How to 3D print your own designs without a 3D printer

In his keynote speech at the Inside 3D Printing conference in New York today, 3D Systems CEO Avi Reichental said that when he's asked if 3D printers will make their way into everyday people's homes, he can't answer them. That's because it's not a matter of if they'll make their way into the home it's where in the home they'll put them, Reichental said.

Many may agree with that, but for now the idea of at-home 3D printers still seems far-fetched. In addition to the price Staples.com currently offers a Cube 3D printer for about $1,300 the required knowledge for designing 3D files and using the technology remains a roadblock to mainstream adoption. 3D Systems currently offers a buyer's guide to ease the process for those interested, but the mere fact that the technology requires a guide to just buying the hardware is a sign that it's not nearly ready for mainstream markets.

Until then, those interested in 3D printing their own designs can turn to one of the many services that bridge the gap and handle the printing for them.

+ ALSO ON NETWORK WORLD: The worst of 3D printing hype | 3D printers: Not for the average consumer +

A company called WhiteClouds doesn't even ask that its customers know how to use a computer. Customers can send them hand-drawn sketches and the company will turn them into a design file, print with its 3D printers, and ship back to them. The company was once handed a model made out of cardboard and found a way to 3D print a replica.

A French company called Sculpteo offers a handful of services, ranging from printing and shipping users' designs to connecting those interested in buying the products to the designers who created them. The site even offers a flowchart explaining what it can do for users depending on their level of experience with the technology. The company also offers online design tools that customers can embed on their own sites.

Blokify simplifies the design process for the mobile world, apparently targeting children who are interested in creating their own toys and have grown up using touchscreens. With the software, users can design their product by organizing small blocks on a grid. The app, which is available for iOS, can connect to an at-home 3D printer like the Cube, but also allows users to submit their designs to Blokify's printer, which mails the finished product back to the user.

Last year, Gartner research director Pete Basiliere said 3D printing will soon enter the "trough of disappointment" for consumers as the hype gives way to reality. These kinds of 3D printing services, however, may keep the disappointment at bay.

Colin Neagle covers emerging technologies and the startup scene for Network World. Follow him on Twitter @ntwrkwrldneagle and keep up with the Microsoft, Cisco and Open Source community blogs. Colin's email address is cneagle@nww.com.

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