I decided to write a post comparing two of my favorite 3D printing services: Shapeways and Sculpteo. I used to have wildly polarizing feels about them, that oscillated between which one I liked better, but now I’ve come to terms that they’re very different beasts.
A bit of history
My history with Shapeways goes far back to its early days. I’d just discovered a 3D printing service online and was ecstatic. I spent hours pondering what to print, and then finally settled on Jace. No help with mesh integrity meant getting anything to pass the checks was a nightmare.
There was also a $20 limit before something would be printed. Shapeways has come a long way since then, evolving into a giant marketplace for 3D printed goods.
I discovered Sculpteo a short while ago when I was trying to find an alternative to Shapeways. I didn’t think anything else existed and assumed Shapeways monopolized the market. At the time, I desperately needed something to be printed, faster than the timescales Shapeways provided. I came across it on a list of 3D printing services on 3DPrinterHub, narrowly missing investing in my own 3D printer. It boasted the similar range of materials as Shapeways, but with a 3-day turnaround time.
Comparison 1: Speed
Holy smokes is Sculpteo fast. Most of the time, anything printed in White Plastic (equivalent to Shapeway’s Strong & Flexible Plastic) will be shipped in 3 days. On Shapeways, it takes about 2-5 days for the model to be approved and another week for the printing to happen. I attribute to this amazing turnaround speed to the superior automated mesh integrity services that Sculpteo has.
On Shapeways, when you upload a model, the model is checked for integrity, and an email is sent to you whether it passes the tests (no manifolds, no holes, etc). Their check system is backed by Netfabb Cloud, which works beautifully most of the time, but has a hard time handling certain meshes. With my workflow, it’s incredibly easy to generate meshes that Netfabb can’t seem to fix, such as collapsed faces of Sculptris outputs. I usually get an email with an obscure message like, “Uh oh! Seems like your model needs a bit more love before our robots can work their magic.” In rare cases, I’d even crashed the check server!
Passing the mesh integrity test is only the first step towards passing printability. The second part is passing thinness checks. Different materials have different minimum thickness requirements, and when an order is placed, the model is hand checked for thinness. This could be very slow (and sometimes inconsistent). Shapeways informed me every model of every order is checked, even if they had been printed before. I understand that minimum thickness is a hard constraint because the printer bots could crash and cause further delays. However, I presume the manual check is done with Netfabb desktop tools. It heavily depends on the checker to catch if anything’s too thin, by measuring with the Netfabb ruler. Depending on different checkers, and how much they want to measure, very similar models could be passed or failed inconsistently.
Getting a quote and scaling is also a pain. Shapeways gives you a quote for a model, but doesn’t offer scaling services. After receiving a quote, if I decide I only want to pay half as much for a model, I would need to scale it on my end, upload it, and wait for another quote when it passes the mesh integrity checks (fingers crossed).
Let’s talk about Sculpteo.
I absolutely love their mesh integrity services. I’m not sure what algorithm they’re using to fix my models, but even the most troublesome ones have successfully been patched. It’s black magic. They’re just announced a new suite of tools to give you an option of a couple possible fixes, if you’re not satisfied with the default.
Their thinness check is also real-time. By the toggle of a button, all thin parts will be highlighted in red, given a particular material. You can adjust the scale to see if the problem goes away or upload another model with the fixes. They even show you a really nice clay-render of your model in the color of your chosen material.
Sculpteo also takes a larger range of files types, so if I want to print a colored model, I don’t have to use VRML.
For Rakdos, it took me about 4 days of fixing to get Shapeways/Netfabb to accept my model. It took Sculpteo 2 hours of their server time to fix my model for me. Shapeways, a day after my order, notified me my model had too thin components. I fixed it, reuploaded, and it passed. However, while my figurine passed, my Rakdos dice holder did not, even though they had the same model but a different base. I am still awaiting news on my dice holder.
Comparison 2: Price
While Sculpteo has this amazing ease-of-use process, it is definitely far more expensive to print objects. For one, shipping is terrible. There are three tiers of shipping. If an order costs less than $10, a cheap shipping option is available. However, that shipping takes about a month to arrive, which severely negates the speed benefit. Orders between $10 and $50 cost about $20 to ship, which is ridiculous. Orders above $50 cost about $6 to ship. It would be more worth it to print another object, or scale something up, to qualify for the $6 shipping than pay $20 for shipping.
The prints themselves are also more expensive. For small objects, like plastic rings, the base price is $8, while in Shapeways, it’s priced by the volume. In my experience, it costs about 2 to 8 times as much to print through Sculpteo than to print through Shapeways. 3DPrintingPrices is a nice check on prices with a lot of different services. Very seldom do I see Sculpteo as the cheapest option.
Though Sculpteo has a bulk discount option, the discount is not nearly enough to match Shapeways’ prices. The site is also not designed like a marketplace platform. I could be wrong, but don’t see people stopping to buy goods off of Sculpteo like they would in Shapeways, just because the UI isn’t as friendly. Aside from the amazing clay renders, the overall Sculpteo site feel isn’t as well designed as Shapeways’. I don’t like having to go through nested menus to find the upload button. Though, Shapeways has also made “upload” slightly nested, because it’s opting for more of a designer shop platform.
Shapeways provides cheap shipping without minimum order requirements. This allows for awesome business opportunities, where you don’t have to keep a stock of goods, and can order on demand. I feel like it has a larger user base and a great community (almost like the Etsy of 3D printing). The community building aspects are wonderful, as well as the really nice UI to browse and shop.
This Rakdos only had about $3 different in price between the two services. However, the dice holder would’ve cost ~$25 to print through Shapeways and ~$40 through Scupteo. Based on the price, I decided to print through Shapeways.
Both Shapeways and Sculpteo are great printing services. They both have an awesomely large range of materials to choose from, and super friendly customer service. Since Sculpteo’s turnaround is faster and Shapeways’ pricing is cheaper, I use the services very differently. If I want an object, and I want it now, I tend to choose Sculpteo. If I want to perhaps sell my design in the future, I tend to choose Shapeways. I think I secretly hope they’d merge and everyone can have the best of both worlds, but I’m sure both companies would hate me for saying that.
Hope this article is useful for someone out there, because I didn’t see any in-depth comparisons of the two services. The base price comparison is a little unfair because they are so different. I’ve also used a little bit of iMaterialise and Ponoko, but not enough to be authoritative about them (and also because I like Shapeways and Sculpteo far better).