If you know much about 3D printing, then there’s a good chance you’ve heard of Shapeways.
Shapeways are a visionary technology company who are synonymous with 3D printing.
Since they started business in 2007 they have established themselves worldwide as a cutting edge 3D printing company.
They enable their customers to have their own designs 3D printed in some very high quality materials, using some equally high quality 3D printing equipment.
As well as this their customers can also sell their products, which will be made and shipped by Shapeways on demand. This is a service I am yet to try myself, but I love the idea of a company who encourages you to make money from 3D printing, instead of just spending money on it as most of us do.
Why Use a 3D Printing Company Like Shapeways
Let’s just step back a little to these high quality printers and high quality printing materials. As you may well know, I’ve spent hundreds of hours designing and 3D printing stuff for this website, to help teach people how to try 3D printing for themselves, as well as how amazing it is.
Many of these filaments, whether they’re rubber, 30% wood, 80% bronze, or glow in the dark are definitely a refreshing change from plain old PLA. However, as our design skills and imagination grow we go looking for something more exciting than printing in plastic.
Some time ago I heard about a new service from Shapeways, which allowed people like you and I to design something, prototype it using our own 3D printer (if we wish, because you don’t even need your own printer to use Shapeways), then have it professionally printed using a high quality printer before being gold plated!
I had also heard good things about this service from people who’d used it and the prices were pretty good to. To me this was what I’d been looking for, my chance to create something that is finished in 14 carat rose gold plating, rather than my usual copper spray paint or Dry Brushing.
As well as being curious I also felt it was my duty to try this for myself so I could report back on my experience to my readers. After all, if you check out my Beginners Series you’ll realise that most of what I do (including buying a MakerBot Replicator 2 in the first place) is so you can learn from my own experiences, good and bad.
What Design Tool and Model to Use
As much as I love the simplicity of Tinkercad especially for beginners, I’ve found that the control, functionality and resolution of the designs isn’t quite up to scratch for high quality items.
I have since discovered OpenSCAD which is more complex, but as a result allows more control, more function and some very high resolution designs.
Also, as we’re talking about a relatively high cost printing process here, the item needs to be small.
I decided to design a simple piece of customised jewellery for my girlfriend. I’ll be buying a rose gold chain I think to finish it off.
Here’s the design image from OpenSCAD, but before I exported it for uploading to the Shapeways website I substantially increased the quality of the curves and layers, so it was as good a finish as I could achieve.
I’m quite happy to let you have the OpenSCAD source code for free if you wish (ask in the comments below) so you can see how it was designed. You could even modify it yourself to use any word/name and have one made by Shapeways yourself!
Uploading, Checking and Ordering
The upload and ordering process was easier than I envisaged. You simply upload the .STL file and Shapeways will calculate the volume, perform some checks on the design and give you various prices for various materials and finishes.
For example, my gold plated design was about $60 to purchase, but for $1,700 I could have had it made in solid platinum! The idea was not to go over the top for now, but just to experiment with the process and report back to you, so $60 is enough for now.
There are some automated checks which take place and then some manual checks will be made by real people. I presume this takes place after ordering and when the Shapeways staff attempt to make your product.
The automated checks ensure that details, gaps, extrusions, holes in hollow items, etc are all within reasonable constraints. For example something very long and very thin might not fit within the printing area and if it did it might be very difficult to initially make in wax without it breaking.
Ok, now I’ve mentioned wax you’re probably confused, so let me briefly explain the process involved in 3D printing and plating your designs in precious metals.
The 3D Printing and Plating Process
There are some constraints on exactly what can be printed as briefly mentioned above. I won’t go into detail of this here, as you can find these constraints here on the Shapeways website where they describe the Precious Metal Plating Process in detail themselves.
These constraints are quite easy to meet and my design passed all the tests first time, for all of the materials Shapeways can make your product in.
