Tool of the Week: Online 3D printing (rapid prototyping)

The Cube 3D printer or the makerbot could be a really fun engineering teaching tool.

Recently, I've been super intrigued by online 3D printing services (Aka: cloud printing, rapid prototyping).  The principal is simple: You upload a modle to a website, it's printed on a rapid prototyper machine, and mailed to you.

I've found 3 services online that I'm pretty intrigued by:

  • is easy to use, offers a wide variety of materials, accepts direct upload from google sketchup, and has the cheapest pricing I've seen (although the shipping is pretty steep, and there's a customs fee for international shipping).  They also offer a pretty large printing format, and discounts for ordering multiple of the same part.
  • offers a "3D cloud print" option... although using sketchup with cubify requires a 3rd party plugin, which I couldn't successfully get to work, and so I never got a quote on my model.  The intriguing thing here is the affordable Cube 3d printer, which, for $1200 could be a really fun toy for any DIYer...  If you're interested in home 3D printing, also check out the makerbot.
  • is the third website that I've found to offer similar services.  Like i.materialise, you can upload directly from sketchup (although you'll have to go to file->export->export 3D model and select a '.dae' file).  The disadvantage here is the price quoted for the test model was a lot more than it was on i.materialize, however when shipping is included, it might be cheaper. I imagine that shapeways might be the best bet for printing smaller models.
measures about a foot in length, 4 or 6 of these can be connected and marbles make the play pieces. I should note that Cubify has a 5.5" printing limit, so this model would be too large for that site.

So what was my test model?  I've been fascinated by a game my friend Adam introduced me to called Joker (click for description of gameplay).  I made a 4 player game using some scrap wood and a drill, but we recently had a blast playing a 6 player variant.  I'd love to have a better looking joker set that can be used for 4 to 6 players, so I made this model of a side of the board that could be connected in a square or hexagon formation for 4-6 player gameplay.

I placed my order on, and they e-mailed me promptly with some problems my model might have on the 3D printer (the thickness of my model was too thin, which could make it warp as it prints, and I didn't allow enough tolerance for the pieces to snap together as they should).  They offered to fix this problems free of charge and my parts shiped out in about 3 weeks.  The part turned out exactly as I expected, and the alumide material it came in is pretty cool.

The gameboard turned out exactly as i had designed it. If it weren't for the whole customs fee debacle, i would be pretty stoked about it.

Unfortunately, I was hit with an additional $25 COD customs fee when the parts arrived, due to the method which i.materialize shipped internationally.  i.materialize apologized about this hidden fee, by pointing me to an obscure paragraph in their FAQ which states:

Unfortunately, duties and import taxes are not included in the cost of shipping. You should contact the customs office of the country to which your models are being delivered.

This was a pretty big buzz kill, and until i.materialize has better pratices for doing buisness internationally, I won't be ordering from them again.  If you're not doing a large part, or ordering multiple parts, it might be worthwhile to pay the extra and go with a more local company like or to avoid getting a bill instead of a package.

Still, I'm super stoked about the applications of 3D printing for my research, teaching, and hobbies. For research, if i need a basic part for something in the lab, but don't want to spend the day on a lathe and mill creating the part out of aluminium, and don't need the part immediately, I can order the part online and have it arrive in a week or two.

I'm already brainstorming some curriculum where I'll have my students design parts and have them 3D printed. When they arrive, the parts can be combined into a larger object that does something useful!

Personally, this is fascinating as well.  Custom Brackets and mounts for bicycle and automotive parts can be pretty pricey, or ghetto, depending on the route you take.  These services seem to offer an affordable middle ground, a nice looking custom part, at a reasonable price!  I thought about using something like this for my DIY bike light project, but it turns out I'm pretty happy with the mount I rigged up out of supplies from the hardware store.

  • Hi Mike,

    Good to read that i.materialise delivered your design that turned out exactly the way you designed it and that we could help you in making your design 3D print-ready.

    We regret that you had to pay import duties of the total amount of 22.40 USD.
    When shipping internationally, the import duties are a cost that has to be paid.
    If you look at the terms and conditions of the 2 other 3D printing services you mention, they also state this on their site :
    SW, shipping section : "Duties and import tax
    Please be aware that shipping charges do not include international taxes or duties (fees). Contact the customs office in the destination country for information about any applicable duties or taxes.
    Cub, info section : "Pricing and payment
    The amount indicated on the order page includes all fees for the Service. The total order price includes shipping costs, sales tax (if applicable) but excludes any import duty or taxes (if applicable)."

    They also don't state this with that many words during the ordering process, so I can't agree with the sentence that we put it in an obscure paragraph.
    Our terms and conditions states that the duties is payable by the receiver, we repeat it in our FAQ, so it's not that we are hiding this info.

    I understand that an unforeseen extra cost is never pleasant to pay but this is inherent to international business.
    We will let you know when we start producing in the US so that we can get rid of the import taxes.
    Of course there will be a small chance that you will need to pay sales tax.
    We aim to deliver a good service and regret that you have a bad feeling due to something that is beyond our control.

    I hope this explanation somewhat tempers the pain of the extra cost and wish you all the best and joy playing your game !


    • mrsoltys

      Thanks for the comment. I understand that Duties, customs, ect. are a part of buying internationally, however it would be a much better customer experience if the fee's were up-front instead of a mystery surprise upon delivery. Example: if you knew that the duties would be 22.40, you could have added that onto my charge when I submitted my order, so that I could know about these fees. Additionally, if they were paid by you, instead of by me on delivery, than it wouldn't be as weird.

      I'll look forward to when you start producing in the US! I am in noway dissatisfied with the product, just the experience. I'm really excited about the future of commerce with 3D printing!