Who will get the biggest slice of 3D-printed pie?

After two major announcements at CES, what's next for 3D printing?

Rich Brown Former Senior Editorial Director - Home and Wellness
Rich was the editorial lead for CNET's Home and Wellness sections, based in Louisville, Kentucky. Before moving to Louisville in 2013, Rich ran CNET's desktop computer review section for 10 years in New York City. He has worked as a tech journalist since 1994, covering everything from 3D printing to Z-Wave smart locks.
Expertise Smart home, Windows PCs, cooking (sometimes), woodworking tools (getting there...)
Rich Brown
6 min read
Watch this: The future of 3D printing

MakerBot's Bre Pettis says his 3D printers are for everyone. 3D Systems' Cathy Lewis begs to differ.

Each spokesperson made a strong pitch during our 3D printing roundtable at this year's Consumer Electronic Show. Who's right?

3D Systems: Old guard expertise
3D Systems announced its Cube 3D printer at CES this year, but the company has been involved with additive manufacturing and rapid prototyping since 1986. It developed the STL file format, the industry standard for 3D printed object plans. Without 3D Systems, along with the work of other old-guard commercial printer manufacturers like Stratasys, Israel's Objet Geometries, and even Hewlett Packard, it's possible there would be no MakerBot.

3D Systems Cube 3D printer
3D Systems Cube 3D printer. 3D Systems

Along with its forthcoming $1,299 Cube, 3D Systems will also sell you its Sinterstation Pro DM250 (PDF), a $1 million machine that can print usable metal hip implants.

Between the Cube and Sinterstation, 3D Systems offers 3D printers, laser-based stereolithography machines, and other additive manufacturing products for customers ranging from hobbyists to industrial and mechanical engineers. That breadth of capability helps explain the genesis of Cubify, another phase of 3D Systems printing business.

Cubify primarily offers two services. First, it gives anyone access to 3D Systems' vast array of printing technologies via its Cloud Print 3D service. Designers upload plans to Cubify, and customers then go through the Cloud Print 3D section on Cubify to pay for 3D Systems to print and ship out an object made from those plans.

Cubify also lets designers sell their plans as standalone files. If you have your own 3D printer, you can pay to download those files and then print the object out yourself. This portion of Cubify competes more or less directly with MakerBot's similar Thingiverse. The wiggle room in their competition comes from the fact that you can download a file from Cubify to print out on a MakerBot printer thanks to their common file format support.

It's too early to judge 3D Systems' Cubify because the site is still in its beta phase, but it's scheduled to launch later this year. It's accordingly a little rough-looking now, with a ponderous interface and inconsistent specifications in its printable object file listings.

"The site will change considerably over the next few months," said 3D Systems' VP and general manager of consumer solutions, Rajeev Kulkarni. "New features will be added and removed. A lot of good feedback is flowing in, and we are absorbing all of it to plan and execute."

Because Cubify is a retail site, 3D Systems also has a few more business concerns than MakerBot's open-source-driven Thingiverse. Kulkarni says that 3D Systems gets 30 percent of an object plan's selling price, the seller gets 60 percent, and the remaining 10 percent goes to taxes and other fees. That structure mimics Apple's percentages for its App Store, but they also provide a basis for a competitor to undercut them.

Schultzo's TigerBall, shown here in stereolithography, is also available to print at home via Cubify.
Schultzo's TigerBall, shown here in stereolithography, is also available to print at home via Cubify. Plastic and Plush

Designers uploading printable object files to sell might also worry about customers passing those plans around to others. Regarding IP theft, Cubify plan-uploader Shalom "Shultzo" Bumberman (maker of this rather awesome TigerBall toy) said "it's a worry, but it's a chance I'm willing to take on some of my designs."

Does Cubify incorporate DRM or offer some other IP protection?

"Nothing," Kulkarni said. "We can flag/police what is on Cubify, but not outside that. Having said that, there is a license agreement the buyer has to accept that prevents them from sharing/selling the content in the form it was purchased."

MakerBot: Across the Thingiverse
MakerBot and Thingiverse both came into being in 2008. The company exists in no small part thanks to the work of Adrian Bowyer of the U.K.'s University of Bath. It was Bowyer's RepRap project (short for replicating rapid-prototyper), that introduced to the world plans for a cheap DIY 3D printer. Those plans are still available for anyone to download, for free, via an open-source license.

