Online 3D Printing Services – What They Are and How They Work

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Image of Voodoo Manufacturing 3D printing factory

Companies that offer online 3D printing services are popping up all over. I bet there is at least one in a city near you.

So what is an online 3D printing service?

Remember the Kinko’s chain of print shops? A 3D printing service operates much the same way by offering customized printing for everything from one of a kind widgets to prototypes for your next million dollar gadget to thousands of customized logo key chains to hand out at the next trade show.

In this post I run down the basics of online 3D printing services and highlight a few players in this ever growing industry.

How Do Online 3D Printing Services Work?

The basic process is pretty straightforward. Simply upload your 3D model, request a quote, place your order and the object or objects are printed and sent to you.

Some print shops offer design services and other complementary services such as laser engraving and post printing finishing.

Cost, of course, will vary depending on such factors as material, size of the component, number of components, turn around time and other services such as design work. Obviously, the larger the component, the more expensive it will be due to the amount of material required.

Most shops have a minimum charge ($8-$15) and offer volume discounts for larger runs.

Not all online 3D printing services are created equal so you’ll want to shop around. Some have only one printer and offer one material like PLA; some offer multiple material types and some specialize in metals or metal composite materials like onyx.

Many Players – Differing Business Models

There are literally thousands of companies offering 3D printing services; each leveraging one or more of the following business models.

  • Home based businesses that run 1 or 2 printers with limited material options.
  • Printing ‘factories’ having hundreds of printers with multiple material options and modalities like fused deposition modeling.
  • 3D printing service ‘yellow pages’ – these companies don’t actually operate a 3D printing service but instead link you with a network of available 3D printing service companies.
  • Companies that primarily focus on other aspects of 3D printing, like filament fabrication, and offer limited printing services as a added service offering.
  • Industrialized with multiple materials, multiple modalities (fused deposition modeling, sterolithography, laser sintering, direct metal laser sintering, etc) and multiple services like macining, molding, laser engraving in addition to 3D printing.

Since 3DPBUZZ is more aligned with the home user and small business owner utilizing fused deposition modeling, I’m going to highlight businesses that employ one of the first three business models using FDM.

3D Printing Factory

The fist 3D printing service company I want to introduce you to is Voodoo Manufacturing out of Brooklyn, NY. I really like this company’s business model and, based on their success, so do customers.

Voodoo operates a print shop with over 200 3D printers. It must be quite the sight to see them all printing away at the same time. They’ve served over 2000 customers and printed over 400,000 parts.

Image of Voodoo Manufacturing Factory
Voodoo Manufacturing Factory

 

Voodoo specializes in fused deposition modeling using PLA, semi-flexible TPU, rigid TPU and PET-G (an alternative to ABS) materials and medium or large print volumes. The medium size print volume is 10.9 x 5.7 x 6.0 inches and the large size print volume is 11.8 x 11.8 x 23.8 inches.

The company offers direct printing, volume printing and, what they term fulfillment printing options.

With the direct print option, the customer simply uploads their model to Voodoo’s website and follows the prompts to get a quote on the job. Direct print can be used for runs under 100 components and includes advanced options enabling customers to select layer height, infill and shell settings for their prints. Voodoo offers tutorials on advanced print settings to help customers choose their settings if they decide to go that route.

The volume print option is for larger runs up to 10,000 parts.

With the fulfillment option, customers can use Voodoo’s API (application programming interface) to integrate their on-line shop with Voodoo’s factory. When a customer orders an object from your site, Voodoo prints it and drop ships directly to the ordering customer for a seamless transaction.

Voodoo also offers design services if you have an idea but do not have a 3D model.

A final note on Voodoo is their partner program. The company has a network of online 3D printing service companies that they can refer customers to if a request cannot be met. Referring companies in the partner program earn commissions on their referred jobs and the customer comes away satisfied that their request was met.

Service Finders – ‘Yellow Pages’ for 3D Printing Shops

The next company I want to highlight doesn’t actually print anything. Instead, the company links customers with a nationwide network of 3D printing service shops.

Meet Treatstock, an e-commerce business that helps small business owners, like 3D printing service shops, expand their markets.

What I like about Treatstock is that it’s a platform for the primary audience of 3DPBUZZ – the home user and small business owner. The Treatstock platform allows 3D printing service providers and modelers to market their services and models.

Their business model makes it easy for both the consumer and the small business owner to connect through automated order processing, price/quote calculations, and tools for searching and comparing vendors.

Through Treatstock’s website the consumer can search for printing services in a given city. The search can be narrowed by modality (fused deposition modeling, selective laser sintering, electron beam melting, etc.), material type and product application (prototype, dental, jewelry, etc).

