3D printing without a printer

It’s like a replicator on Star Trek when you think about it. You push a button on a computer and a real object appears. That’s what the dream of 3D printing is all about. Of course the reality remains a lot more clunky and expensive than that. But, if you are prepared to insert some waiting time into the process, Ponoko can make the whole thing seem seamless and easy.

Ponoko has been running since 2007; it started in New Zealand. Originally it involved laser cutting items but more recently it has upgraded to include 3D printing and CNC routing services. The idea is about as simple as it gets – you upload your design and a few days later you get a real-world version of it back in the post. So, yes, that’s not quite the Star Trek replicator but… There’s a lot to Ponoko’s claim to be “the world’s easiest making system.” A key feature of the Ponoko system is that it gives you an instant online price for making your creation come to life – the entire process is automated.

Of course one of the tricks to all this is that you have to come up with the ideas in the first place and then draw them out using some 3D modeling software. Neither of those things is necessarily as easy as it sounds. If you have inspiration or a need for a particular widget, the first part is covered. The drawing up part is getting progressively easier as software develops; but is still tricky – especially in an environment where the computer is unforgiving, it will print out what you tell it to, mistakes and all. Ponoko is trying to address this by working with software developers and creating apps for specific design types but there’s still a way to go until it becomes easy.

If you are short on inspiration Ponoko has taken things a step further. You can browse through other people’s designs and have them made up for you – paying the designer for the privilege. At this level Ponoko is really just a market for designers. That’s a good thing, but it’s not the 3D printing dream.

That dream really has to encompass household objects. I break a cup and can get another almost instantly. Perhaps every household doesn’t have to have their own replicator in the wall, but there needs to be one on every corner, or within a couple of hours delivery time. Until then it is Ponoko and some patience.

Ponoko’s holiday gift guide is now on their website; It’s full of interesting things. My personal whimsical favourite is the 3D-printed flower-pot for your bike.

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