Why free is killing 3D printing final
Why ‘free’ is killing 3D printing

I know what you are thinking, you read the title and thought ‘Who is this crazy person and what is he talking about? Free stuff is the best!’

I believe that the current trend of offering 3D printing designs for free is harmful to the long term future of 3D printing. These free designs are good in certain contexts but I believe they are now doing more harm than good. Here are the four reasons why I think “free” is becoming a problem;


1.     Quality designs take a lot of work and expertise

Creating a quality design takes many hours to model, print, test and multiple iterations of this cycle may be required until the final design is ready. This can take anywhere from a few hours to well over 100 hours depending on the size and complexity of the design (my mini monster truck design took well over 100 hours of designing and testing as well as using my knowledge as a mechanical engineer).

First I designed the look of the body, then the windows/grilles and then the suspension assembly and the wheel tyre combination. Then I printed off test pieces for any sub-assembly that had moving parts. Then I would iterate the parts until they fit perfectly with each other and the tolerances worked on the moving parts. Throughout this whole I process I also ensured the parts could all be printed on a desktop 3D printer. Then once this was all done I printed and assembled the final design making sure everything fit together well and worked as designed.

Many designers like myself do this for the love of design and feeling of accomplishment to make something awesome. But we still live in a world with bills to pay, mouths to feed and rent to pay, if a designer is not getting paid anything for their work it is unlikely that they can allocate more than just their free time to designing.

Now imagine if designers actually got paid for their work. They could spend more of their time designing objects they were passionate about. Instead of our best designers just doing this in their free time they could do it as their day job or as a supplement to their other work. Then how many more great designs would we all have access to?


2.     Price is an important indicator of quality

We look to price as an important indicator of the quality of the product, check out the image below, does this make sense to you?

(Image from www.windowscentral.com)

Most likely not, because it does not fit your expectations and you would probably think it is a scam, the laptop is broken or it is the worst laptop in the world (maybe all three). If that same laptop was priced at $1,000 then it fits your expectations of what a quality laptop would cost and then you look for features and specifications that justify the price. I’m not saying that a higher price is a guarantee of a better product but that the higher price fits our expectations of what a quality laptop would cost.

In a 3D printing context; there is an expectation that designs are free because of the open source beginnings of desktop 3D printing. This was great and helped grow the community and bring 3D printing to many more people. However, if all designs are free then how do we distinguish between quality designs and terrible designs (assuming you are not a 3D printing expert)? This will become a bigger problem as desktop 3D printers become more ‘plug and play’ and enter mainstream society, because consumers are used to equating price with quality.

I’m not saying that free designs are bad but rather we cannot expect every single design to be free just because some people choose to give their designs away for free. Thingiverse was started to create a library of designs so that people who bought Makerbot 3d printers had something to print. And it did a great job of kick-starting the consumer 3D printing industry. However it is time to move past their concept which was developed purely to help them sell more 3D printers, they didnt actually generate any revenue from thingiverse. Makerbot themselves are now less focussed on consumers and more on professional 3D printing (we won’t go into their recent problems :/ ).

There are now hundreds of desktop 3D printer manufacturers, better quality printers, new and exciting filaments. The quality of designs needs to increase to make the most of these advances and a big step towards that would be to pay designers fairly for their hard work.


3.     Businesses need a sustainable business model to exist

There are lots of 3D printing companies currently being propped up by venture capital (VC) funding, this is a problem because many are being funded more on hype then on their sustainable business model.

Look at the recent example of Pinshape announcing their closure (Edit: they have now announced an acquisition by Formlabs and so will not be closing). On their blog they stated that

“99.5% of our transactions are free”


a business simply cannot operate sustainably this way in the long term (if there are no other sources of revenue). They have several employees, website maintenance and server costs, marketing costs and more, all these elements cost significant money and simply cannot be provided indefinitely if no one is paying for it.

If consumers have been conditioned to these free products, the business will either have to keep running on VC funding indefinitely (which won’t happen, VC’s are in the business to make money) or will have to raise revenue from other sources. This can be a slippery slope which can lead to intrusive advertising, shady affiliate marketing, email spam and a lack of focus on the product and consumer experience.


4.     Free can be abused

In the same way that content creators in graphic design, journalism, photography and other creative industries are being exploited by big companies using their work for ‘exposure’ rather than being paid, I feel that we are starting to head the same way in 3d printing. There have been a few examples recently of companies offering prizes or requesting designs and in return the designers get either a small prize or are promised exposure for their designs. While this can be seen as ok for an amateur designer just starting out it devalues designs of other designers who may have significant experience and put large amounts of time into their design.

Making designs free also makes them easier to abuse, there was a recent case of a company printing designs people had put up for free. While this kind of practice is difficult to stop it can at least be reduced by not making the designs free. If that person/company would have had to at least buy the designs first the designers would have got a bit of revenue and the person ripping the designs off may not have been able to afford to pay for all the designs which would reduce the scale of the abuse. I won’t get started on the legal and moral implications of that case, if you would like to read more about that particular case it can be seen here.


What free really costs us

We are all paying for these “free” designs, but not in dollars. We are paying with lower quality designs, less choice, less quality designers, more annoying advertising and all of this contributes to slow growth of our entire industry and is holding back our industry’s transition to the mainstream. If you think all this sounds reasonable then next time why not pay a few dollars for quality designs from your favourite designers?


Andrew Karas is the Founder and Managing Director of Trinpy.com, an online marketplace for 3D printable designs with the goal of having the best designs by rewarding designers the most for their hard work.
If you are a manufacturer and want to provide high quality designs for your customers by supporting great designers (and without having to build all the infrastructure) please contact us here.