The results can be sorted by distance from target city, price or rating of service provider.

I ran a quick search for FDM printing services in Los Angeles with carbon fiber material and got 17 hits. As you might expect, there are a lot of 3D printing service companies in the Los Angeles areas so results will vary but you get the idea of how powerful the Treatstock platform can be.

If you have a 3D printer or have created a great model and are looking for a way to monetize your passion, Treatstock may just be the ticket to your success.

3D Printing As A Complimentary Service

The last company I’ll highlight is ColorFabb based in the Netherlands. ColorFabb specializes in 3D printing filaments but also offers 3D printers and services including printer set up, 3D modeling, and 3D printing.

The company’s 3D printing service leverages over 30 printers in their lab to offer limited run print services.

The 3D printing service is more of an auxiliary service offering as their lab is primarily used by the engineering team to test the filaments they develop. Though 3D printing services are not a major part of the company’s product offerings, I wanted to highlight them in this post because they make their own filaments with a unique twist.

ColorFabb manufacturers their own line of filaments on 6 production extruder lines. A unique aspect of their filament production is the Color On Demand service.

With Color On Demand, the company makes custom PLA filament colored to match essentially any RAL color requested. ColorFabb started out with 25 colors in 2013. Today, they can create filaments in thousands of colors.

Color On Demand filaments are custom-made to order and are therefore not stocked. Injection molded color cards are provided for customers to verify the color prior to ordering.

Customized colored filament is shipped on 2kg spools with a 2-3 week lead time (1 week lead time if requested color has been previously formulated). Cost per spool is approximated 90 euros.

Patent Buzz

Image from Walmart's 3D printing service patentThere are quite a few patents and pending patent applications related to various aspects of 3D printing services.

For example, Amazon owns patent US10074124B1 directed to on-demand customization of products and Walmart has pending patent application US20170068238A1 directed to remote ordering a 3D printed object and user-selected in store pick up.

Voodoo Manufacturing has 4 pending patent applications all related to 3D printing factory server functionality.

I found it interesting that the busiest player in the 3D printing service patent race happens to be Ebay coming in with 4 issued patents and 5 pending applications. Ebay’s patents deal with technologies such as digital rights management, systems for selecting printing service based on specific metrics and optimization of sporting equipment based on the customer’s use of the equipment.

In addition to Amazon and Walmart, other big name companies like Microsoft and Intel are garnering patent protection in this technology space indicating that they see dollar signs in this business. Let’s hope they don’t block out the small business owners and entrepreneurs like Voodoo Manufacturing.

Conclusion

The 3D printing service landscape includes visionary entrepreneurs like Voodoo Manufacturing, B2B enablers like Treatstock and big business bandwagon jumpers like Amazon and Walmart.

There a number of business models being employed by the myriad print shops allowing for each player to find a niche to be successful in.

3D printing is a worldwide phenomenon and the 3D printing service industry is still rather young so I believe there is room for everyone to join the movement. How long will it be until we can order 3D printed food directly from our refrigerator’s user interface?

By the way, IBM has a patent application directed to user requested 3D printed food – US20180116272A1.

What will you create?

If you are interested in marketing your 3D printing services, check out Treatstock.

If you have questions, comments or experience with 3D printing services, please leave a message in the comments section below.

 

 

 

 

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4 Replies to “Online 3D Printing Services – What They Are and How They Work”

  1. I’ve been fascinated by 3D printing ever since it started to become mainstream, but the costs of having one at home are just too high still (although it’s getting better all the time).  I really wanted to try it out, but I had no idea that there were services like this.  Seems stupid on my part that it never occurred to me, because it makes perfect sense that this business model would be out there.  Definitely excited about giving this a try.  I am going to start working on a model right away.

    1. Thanks Brandon for your comments. As you note, costs for consumer 3D printers are getting better all the time. I’m not sure what your price point is but here’s a review I wrote on a printer under $300: https://3dpbuzz.com/3d-printer-under-300-evaluation-of-the-creality-ender-3.

      You mentioned that you are going to start on a model. What software are you using? I currently use SketchUp but am always on the lookout for something that might be better. Can you give us any insights?

  2. 3D printing is a booming business. Many friends of mine now have a personal 3D printer in their homes. The possibilities are amazing! Although the models for home use can only print small things, many small things can make up one big thing.

    It’s interesting to see how the landscape is changing at that these players all seem to find specific business models, which is a clever thing!

    I’m curious to see what the next 10 years will bring. I think were going to see a lot of 3D printing shops not only online, but also on the streets.

    1. Thank you Jurgen. I agree that the next 10 years will bring amazing changes to consumer 3D printing. Prices will continue to come down and printers will be in every school and many homes.

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