Desktop Vs. Service-Based 3D Printing: A Tale of Spaghetti

“What does this error message mean?!” “Wait, why is there only half a print?” “But… I JUST leveled it…”

While owning (and maintaining) a desktop 3D printer may sound like fun, it’s not for the faint of heart… or for those who lack fairly in-depth technical ability. Between constant leveling of the print bed, double-checking to make sure you’re not going to have a filament run-out, and the ever-possible “Whyyy did it just STOP?!?!?”, it can take some serious dedication to the project to make sure that printer is running at 100%, especially when it comes to constantly lubricating, tightening and adjusting. And while desktop 3D printing may SOUND more affordable, you really do need to shell out some serious coin to get a reliable printer. One day it’s running correct, next you’ve got a build plate full of spaghetti: 

Sometimes you need something that just works — and that’s where a service-based 3D printing platform like Shapeways come in.

Upon uploading to a site like, your file is automatically processed through an incredibly intricate system. Model checks are automatically performed to estimate whether or not your file is not only printable, but also what materials it can be printed in. Yes, materials. Metals, plastics, acrylics, porcelain — each material opening totally new doors of creativity.

Aside from providing pricing and lead time estimates, the system automatically checks any potentially problematic areas, and allows you to automatically fix them for the selected material, ensuring that it’s printable. That’s something you’ll only learn by trial and error on a home machine, potentially wasting filament and lots of time in the process. Then, the design is checked manually for printability by a Shapeways employee before it’s sent to the printers. Finally, each piece is hand-finished by production staff.

Once it’s ordered, your order arrives at your doorstep in a matter of days, a finished product of the highest possible quality and resolution in its material class. No more fiddling around with settings, layer height, slicers, or burns from loading up printers.

That said, there are also advantages to 3D printing at home, and ways that it can co-exist with a service-based model. If you’re not concerned about high-resolution finished products and have plenty of time to nurture your hobby, an inexpensive desktop 3D printer might be right for you. If you’re a product designer in the early stages of prototyping your design, having a manufacturing machine in your office can lead to a fast iteration in plastic of small- to medium-sized products. Once you’ve iterated and are happy with your design, then it’s time to send it over to a service-based platform for superior accuracy, minimal stepping, and the ability to receive it in multiple materials, ranging from plastics to precious metals and ceramics.

Tell us your experiences with transitioning from desktop to service-based 3D printing, or if you use both in tandem, in the comments below!

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One comment

  1. John Dunlap

    The killer of my dreams is not convenience or complexity, but cost, which is why most of my ideas never make it out of Blender, let alone Shapeways. I built a charcoal forge out of an old clay pot and a hair dryer (the inspiration for the name of my shop here), taught myself to use a tabletop milling machine, built a Faraday disc, etc.. 3D printers don’t scare me, I just can’t afford to buy or build what I want (if I had 99 grand to spare, a Markforge metal printer would already be sitting here, banging out parts). I keep watching and saving, and prices keep coming down… in the meantime, I’m dreaming of the day you guys start printing heat treatable metals.

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