Want to 3D-print objects but don't own a 3D printer? No worries, here's how

There are numerous ways you can print objects in 3D starting today, without having to buy a 3D printer or use fancy 3D modeling software.

When reading about 3D printers, there's usually an asterisk about how you must first convert any object you want to print into a 3D model or render file that the printer will be able to understand and use as a reference.

Alright...but how exactly do you do that?

It's actually quite simple. In fact, you don't even have to learn how to work a 3D printer or design a 3D model. That's all due to the internet. It's a handy resource brimming with 3D printing methods that are easy to use and affordable.

Keep reading if you want to learn more or are interested in experimenting with 3D technologies (sans the pricey overhead).

READ: 3D printing: Everything you need to know

What is 3D printing?

Before we go any further, you should understand the basics of 3D printing. It's an additive manufacturing process. In other words, it's when a real object is created from a 3D design model. The 3D model is usually saved on your computer as a render file and then sent to a 3D printer. The 3D printer prints your design - layer by layer - until a physical object is formed. Simples.

What objects can you 3D print?

Practically anything, depending on the type of 3D printer and materials you have around. Just remember: If you can draw it, you can print it.

That said, complicated objects can only be printed by professional 3D printers from companies like Stratasys and 3DSystems. There are however plenty of consumer-friendly printers on the market, from companies like Makerbot, that let you print smaller-scale objects using a variety of materials. You could even rely on websites that let you upload 3D design models and then order prints online from home, but more on that later.

And finally, keep in mind that consumer 3D printing is currently limited to a select few materials. Although agencies like NASA are developing printers that can print entire pizzas using food ingredients as materials, the most common materials currently used by 3D printers include: ABS plastic, PLA, polyamide (nylon), glass filled polyamide, stereolithography materials (epoxy resins), silver, titanium, steel, wax, photopolymers, and polycarbonate.

What is 3D modeling software?

Even if you have no design experience, you can learn how to 3D model (and eventually make 3D models) through 3D modeling software tools such as Rhino, Blender, Tinkercad, or SketchUp. Please know that it will take practice to become familiar with 3D modeling.

Once you have dreamed up an object and used a software tool to design a 3D model of that object, you must save the 3D model to your computer as a render file. You will then upload that render file to a 3D printer. Each printer should have specific instructions on how to upload or accomplish this task.

However not all of you may want to spend the time designing or learning how to use 3D modeling software. In that case, you could simply find render files for a 3D model similar to the one you have in mind through an online 3D model database.

What is a 3D model database?

A 3D model database is a search engine for 3D objects.

To use one, all you have to do is search for an object on the site, then browse through all the search results, and pick a 3D model. The model should have a source link or button to download relevant render files. As we mentioned earlier, these render files must be saved to your computer and uploaded to a 3D printer before the 3D printer can actually print a physical version.

Yobi 3D is a popular 3D model database, where you can find 3D models for a wide variety of objects ranging from Batman's Batarang throwing star to even a cockroach. Gross, we know. Other popular databases include 3D Marvels, 3D Via, GrabCAD, Google 3D Warehouse, Ponoko Product Plans, Shapeways 3D Parts Database, Thingiverse, and Turbosquid.

How do you 3D-print without a 3D printer?

If you don't own a 3D printer, you can still 3D print any 3D model you found through a database or designed through a software tool.

Just use a 3D printing service such as Shapeways, i.Materialise, Sculpteo, Ponoko, etc. Not only will they 3D-print objects for you, but they will also ship them to your front door, enabling you to manufacture 3D goods without ever having to leave your house.

Shapeways, which will print a variety of different sized objects using different materials, can print an elasto plastic object, for instance, that costs just $1.75 per cm³. The website also offers a materials samples kit, the ability to upload your own designs, and tutorials.

Each 3D printing service offers its own blend of features and price points, so you'll have to do your own research in order to figure out exactly what you want to print, what materials you should use, and how much you are willing to spend.