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Sculpteo's 3D printing service brings designs to life

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The company is building a global-scale manufacturing process for goods that aren't intended to be mass produced - from customized iPhone cases, to spare parts, to specialized 3D maps.

Spend a few minutes talking with Clèment Moreau, and you're apt to start dreaming up your own three-dimensional (3D) creations: a customized toy, a work of art, or even a working robot. But as co-founder of 3D printing company Sculpteo, Moreau is less interested in hobbyist-only pursuits than he is in what professionals can do with the still-nascent technology.

Sculpteo is a 3D printing company, but it doesn't make 3D printers. With facilities in France, America and Israel, Sculpteo maintains its own manufacturing operations for 3D printing services. Companies and individuals send in their 3D renderings, and Sculpteo prints their designs using a process that involves lasers and plastic compounds reduced to a powder form.

This is almost the reverse of the engineering revolution sparked by Henry Ford with the Model T automobile. Instead of creating a system for efficient mass production, Sculpteo is building a global-scale manufacturing process for goods that aren't intended to be mass-produced.

The limitations of in-home 3D printing

Several companies sell 3D printers for in-home use, but there are major hurdles to overcome in the consumer 3D printing market.

First, the technology requires a level of technical expertise few consumers possess. Second, the practical applications of consumer-grade 3D printing technology remain limited so far. (Basic 3D printers are often used to create ornamental objects and minor tools and accessories.) Third, retail 3D printers are still relatively expensive, ranging from a few hundred dollars at the low end, to several thousand dollars at the high side.

Bringing ideas to life

At the professional level, however, 3D printing is more practical, and that's a large part of what's driving market growth. The consulting and analyst firm Wohlers Associates predicts 3D printing will become a $3.7 billion global industry by 2015, and will surpass $6.5 billion in sales by 2019.

In the professional 3D printing vein, Sculpteo sells its services in an outsourced manufacturing model to product designers who lack production resources.

The company buys commercially available 3D printers, then innovates on the technology to improve quality and versatility. Sculpteo has, for example, added full-color printing to the process, creating new options for customization. With high-quality machinery, globally distributed operations, and the ability to continue innovating, Sculpteo is ready to push this emerging industry into high gear.

Moreau explains that the critical advantage to 3D printing over traditional manufacturing is that it doesn't cost any more to produce unique objects than it does to produce many copies of a single design.

For that reason, Sculpteo is only one of several companies building a business around 3D printing services along with industry heavyweight Stratasys (also a printer manufacturer), start-up Shapeways, and Belgium-based i.materialize. In a retail twist, office supply company Staples also recently announced it would launch 3D printing services through a partnership with Mcor Technologies.

Through several channels, including telecom company Orange in Britain, Sculpteo is delivering customized iPhone cases. With iCeramic Art, Sculpteo is producing individual pottery designs through a virtual pottery mobile app. And for an unnamed gas station brand, Sculpteo is creating personalized 3D maps for loyal truck driver customers based on their travel routes and gas station stops.

Much of the enterprise work in 3D printing is still experimental, but the potential for specialized manufacturing is too big to ignore. Engineers aspire to print everything from human organs to buildings on the moon.

In the short term, the money-making endeavors will be more mundane, like a service that prints spare parts on demand. But commercial success is commercial success. And Sculpteo is on the front lines to see it happen.

Image of 3D printing facility courtesy of Sculpteo

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Mari Silbey

Contributing Editor

Mari Silbey is an independent tech writer based in Washington, D.C. With a background in cable and telecom, she's a contributor to several trade publications, and part of the GigaOM analyst network. She also writes for the long-running digital media blog Zatz Not Funny, and has written for both corporate and association clients focused on broadband networks, mobile apps, and video delivery. She's a graduate of Duke University. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure