Shapeways, a spinoff from electronics giant Royal Philips Electronics, is shaking up the world of 3-D printing with a new offering that produces objects in stainless steel instead of the more traditional polymer materials used by competitive 3-D print offerings.
Shapeways, which bills itself as a 3-D co-creation community, targets artists, enthusiasts and seasoned 3-D designers and engineers with do-it-yourself 3-D printing services that empower them to customize existing products and bring prototype designs to life in a cost-effective fashion, according to CEO Peter Weijmarshausen. With its new service, Shapeways is making stainless steel production accessible for anyone over the Internet, Weijmarshausen says.
"While service bureaus offering polymer production are widespread, those offering stainless steel capabilities are hard to come by," he says. "There's an endless list of things you can make in stainless steel that is not possible with plastics." Specifically, Weijmarshausen cites examples such as mechanical parts for remote-control toys, components for robots and housing for computers as potential new opportunities for 3-D stainless steel print production that weren't possible with existing services.
For engineers, the new Shapeways service has a number of possibilities. For limited production runs, individuals could utilize the stainless steel service to produce metal casings for electronics equipment or to create mechanical parts without having to invest in expensive CNC milling equipment. The service also has applicability for quick and cost-effective turnaround of physical metal component prototypes in addition to being a more economical and efficient way of dealing with the need for spare parts, Weijmarshausen says. "Instead of having to keep all kinds of spare parts around just in case something breaks, with Shapeways, you don't need to," he says. As long as there is a 3-D model of the part, the engineer can ship the model to Shapeways and order a replacement part without having to stock spare parts going forward.
Shapeways' technique deposits stainless steel powder in a very thin layer and glues it together with a binder. Printed objects are built up using this process over layers, and when complete, the objects are infused with bronze and cured in an oven. After cooling, the objects can be left in the original steel finish or be tumbled to get a polished effect.
To access the Shapeways service, engineers simply export a CAD file from any of the main packages to an STL format and upload it to the Shapeways site. Pricing is based on the amount of material used, starting at $10 per cubic centimeter.