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3D Printing Progress
Posted on October 13, 2016 by  & 

The spectre of free 3D models

There has been an increasing trend towards hobbyists buying designs to 3D print on their own 3D printers at home, rather than do the difficult design work themselves. Brands are now trying to sell 3D designs rather than physical products. But the internet is full of free designs, and customers can't always tell the real things from the fakes. This has important implications for consumer safety, but also for the livelihoods of freelance designers. IDTechEx invited Martynas Klimas of CG Trader to explain the problems and implications.
The best things in life might be free, but "merely" good and very good things have a price. A price of the labour and skill put into their production. Unfortunately, price is a relative thing worldwide and even between individuals. This is why can you find 3D printing models that are underpriced or even free. What happens to modelers of 3D printing models when their hard work is passed over in favour of free or just ridiculously cheap models?
It's not easy to become a good 3D modeler. Sure, there are some basics that both CGI and 3D modelers share, but those paths branch out pretty fast. A CGI modeler doesn't have to worry about the millimeter width of parts or hollowing models out to conserve material and price, while 3D print modelers usually don't bother with UV unwraps, lighting and rendering. Modeling for 3D printing requires a lot of specialized knowledge in the field and it also changes with the hardware, that is, 3D printers. You have to keep the material and possible printers in mind while you're designing object, which impacts everything from general design to separating it into parts for printing, to such engineering-like worries as structural integrity if one is modeling pieces to be used in machinery and household instead of simple novelty heehaws.
And then free model websites swoop in to steal your hard-earned thunder. Just take a look at Makerbot's Thingiverse, the most free of free websites, where people can freely upload, download and even remix models. It even skips the middleman and lets users order a printed model on the website itself. This makes paid integrated websites - either those like CGTrader that provide options on just how the is sold or dedicated print sites like Shapeways - have a hard time competing. There's not much one can do against the low, low price of zero.
Time is on the side of those who are uploading free models. An individual hobbyist modeler is working on different time scale than a professional. They don't have time nor monetary constraints, as they are not making models to sell them and sustain themselves. They have all the time in the world to either be inefficient in their work or to work on the details, a luxury not available to earning modelers. Something similar can be seen in the game modding scene: the moders sometimes make fabulous, unbelievable additions that all but outshine the original game. However, unlike the developers, they have all the time they want as well as very flexible attitudes on who can participate in the process. And depending on what you model you might be competing with a whole world's worth of these laid-back modelers, and not just the professionals who are under similar constraints as you are.
What is more, the number of amateurs is just growing. Software is becoming easier to access and use all the time. Basic, barebone programs are free and can be used online, just take a look at 3dtin, Tinkercad, or Sketchfab. Some of those might be all they need to make simple models like iPhone covers or knickknacks. The more technologically sophisticated ones will also be able to explore 3D modeling in virtual reality with such software as MakeVR. After that, there's only a simple step towards using Blender3D. What it lacks in ease of use it makes up with being free and having a lot of free learning material online.
So what are the choices for those still wanting to remain competitive? Professionalism. The quality of your work will always carry you through. This goes double for people working with engineering parts, since that is not an area that attracts a lot of amateurs. Promoting your own works would also work. This means both having informative descriptions of your models, sharing links in all of your internet portfolios and maybe even having free to download models on hand. Now, you don't need to share your expensive masterpieces - you only need to give the buyers a taste of what you are selling, so they could check and see that your skills are what they need. This might also lead to commission work, which is something that amateurs won't be able to match.
While you can't stop the democratization of the tools of modeling as well as free business - unless you start dealing with websites that set minimum prices - you can influence your success in a few key ways. At the end of the day, serious buyers will appreciate serious quality. You just have to put yourself out there and show that quality - at a price - is an option.
Martynas Klimas is staff writer at CG Trader, the largest 3D model marketplace for computer graphics, virtual/augmented reality/ and gaming, backed by a strong professional designer community. Martynas knows a bit about 3D modeling, some about 3D printing and a lot about video games. His writings have been published on tech blogs and video game websites.
Top image: CG Trader
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