MakerBot's Replicator 3D printer
MakerBot's Replicator 3D printer

Per that license, you can take those RepRap plans, refine them, and package them up with the necessary parts to sell as a build-it-yourself 3D printer kit. That's how MakerBot started selling its Cupcake printer kit in 2009 from a shop in Brooklyn.

At this year's CES, MakerBot announced its Replicator 3D printer roughly 24 hours after 3D Systems unveiled the Cube. The $1,799 Replicator is MakerBot's first preassembled 3D printer, but like all of MakerBot's printers thus far, the Replicator also stems from those same core RepRap designs. MakerBot also credits the influence of Cornell University's Fab@Home project, home to an open-source printer that prints objects using liquid materials (frosting, silicone, cement, etc.).

Online for almost four years, MakerBot's Thingiverse has a bit of a head start on Cubify. But where Cubify is a retail site, Thingiverse lets you download printable object files for free. All of the 15,000-plan files on Thingiverse are available for download at no cost via MakerBot's open-source policies. You can also download a file, change it, and then reupload it to Thingiverse (or anywhere else), provided you give proper credit to the original designer.

Designer Emmett Lalish's Screwless heart gear model, hosted on MakerBot's Thingiverse.
Designer Emmett Lalish's Screwless heart gear model, hosted on MakerBot's Thingiverse. Thingiverse

Many of the Thingiverse designs are for parts you can use to make or repair other 3D printers, harking back to RepRap project's emphasis on self-replication. Others are simply interesting widgets, like Emmett Lalish's Screwless Heart Gears.

If Thingiverse doesn't provide a venue for Emmett to sell his designs, why wouldn't he use Cubify, Shapeways, Turbosquid, or another for-profit design file library?

"My standard response is that with my doctorate in engineering, my hobby really can't compete with my salary in terms of monetary reward. I make these designs because I enjoy it, and every time I see people commenting on my designs, uploading their own copies or derivatives, it brings me far more joy than a small royalty check would.

"The other big reason why I prefer Thingiverse to the paid sites is the collaborative aspect. Anyone is free to use them to combine with other ideas or make improvements. Most of my designs have been based on the work of others, and many works have been based on mine," he said.

Based on the sheer number of 3D object files on the Thingiverse, many other designers apparently share Emmett's appreciation for the open-source ethic.

How will it all take shape?
It will be fun to watch how MakerBot and 3D Systems compete to shape the still-developing consumer 3D printing market. MakerBot has the momentum of the vibrant Thingiverse site and more than 7,000 3D printers sold. Its CEO, Bre Pettis, has also become the de facto face of 3D printing because of his many media appearances. If you're looking for other signs of positive trajectory for MakerBot, consider that the company recently accepted $10 million in funding from a group of investors including the Foundry Group and Jeff Bezos.

For-profit investors rarely offer up financing without the expectation of a return, which might spur questions about an eventual Thingiverse retail component. Maybe, but MakerBot's open-source ethic seems so infused in the company's DNA, and so embraced by 3D-printing enthusiasts, it's reasonable that the company might chug along successfully, and largely indifferent to its profit-driven competition.

For 3D Systems' part, if the Cube really is easier to use than the Replicator or other RepRap designs, the company very well could expand 3D printing to a more mainstream consumer than MakerBot's hobbyists and tinkerers. As long as 3D Systems sticks with using industry standard file formats like STL, the fates of the Cube and Cubify aren't inextricably linked, but the company will of course market the two around each other.

Assuming 3D Systems does link the two in its messaging, compelling content on Cubify will help drive Cube sales. The flip side is that if Cubify does take off, 3D Systems may find itself compelled to offer its content partners more peace of mind with regard to their intellectual property.

Can consumer 3D printing grow beyond its niche roots? Will we see a hardware price war? What other commercial 3D printer vendors might consider a consumer product? Will a major IP holder offer exclusive rights to sell its object designs? Could that IP holder just sell those plans itself? Will IP theft necessitate DRM or proprietary file formats? Other questions? Please share, iterate, and improve on each others' ideas in the comments below.