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Print your own artwork (and more) at your local UPS Store

It used to be, that if you wanted to have a custom-designed piece of art, you had to seek out an artisan, haggle over the commission price, wait several weeks for the piece to be created, and then wait a few more weeks for delivery.

Now, getting a custom sculpture or just about anything else you can imagine can be as easy as driving to your local UPS Store and having it in your hands a few days later -- through the innovation of 3D printing.

Once the domain of science fiction -- as in Star Trek's replicators -- the practical idea of being able to reproduce any object, at any time, has come a long way from its initial roots in the mid-1980s. At the heart of the concept is the idea that a machine can use raw material such as plastics, polymers, metals, or ceramics to lay down successive layers of material in a specific shape from the bottom up, all guided by a computerized design file.

Such 3D printers used to cost $20,000 and the process was extremely slow. Thanks to subsequent innovations and a dedicated open source community, simple 3D printing machines are now sold by Amazon for as low as $799 and Staples for as low as $1,299, or you can buy 3D printer parts and assemble a more complex machine yourself for just a little bit more.

However, for those who aren't as tech-minded, now you can visit your local UPS store to take care of all your 3D printing needs. As part of a pilot program, UPS announced last month that it would start offering 3D printing services to its customers through its franchise stores, starting with a location in San Diego, followed by one in Washington DC, with additional locations to come in the near future.

Already, the service is a hit with the San Diego store's customers, ranging from serious-minded students printing parts to build a robot, to engineers looking to have prototypes in hand during business meetings. Store owner Burke Jones even reported that several customers have been ordinary people looking to print duplicates of plastic automotive parts that broke. Those customers usually provide their own files, needing little input from Jones. For those customers with less of an engineering bent, Jones has teamed up with former military engineer Tei Newman-Lehman to help them translate their 2D dreams into a 3D file, and then into reality.

The service isn't exactly cheap -- a reproduction of a ball bearing can cost $15 -- but for the budding inventor or a small business working on prototypes, this service can be invaluable.

If you're not willing to wait that long for the service to come to your local store, though, there are online options available to you as well. MakeXYX is a site where people who own 3D printers can list their model and general geographic location, along with printer specs, which currently usable materials they have, and how much they'd charge to print your object. If you have your own file, you can easily upload it, get a quote, decide if you want your item shipped to you or if you want to pick it up yourself, and pay for the services.

If you don't have a file but have a great idea, you can contact the printer who can work with you to create the design, give you a quote on how much it would cost to make, and then you can choose to pay for the services.

And for those who are looking to buy a 3D printed object but don't care too much about creating a custom design, you can always browse the storefronts on Shapeways and Sculpteo, where designers can showcase their finished designs, customers can place an order, and the 3D printers at Shapeways' new manufacturing plant in New York or Sculpteo's plant in France will print the design and ship it out to you.

Theodore Hogan, a freelance designer with a master's in architecture, fell in love with the possibilities of 3D printing while working on and completing his thesis last year. Now, with the help of both Shapeways and Sculpteo, Hogan can both visualize and realize his designs -- such as his Typographical Chess Set -- on the small scale without having to invest in a 3D printer of his own.

"The community on Shapeways can't be beat. I've had a lot of success from them, and Sculpteo has a really cool user interface that lets users customize an order a little more than Shapeways does," Hogan said.

According to Hogan, other than having to learn how to draw 3D models in programs like Google Sketchup and Rhino, the only drawbacks he can see to producing and selling designs through the online stores is the expense of the materials, which gets factored into the final cost of the 3D printed object. "The trick seems to be offer really tiny objects," Hogan said, "since the price is usually based on volume. As the piece gets larger, the price literally increases exponentially."

"I think my next designs will be some tie clips," he added.

Photo: Theodore Hogan