, you’ll see the results of your modelling right away.
Individual Crowdsourced 3d Printing
If you know someone that already owns a 3d printer, using theirs is probably the best option. Usually 3d printer owners love to share their knowledge and help others delve into the hobby. Make sure to pay for any printing filament or offer to help with upkeep of the machine. Similarly to borrowing someone’s computer, if you mess up the machine in any way, you should help fix it. They may be protective of their machine and want to print everything themselves. Even then, they’ll cost less than a service, and you’ll get the results faster.
Sharing a printer is a great way to experiment, and any money you give to make your models helps them pay off their initial investment in the device. Even if you don’t know someone with a 3d printer, you might be able to find someone using services like 100K Garages, MakerBot Map, and RepRap Map. Just drop the nearest maker an email and ask if they’d print some stuff for you, or let you use their machine for a while.
No matter how you choose to outsource your printing, if you really get into 3d printing, you’ll want to upgrade and own your own machine eventually. But for someone starting out, it makes more sense to invest the time in learning how to model and learning what works with 3d printing before you buy a 3d printer. Otherwise you may end up just printing out things off thingiverse until you lose interest. Outsourcing your 3d printing is a great way to explore at a low cost just how much you’re interested in 3d printing.