Assuming your design meet these constraints, let’s summarise the printing and plating process so we have an appreciation of what Shapeways will do with your uploaded model:
- The model is firstly 3D printed in wax on a high resolution printer
- It’s then put into a container and surrounded by liquid plaster
- Once the plaster sets, the wax is melted away leaving a plaster mold
- Molten brass is poured into the plaster mold and left to harden
- The plaster is then broken away and the product is polished
- It’s then coated in a layer of palladium to provide strength
- Finally the precious metal plating (rose gold for me) takes place
As with other blog posts I’ve written involving a third party service, my 3D Printed Watch for example, I’ve written this part immediately after designing, uploading and ordering so it’s all fresh in my mind.
Shapeways have given me an estimated delivery time of just over three weeks.
This isn’t bad considering the seven step process described above and the fact I live in the United Kingdom so it’ll need to be shipped a few thousand miles too. While I wait, I can still gaze upon the prototype I 3D printed myself in PLA plastic. It’s nothing like the finished gold plated product will be, but it’s a reminder of how amazing this technology is.
The 3D Printed Gold Jewellery Has Arrived
It’s a little earlier than the estimated delivery date and the postman has been. I wasn’t home at the time but this just meant a quick trip down the road to pick up my first ever Shapeways parcel. Yes I was excited!
On opening the parcel it was clear that this had been very well packaged with lots of those little pieces of foam for padding. There was a cool little silver box inside which in turn contained a velvety pouch to further protect the 3D printed jewellery.
Now, I mentioned earlier that this jewellery is for my girlfriend, but I didn’t mention that it was for her birthday. The truth is, after opening it and seeing it for the first time I was so excited to write about it that I couldn’t wait for her birthday.
When I published this I knew she’d see it on Facebook and Instagram so I either had to wait a month to publish this, or give her the present early. I decided on the latter so I could share this story with you right now, as I couldn’t wait a month to publish this. Yes it will cost me more money as now I have to buy another present for her birthday but at least you get to read this pretty much as it happens and I don’t have to contain my excitement any longer.
Anyway, back to the jewellery and my first impressions…
Did it Meet Expectations?
My expectations for this service were already high as I’d heard great reviews of Shapeways 3D printing and gold plating service, from some well respected people in the 3D printing world.
I wasn’t disappointed as it looked amazing and my girlfriend loved it too. I wish my photography could do it justice but it can’t and I should have had a professional photographer to photograph it. But trust me, it is really well printed, well polished and beautifully gold plated.
Looking at it you’d never guess it was 3D printed, which is testament to the high quality 3D printers and pre/post printing processes which Shapeways use.
Everyone I’ve showed it to thinks it’s amazing and it definitely makes a change from the plastic home printed objects I normally inflict on people.
I get the feeling that I’ll be using a lot more of this service and I’ve already started to design a ring for myself. What’s really interesting is that Shapeways sent me an email after the jewellery was successfully printed, stating that they’d calculated that it could also be 3D printed in these other materials with an 80% success rate:
- Polished Brass
- 14k Gold Plated
- Raw Brass
- 18k Gold Plated
- 14K Gold
- 14k Rose Gold
- 14k White Gold
- 18k Gold
- Rhodium Plated
- Raw Bronze
- Polished Bronze
- Premium Silver
- Polished Silver
- Raw Silver
I don’t know about you but I think that’s an impressive list, so maybe I’ll try another material for my next design. I believe these are just the jewellery materials too, with their full list of materials being much bigger. It’s too large to publish here so I suggest you check the Shapeways Material List as it’s also growing all the time.
As you know, I love everything about 3D printing and this new discovery (creating my own jewellery) only adds to the list of things I love about it. I love writing about this stuff and I love sharing it with as many people as I can.
If you want to learn the basics of 3D printing yourself, then you can do it by downloading my Beginners Guide to 3D Printing at Home eBook. Best of all, as we have just established, you don’t even need a 3D printer to design and 3D print some amazing stuff!
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Thanks for reading and thanks for sharing.