Let’s say you want to create your own light fixture. If you can model in 3D, then having rapid prototypes machined or printed has become incredibly easy and relatively cheap to do. It opens up an entire new world of possibilities for designers, especially those of installation art or projects that are “pushing the edge of the envelope.”
This is clearly the way of the future for the lighting industry: Architectural designers seek uniqueness in each of their projects, and small-batch, digital production techniques enable the ultimate in “mass customization.”
Many rapid prototype firms now offer instant online quoting: Upload the .stl file, and they show the price instantly, which helps you figure out how to get the cost down.
North American firms:
RedEye is the service division of Stratasys, a major manufacturer of the 3D printing machines themselves.
Shapeways has really brought 3D printing to that masses, accepted standard files or even offering simple online “creators” for making customized products.
Chinese firms can sometimes offer a real advantage in price (not so much in SLS/FDM printing technologies, but certainly in CNC machining)…just make sure that they accept at least Pay Pal. Many will only work with T/T (telegraph or wire transfer), and I’ve found that American banks charge prohibitively large fees for them.
MFG.com is a global sourcing site where you can post drawings, models, etc. and have suppliers and manufacturers from various regions bid on them.
Solid modeling software:
Even the software can be free: Alibre offers a version of their parametric solid modeling software called Design Xpress that remains completely free, and is very simple to use for creating basic parts.
images from FKM Sintertechnik and Materialise