Most small business owners and entrepreneurs are interested in building out their product idea, not fussing with a 3D printer. The promise of “press the print button" and, voila, your product prototype is ready within minutes — is a myth. The best way to prototype is to use one of the many 3D Printing Service Bureaus.
While 3D printing is a powerful way to test and refine a product idea, unless your plan is to become an expert in running the printer, it is easier and more affordable to use one of the many 3D printer services. One of the lesser-known perks of using a service bureau is that you often find someone who has already overcome the learning curve and is expert at making sure your prototype model prints correctly or that you are using the right material.
If you want to find someone locally, one of the best options is through an online network of printer owners known as 3D Hubs. Around the USA and the world, printer owners sell their services by renting time on their own 3D printers. Here are two local shop examples: ProtoBuilds in Austin, Texas, and ImmersedN3D in Orlando, Florida. Of course, you can search your own local city and find someone nearby. There are thousands of printer owners on the 3D Hubs network, so you are likely to find someone within 50 miles of you, if not closer. But if you do not, many hubs are happy to ship custom-printed objects (for an additional fee and shipping costs, most likely).
There are three, well-known, and comparable 3D printing bureaus: Shapeways, i.materialize, and Sculpteo. These differ from 3D Hubs in that they are corporations that allow you to upload a 3D model and print in a wide variety of materials, and via different printing methods.
Each of these bureaus has a streamlined process to help you upload your prototype model, choose the proper material, and order online. They offer more materials than the typical smaller one-person shops found at 3D Hubs, at a slightly higher cost, but still reasonable when you consider the learning curve and material diversity they offer. Often, you are better off testing and refining your ideas with a filament-based process (as you'll find at 3D Hubs).
These bureaus each have a variety of machines and processes that allow you to print in metal, ceramic, and more. You can also find 3D modeling experts (as you can at 3D Hubs, too) who can help you develop a prototype from start to finish.
One final service bureau worth considering, depending on how you plan to produce and sell your new product, is Proto Labs. This 3D printing service began as an injection molding company (and still maintains deep expertise in this method) that expanded to offer 3D printing among other manufacturing methods.
The idea of “press the print button" may sound tempting, but you will spend far more time learning the intricacies of 3D modeling, and how to keep a 3D printing machine running, than you will on the core invention or product idea that you simply want to produce. If you have an idea you want to turn into a real product, try out one of these professional services first. You can always buy a 3D printer later, if you must.