Shapeways, the consumer-oriented digital manufacturing service, has received a lot of positive press since it was recently spun out of Philips Lifestyle Incubator. Originally in closed beta testing limited to 500 participants (though this seems to have been relaxed – I had no problems registering), Shapeways allows users to upload designs and receive a quote for the model’s manufacture in a number of different materials. Accepted file formats include .stl, .dae and .x3d, and the maximum file size is 64Mb which seems pretty huge – I very rarely create a full assembly in .stl which is even half that size. However the maximum number of polygons is 250,000 (due apparently to the processing time and the need to display models on computers without high-end graphics cards), and the problem of a model not being accepted occurs quite frequently in the Shapeways forums. But given that Shapeways is still in beta it seems to be working well, and the enthusiasm with which it has been received by some users is encouraging for those of us who argue that there’s a demand from consumers for the ability to design and manufacture their own products.
Nonetheless, one of the requirements for using Shapeways is a knowledge of CAD in order to output a 3D model in one of the formats mentioned above. As I have argued previously, knowledge of CAD is the gateway to manufacture (assuming we are not talking about craft production), and without that knowledge it doesn’t matter how easy it is to upload and pay for a model to be produced, it’s not going to be embraced by consumers without the time or interest to learn a 3D modelling program. This is one of the strengths of Ponoko, whose laser-cutting manufacturing method allows users to supply files in .eps format from 2D drawing programs which far more people are familiar with. But it seems Shapeways are attempting to address this issue with the launch of their Creator service.