Internet Editorial

By Terry Wohlers

An edited version was published in Rapid Prototyping Journal, Vol. 8, No. 5, 2002, Emerald. Copyright 2002 by Terry T. Wohlers

Xpress3D of Southborough, Massachusetts (located about 40 minutes west of Boston) provides a good example of how one can use the Internet to offer rapid prototyping services. The company recently launched a service that streamlines the process of getting price quotations and ordering RP parts. The parts are made on the company’s Z406 machine from Z Corporation.

After logging onto the company’s website (xpress3d.com), you are given the opportunity to select an STL file on your computer or network. After finding and selecting the file, the website shows a preview of it (spinning in a small preview area), the file name, and the model’s dimensions. It also presents several scales such as 1:16, 1:4, and 2:3, with each having a cost associated with it. The part I uploaded measured 13.46 x 7.24 x 2.12 inches (342 x 184 x 54 mm). Prices ranged from $70 for a 1:16 scale model to $295 for a 2:3 scale model.

If the STL file you select contains flaws, such as holes, the flaws on the model are shown in red and you are asked to fix the problems and resubmit the file. Alternatively, you can choose to continue and someone from Xpress3D will contact you if it’s impossible to print the file.

You can complete the order by picking the “Complete Order” button, which takes you to a page where you can fill in your shipping address. If you have ordered before, it remembers your address, so you do not need to fill it in a second time.

The next step is to fill in your credit card details. The site uses 128-bit encryption to ensure a secure transmission. The last step is to verify the information you entered, edit the information if necessary, and click the “Submit Order” or “Cancel” button. I chose to submit the order.

The following morning, I received a FedEx shipment containing the plaster-based part. It was not hand finished, but it was infiltrated with cyanoacrylate (also known as super glue) to give it added strength. The shipment included four copies of a “collaboration sheet” that the customer can use to collect comments on the model. The sheet includes color views of the model, along with the model size, scale, volume, and surface area.

Another nice touch was the inclusion of a “design tag” with the shipment. The design tag is a custom plastic laminated ruler that is scaled to match the scale of the model. The ruler includes a shaded view of the STL model, file name, scale, size, volume, and surface area. It also includes the date and the name and contact information of the person that ordered the model.

If you choose to return to the site and submit files for additional quoting and ordering, the site remembers the last STL file(s) that you submitted. It shows a picture of each one, along with the date it was uploaded, and gives you the chance to add the model to the quote or delete it from the page. Models older than one week are deleted automatically.

When you first log into the site, you are asked to install a small browser plug-in. The plug-in enables you to obtain a quote without uploading the contents of the STL file to the xpress3d.com server. Instead, it sends only the model’s dimensions, so quoting is very fast and proprietary designs do not leave your computer or network. The file is uploaded only if you choose to accept the quote. The plug-in also includes software that rotates the model, which is a nice touch.

Overall, I was impressed with the process. The site is clean and the steps are straightforward. The model I received the next day met my expectations and the supplements in the box were a pleasant surprise. Xpress3D founders Rick Chin and Kevin Campanella, formerly of SolidWorks, are doing a fine job with the website and continue to make improvements to it. If you are interested in having one or more Z406 models produced, xpress3d.com an easy way to get quotes and parts.