A powerful new capability was announced by 3D print service Shapeways: AbFab3D. It's a software architecture that permits the existence of "3D Creators", which are programs that create printable 3D models based on some input parameters. In other words, on-the-fly customized models.
The catch is that you need a "3D Creator" for each type of customization. However, what they can do is limited only by the imagination and programming ingenuity of the 3D Creator creator.
For now, Shapeways has released the code to encourage programmers to make more 3D Creators. The sample 3D Creator is "Image Creator", which simply takes a 2D image uploaded by the user and embosses or engraves it to create a custom 3D model. Then, of course, you can print it on Shapeways' system.
We think this is a great start and positions Shapeways a bit closer to Ponoko's personal factory concept. We're wondering what kind of 3D Creators will be made by ingenious Shapeways designers. More than likely the best results will come from collaborations between the very artistic Shapeways designers and expert programmers, as those two skills are not often found in the same person.