Shapeways announced several new post printing options, and I think this is a very interesting development.
The long-time 3D print service has been printing, well almost anything, for clients worldwide for many years. During our visit we saw their equipment in action, and noted they had a capable post processing operation.
Basic post processing is required for almost every 3D printing process: supports have to be removed, powder blown off, models given final cure, etc. But those post-printing activities are to be expected as they are essentially part of the 3D printing process. By doing them, you get a "great part from the printer".
What interests me is what happens after that.
Post processing can also include steps that make the printed part far better than what it may have been fresh out of the printer. The surface could be smoothed through a chemical bath, for example. Or the color and texture could be changed by painting. Or the surface could be made into a different material entirely by plating.
The number of these post processing options is large and limited by imagination, equipment, time and cost.
The major challenge with today's 3D printing technologies is an extremely limited choice of materials. Many times the requestor really wants the object to be made from something else, something that cannot be easily 3D printed. So these post processing steps are taken. If you can't 3D print in that material, make it look like that material!
It is an approach to overcome the materials constraints. It's somewhat like pretending there is a 3D printer that CAN produce objects in a different way.
And that is something that Shapeways has done for years. Now they're adding some additional post processing options, including:
- Silver antique finish, which gives objects the look of aged metal. "A unique finish that gives a rugged personality to your pieces"
- Matte finish for full color prints. "A smooth and matte finish for even bolder colors."
- Matte Bronzed-Steel Finish. "A subtly rustic finish for industrial chic pieces."
These add to their long list of possible finishes that can transform otherwise common 3D printed parts into incredible objects of far more value.
As 3D printing technology becomes more commonly available worldwide, it is possible that traditional 3D print services may see a drop in business or at least a heavy challenge from many new competitors. One way to stay ahead is to focus on the post processing aspects to make the service more capable than others.
In a way, we may be seeing the beginnings of a transformation here: could Shapeways be eventually more well-known as a "Finishing" company rather than a "3D print service" company? Their clients are often interested in the final appearance of the part, so why not make that the priority?
Otherwise for Shapeways and other 3D print services, it could become a race to the bottom, where the cheapest and quickest 3D print service may win over all. I don't think 3D print services should always be about cost; they should also be about quality and choice of finish.