3D printers are getting easier to use and cheaper to own, and 3D printing services like Shapeways and i.Materialise have been around for a while. Still, the technology hasn’t quite caught fire.
Clement Moreau, the CEO and co-founder of Paris-based Sculpteo, thinks he can change that. His solution? Software that takes the glitches out of custom 3-D printing.
Custom 2-D printing is being used just about everywhere. Take a look at the gift section of Shutterfly, the popular photo sharing and printing service: you can put your personal photo on a mug, a mousepad, a calendar, or an iPhone case—and the company does a booming business in such personalized objects. Or look around at any crowded tourist venue—how many folks are wearing T-shirts commemorating a local soccer team, school, or family reunion? People love personalized, custom-made, objects.
Moreau says 3-D printing hasn't caught on because it’s hard to design 3-D objects—you have to be pretty good at manipulating CAD files, and the design files the average person sends to a 3-D printing service are, more often than not, a mess. So companies tend to offer templates that you can tweak to personalize; starting from scratch is difficult or expensive or both.
Moreau came to Silicon Valley last week to convince investors, potential partners, and local press that his company has the secret sauce that will make 3D printing as easy to use for consumers as photoprint services like Shutterfly. He got into the custom 3D printing business three years ago, but quickly found out that most files sent in for printing were simply unusable, and required that a technician spend hours correcting them. So Moreau and his colleagues at Sculpteo set out to find out how other 3-D printing companies handle the problem. It turned out that most served businesses, like the auto industry, where experienced CAD designers built the design files. And when these files had mistakes, the 3-D printing company charged its clients to fix them. That clearly wasn’t going to work in the consumer world.
“If someone has ordered a $15 iPhone case,” Moreau said, “he’s not going to spend $100 for us to clean up his files.”
So Sculpteo set out to automate the file-fixing process, analyzing the bad files received. The company determined that the biggest problem it found was topological, that is, while the files tracked the boundaries of the design, if the shape had a hole in it, consumers using design tools easily lost track of whether a particular part of the shape was inside or outside. Frequent, but not as common, were geometrical problems in self-intersecting shapes, like figure eights. Finally, designs often had physical problems—the shape calculations were fine, but the designer made some part of it too thin for the material to support, and the object would break.
Sculteo’s engineers spent a year looking at PhD papers for mathematical solutions to these issues, and then developed algorithms that could spot and fix files automatically. Sculpteo is using this software to print 3-D objects in its own factory in France and in partnership with commercial 3D printing companies around the world. These other manufacturers, Moreau says, had been doing 3D printing for industry, not for consumers, but Sculpteo’s automated system makes providing a consumer service possible.
What are folks building? Iphone cases, at about US $15 each, are a huge item, said Marina Core-Baillais, Sculpteo director of marketing, and the company’s new process that allows printing of ceramics (that are then glazed and fired) is coming on strong. But her favorite item, to date, is a little plastic part of a popular coffee machine, designed by a customer, and then made available on the Sculpteo web site for others. “This is the one part on that machine that breaks all the time, and there is no commercial replacement. We get a new order for that every 10 days.”
Tekla S. Perry is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. Based in Palo Alto, Calif., she's been covering the people, companies, and technology that make Silicon Valley a special place for more than 40 years. An IEEE member, she holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from Michigan State University.