3D Printing

The Coming Ecosystem of 3D Printing: Part 2

Object Stores in the 3D Printing Ecosystem

In order to print you need an object file. Because these files are, by definition, digital and shareable, they have formed the basis of one of the earliest forms of social 3D printing activity: file sharing. In a similar way to the legendary music file-sharing sites, these object stores are effectively online marketplaces for printable 3D files.

I define object stores as a part of the ecosystem that collects and makes available printable files. The entire 3D printing ecosystem is very new and all parts of it are evolving fast, and no doubt will continue to evolve as the key players watch what everyone else is doing and try to find a model that works for them. There is little purity in any part of this game as new ideas spread quickly across the network, and it will surely be those who innovate, iterate and find the sweet spots first who will thrive. This is an ecosystem, which implies an end-to-end connection of parts, and few, if any, of these object stores are pure plays.

The object store seems to sit at the centre of the 3D printing ecosystem. One of the first resources that new 3D printer owners are likely to come across is Thingiverse, with its seemingly endless store of freely available printable files along with a generous and helpful community.

From their very start the digital networks have facilitated file sharing. Even before the advent of the web, at a time when all communications were purely textual, artists were using common file formats to share images between individuals. In 1999 Shawn Fanning created Napster to share MP3 music files. Napster used a centralized structure where indexing and searching was performed on Napster servers.Individual files, however, remained on the hosts’ computers and are transferred directly from peer to peer. Napster proved both wildly popular and generated huge legal problems, causing it to be shut down by 2001.

The advent of popular and widespread 3D printing has seen the subsequent advent of similar issues around the storage and dissemination of 3D printable files. However, because there was no existing commercial production of 3D files to pirate, it looks as if this industry will find a route forward that avoids both the early catastrophic failure of Napster and many of the copyright issues that still bedevil music distribution.

The new object store sites all have things in common (searchable sites containing 3D objects) but there are many variations in approach. As these sites look for scalable models and revenue streams that work, opportunities are opened up for 3D designers and printers around the world. Although Thingiverse has, in classic internet style, grown fast on the back of a totally free model, many of these sites see value in objects that take a lot of work to create and are committed to encouraging more designers to create complex 3D printable objects. This has led to a split between free downloads and pay for objects. While it may seem strange at this stage to pay for a download, a lot may be riding on this model becoming workable.

A side effect of making files available for download is the need to control copyright and distribution. Designers don’t want to see their work distributed freely across the world. To this end, several sites are working on download and distribution control systems and we should see a lot more interesting developments in this space soon.

A third option for revenue streams that is being explored in many permutations, is taking a cut from the actual 3D printing of objects. Following on from the Shapeways model, many object stores are adding or no doubt will add the option to 3D print as a revenue stream.

Sites are also experimenting with designer services so that if you don’t find what you want in a store, you can ask a designer to quote to design it.

The most well-established 3D object store, Thingiverse, was started in 2008 as a companion to the MakerBot 3D printer business and has developed over the years into a store of more than 100,000 items held in a professional structure. Thingiverse offers a library of objects that is non-commercial, in that it offers no commercial services (although it is entirely a commercial operation, still tightly allied to the MakerBot brand). Following the lead set by MakerBot, many other printer makers, including Cubify and Ultimaker, have started their own versions.

At the other end of the spectrum, with a completely different reason for being, is Shapeways. Started a year earlier in 2007, Shapeways offers a 3D printing service for uploaded files using Shapeways’ own centrally located high end 3D printers.

Between these two operations are a growing number of competitors, demonstrating the potential 3D printing has to distribute through the cloud.

All stores allow you to upload models you have designed, and several now offer the option to sell your files for download and 3D printing. Myminifactory, which is attempting to cover all bases with a store, printing services and free and pay for downloads, makes a test print of everything that is uploaded in order to photograph and test the output to ensure printable objects in the store. This takes us a huge distance from Thingiverse, for example, where anything can be uploaded without any proof that it is printable. Of course there is a downside to the Myminifactory approach, it is a very expensive and slow process, which won’t allow the content to grow as fast as competitors.

More purist stores such as Threeding, Pinshape, CGTrader and Fabster form the core of object store sites. These are early stage startups where much of the most interesting development may occur over the next few years. They tend to offer free and commercial exchange of digital 3D printable files for use on 3D printers but do not major on printing services. The general idea is to open up a shop front in order to upload and sell your work directly to people who want to print it, rather than as printed objects as with sites such as Shapeways and imaterialise. The content in these stores is of variable quality but they are all experimenting with different approaches.

Other variations on the store theme include Kazzata, which is building a parts store for manufacturers.

And if all the options are overwhelming, there is a 3D object search engine in Yeggi where you can search across multiple object stores with one search.

If you are looking for a place to upload your work, you are spoilt for choice. If you are looking to earn from your models, the space is unproven as yet, but there may well be revenue streams in the near future.

On both fronts it seems to be a buyers market, as there are no costs to either uploading or downloading files.

The race is on to find a workable model, build a brand, acquire customers and raise funding for the battle ahead. This is a fast moving and dynamic space that adds value to all 3D printers and is pushing the boundaries on a daily basis. As they develop and compete, these basic stores find they need to hook into the printing ecosystem by adding tools and services that work for the consumer. Sites are pushing out towards 3D printing services and towards printer control tools to form a complete ecosystem. In addition, many startups that form parts of the ecosystem are forming partnerships and alliances to add specialised services.

If you are looking for a specific item to print you will need to search across the entire landscape, or rely on Yeggi to find things for you. It is not clear at this stage whether different sites will specialise or become known for different classes or types of objects. This industry has the feeling of a free for all where most startups are trying to scoop the pot and become all things to all users, and this may turn out to be true. Internet history shows that the winner in a race for mindshare tends to gain rewards out of all proportion. Who will become the eBay of the 3D object stores?