After Prusa Research’s announcement of a Printables monetization feature earlier this week, I had some thoughts about the future of 3D model repositories.
There are plenty of 3D model repositories, but they can basically be broken down into two major categories:
- 3D asset repositories, which contain any kind of 3D models. Mostly, these are dominated by visual 3D assets that would be used in gaming, AR, or movie production. 3D printable models are an afterthought. Examples would include Turbosquid and similar services.
- Printable 3D model repositories, which were specifically created for and cater to 3D printer operators seeking printable content. While not all 3D models may be printable, there’s at least a strong focus on 3D printing usage. Examples would include Thingiverse, Printables, etc.
The Impact of Printable Model Repositories
These printable repositories have been an incredible boon to the 3D print world. They have provided content for hundreds of thousands of people with 3D printers who would otherwise have nothing to print. This is, in fact, the reason many of these services were launched: a 3D printer manufacturer encouraged sales by supporting a content service.
MakerBot created Thingiverse, Ultimaker created YouMagine, Formlabs acquired Pinshape, Creality created Creality Cloud, and so on. Most of the desktop 3D printer manufacturers either have a repository of their own or have an association with one. It’s good business.
The Future of Repositories and Shifting Markets
That is, for a manufacturer selling products to customers that don’t have the capability of making their own models.
And therein lies the issue: what happens to these repositories as the 3D printer manufacturers slowly shift towards professional markets?
We’ve already seen one outcome: YouMagine, the repository associated with the (original) Ultimaker, is no longer part of the (new) UltiMaker. Evidently, it now belongs to the founders of Ultimaker and is not part of Ultimaker’s strategy going forward.
That makes sense. UltiMaker is selling to professional markets, where a repository of plastic dragons has little benefit for those clients.
On the other hand, UltiMaker still operates the MakerBot brand for the educational market. They still operate Thingiverse, which presumably has some benefit for that market. However, the vast majority of content on Thingiverse is not relevant to their educational market.
Most of the surviving printable model repositories—and there have been dozens of them—are either associated with a manufacturer that pays the bills, or they’ve found a way to monetize their services.
PinShape, Thingiverse, Printables, and several others are all supported by 3D printer manufacturers. Meanwhile, Cults and MyMiniFactory have found ingenious ways to gain revenue from visitors through advertising, pay-to-print, sales surcharges, or subscriptions.
Concerns about the Future of Consumer-Oriented Repositories
Here’s my concern: as the leading supporters of these major 3D printable model repositories gradually shift further towards professional markets, their investment and efforts into supporting public, consumer-oriented repositories will increasingly make less sense to them.
At some point, these companies may decide it isn’t worth their effort to support them. That has actually already occurred in the case of YouMagine.
The Future of Thingiverse and Printables
What happens in a future world, perhaps years from now, when both Thingiverse and Printables are no longer supported? Will they disappear? Will they change? Could they be sold to someone else? Might they be spun off into independent entities?
We cannot know the future, but Prusa Research’s announcement of a monetization feature hints at what might be happening to Printables.
Prusa Research’s Strategic Moves
Prusa Research is one of the leading producers of desktop 3D printers and is highly regarded for their product quality and support. To complement their ecosystem, they launched Printables to provide content for purchasers, as they (rightly) felt Thingiverse was no longer up for the job.
However, in the past year, Prusa Research has been besieged with competitors that hope to capture large portions of their market. Asian companies, in particular, have launched a series of highly capable machines at lower price points than Prusa Research, and one can only guess how that will turn out in the long run.
I suspect Prusa Research is well aware of their competition and has taken a series of moves recently. Their launch of the MK4, for example, attempts to counter the hugely popular Bambu Labs equipment. However, there are a lot more competitors of this type about to launch, and it’s going to get much more competitive very soon.
Prusa Research’s Shift in Focus
Prusa Research acquired an industrial 3D printer manufacturer (Trilab) and developed a 3D print farm system, both of which are targeted at professional and production markets, quite different from their traditional customers. Their XL model is also a professional device not targeted at consumers. These moves tell us that they’re hedging their bets by developing products for alternative markets.
If and when Prusa Research moves more strongly into those markets, then questions about the future of their Printables repository will arise, particularly if Prusa Research abandons the desktop market.
I’m sure similar thinking is taking place at UltiMaker, where they control Thingiverse, the largest repository.
Speculations on the Future of 3D Model Availability
Where am I going with this? It’s just possible that within a few years, we may see a dramatic change in the state of online 3D model availability, should the owners of the major printable model services have a change of heart.
If it comes to that, we may see independent services like MyMiniFactory and Cults grow, as they seem to have found a way to be profitable and independent. We could also see the major repositories spun off into independent entities of their own, where they’d have to figure out their own profit models.