I had a difficult thought today: what is to become of several specific 3D model repositories in the future?
The repositories I’m thinking about are Thingiverse (MakerBot), YouMagine (Ultimaker) and Pinshape (Formlabs). Each was formed (or acquired) by the respective companies mentioned above.
Each of those companies originated years ago initially focused on the DIY / hobbyist market. While that may sound a bit unusual today, that was where the entry point to the business existed at that time.
Then, as now, there was significant competition. One way the larger players attempted to create a stickier experience was to be associated with a repository of content that could be used on their equipment.
It solved the immediate question of, “what do I print”? And that was a very difficult question to answer for that market, as the majority of participants were not capable of developing their own 3D models with CAD software. The repositories created a “grab and print” scenario that was – and is – easy to use.
The presence of these repositories made these companies stronger, and even strengthened each other because all 3D models could be printed on any equipment.
But that was then, and this is now. Things have changed substantially since then.
When consumers discovered the challenges of using 3D printers, that potential market collapsed. Companies that had formed with the long term intention of selling equipment to the massive consumer market then had to scramble to quickly find other profitable markets to sell their equipment into.
Many small 3D printer manufacturers simply died out, but some survived and even thrived by focusing on new markets.
Some chose the education market, others specific industries, or the professional market, composed of industrial designers, architects and prototype engineers. Each of these markets was far smaller than the huge consumer market, but they were more profitable than the hobbyist market, which, and let’s be plain here, often seek the lowest possible cost and are not particularly profitable.
Now we have MakerBot focusing on education, Ultimaker focusing on industrial jigs and fixtures, and Formlabs focusing on dental applications. Yes, they still do supply to some others, including hobbyists – those people who would most use their repositories, but clearly the attention of these companies is elsewhere.
I’m thinking about the new clients of these companies, and whether they would have much interest in these repositories. Would a dental worker using a Form 2 have any interest in vase models on Pinshape? How many industrial clients would be looking for answers on YouMagine? Would educators find suitable 3D models on Thingiverse?
Actually, they would. MakerBot is leveraging their Thingiverse repository to store some of the material they’re providing to educators in recent packages. But the other 99.9% of Thingiverse would be of less interest to educators. On the other hand, MakerBot’s owner, Stratasys, also purchased GrabCAD, a repository and sharing service specifically for industrial 3D models, making the use of Thingiverse for industrial use even less likely.
As time passes each of these companies will drift further towards industrial, educational and commercial clients, continually decreasing the interest ratio on their consumer-focused repositories.
I’m wondering if a day will come when we see these services shut down.
I think it’s quite possible, although perhaps not this year or even the next. But in the long run if these companies continue to focus on industry and decrease services to consumers and hobbyists, the closures may be inevitable.
And if that happens, where will all the content go? Perhaps it’s time for someone to start a non-profit, independent 3D model repository that could potentially receive materials on that day.