Ever had a really cool idea for something you wanted to build, but you had no way to actually build it? Ever designed a toy or a piece of art that you thought would be a neat thing to have, but your skills at molding plastic or at sculpture just weren’t up to the task? If so, Shapeways may be for you. Design whatever you want (within certain parameters) and they’ll print it for you in 3D, out of plastic, and send it to you.
Like many geeks, I’ve lusted after 3D printing technology pretty much since I first heard about it. But I never actually got a chance to try it out until Shapeways contacted me about trying out their service. My design abilities are excellent, I think, when it comes to software; when it comes to 3D artistic design, they are sadly lacking. Shapeways kindly created a design for me, which I then uploaded to their site and ordered. It arrived about two weeks later, and it is remarkably cool. (See the picture, with a U.S. quarter coin for size comparison. The text on the inside reads "Shapeways," and below that "Matt Blum @ Wired.")
The Shapeways website offers the ability to browse other people’s designs as well, and you can decide whether you want your designs to be public or private, and whether or not to allow other people to copy them for their own modification purposes. You can upload designs from pretty much any major design software product out there, and the website now offers an online "creator," which currently only allows you to create what they call "light poems" (which are a really cool idea), but will eventually allow more freedom.
There are certainly some very cool designs that others have made, and some people have even made puzzles out of it. Unfortunately from a GeekDad perspective, the plastics they currently offer are not certified as non-toxic, and are therefore not a viable medium for making toys for little kids. They do say that they plan to offer certified safe materials soon. The service is also, while not horribly expensive, not very economical, either. I understand their need to make money on the service, of course, but if any fairly complex design comes out costing $100 US or so, as seems to be the case from my experimentation, I don’t know how many people are likely to complete their orders.
In short, it’s a really cool service, and I highly recommend that anyone with design talent give it a try, and anyone with or without design talent take a look at some of the designs on the website. If you can afford to buy one of them, they do look really cool on your shelf. Just don’t let any children who still put toys in their mouths play with them.