The launch of shapeways.com has garnered a lot of attention, and it's a great concept - a 3D service bureau designed for the relatively non-technical user. Upload your 3D design, click on a couple of buttons, enter a credit card and your model arrives in a few weeks.
There are many other service bureaus that can do the same thing, for example our friends at solidconcepts.com, but Shapeways stands out for emphasizing ease of use, with a non-intimidating interface and quick automated review of your STL file.
Shapeways is in private beta, but I got an ID to try out. I figured I'd take a model from our shop, one that we knew would work because we've printed it, and give Shapeways a try. Here's the first one I tried:
In case it's not obvious, this is a teacher's aid, designed to speed up the grading process.
After a few minutes, Shapeways delivered the verdict: the model can't be printed because it's "not manifold". What does that mean? Unless you're pretty well versed in basic topology, don't ask. Short answer: shapeways doesn't think it's a good model and it won't print it. However, right in front of me is a copy of that very object, printed on a Dimension FDM printer, the same one I believe that they are using.
So, I tried another model:
It's a pretty cool design for a toothbrush handle, created by one of our students at Art Center.
This time, I got a different message - first, an email warning me that there was something bad about the model, but Shapeways might be able to fix it, but then a few minutes later it gave up. We printed this one here too.
So Shapeways - great idea, and I totally understand that they need to have software that uses algorithms and heuristics to try to determine whether or not the model can be successfully printed - otherwise, they are going to waste a lot of resources and materials trying to print bad models. I understand too that they are still in beta, and I'm going to send the models to them so they can try to determine what the issues are. Let's hope they can continue to develop their software so that it doesn't reject valid, printable models, because otherwise they are going to have some very unhappy customers or potential customers.