That Time I Spent $20 For 25 .STL Files

Last weekend I ran out of filament for my 3D printer midway through a print. Yes, it’s evidence of poor planning, but I’ve done this a few times and I can always run over to Lowe’s or Home Depot or Staples and grab an overpriced spool of crappy filament to tide me over until the good, cheap filament arrives via UPS.

The Staples in my neck of the woods was one of the few stores in the country to host a, ‘premium, in-store experience’ featuring MakerBot printers. Until a few months ago, this was a great place to pick up a spool of filament that could get you through the next few hours of printing. The filament cost about three times what I would usually pay, but it was still good quality filament and they usually had the color I needed.

This partnership between MakerBot and Staples fell through a few months ago, the inventory was apparently shipped back to Brooklyn, and now Robo3D has taken MakerBot’s space at the endcap in Staples. Last weekend, I picked up a 1kg spool of red PLA for $40. What I found next to this filament left me shocked, confused, and insatiably curious. I walked out of that store with a spool of filament and a USB thumb drive loaded up with twenty-five STL files. This, apparently, is the future of 3D printing.

Everything For The Kitchen Sink

kitchenThe focus of this article is Robo 3D’s series of USB thumb drives loaded up with ready to print 3D files. For $19.99, I picked up a 2GB USB thumb drive that is literally the same USB thumb drive I could pick up for free at any trade show or convention.

This is the ‘kitchen pack’, and includes models like a coaster, dipping bowl, an egg cup, tea candle holder, and a citrus reamer. There were a few other versions of this product; the ‘office pack’ included a business card holder and iPhone stand. The ‘bath pack’ included a soap dish and a shower head. All of these 3D model USB sticks were selling for $19.99.

The packaging for this USB stick deserves special mention. There are twenty 3D printable objects on this USB drive, split up into 25 separate .STL files. There are pictures of only five of these items on the packaging. Apart from a cutting board, paper towel holder, juicer, coaster set, and a shot glass, I had absolutely no idea what was on this USB stick. If you buy one of these, you have no idea what you’re going to get.

The Contents Of This USB Drive

What’s on this USB stick? Take a gander:


I have a folder of STL files and an .exe. Launching that application only opens up a new browser tab and directs it to this URL. At the time of this writing, that link is dead.

How about the files themselves? I now own various kitchen-related 3D printable objects, all of which can be printed on a 200×200 mm square bed. Everything from a bottle cap to a bottle is right here, just waiting to be printed.

While the utility of these objects are questionable, I must add they are at least unique. I spent several hours trolling Thingiverse and Yeggi to find these models. With the exception of a drink coaster set, and the table top football playset found on the packaging for the ‘office pack’ thumb drive, I can’t find any of these models online. They are, apparently, unique and most likely designed by Robo3D.

Here is the requisite slideshow for all of these models:

This is as inexplicable to me as it is to you. These are fine 3D printable models, but given 3D model repositories exist, they’re not really worth eighty cents apiece.

Buy Decent Bits, Get Decent Atoms

The back of this USB thumb drive's packaging
The back of this USB thumb drive’s packaging

I can’t comprehend who this product is designed for. Putting 3D models on a USB stick would be great if we lived in a world where the Internet didn’t exist. If 3D printers were a thing in the mid 90s, I could easily see something like this existing. Business plans would be written on the basis that people would pay money for tiny little EEPROMs containing STL files stuffed into cartridges. This isn’t the 90s, though, and I find the idea that someone could own a 3D printer but still not have access to the Internet extremely odd.

This isn’t to say paying for 3D models isn’t worth it. Creating 3D models is an art form, and artists deserve to be paid. Gambody is a repository of paid models, and by all accounts they’re doing well. Here, you can find innumerable models of video game assets ready for 3D printing. Sure, the printability of these models might not be great (shout out to Maker’s Muse), but there’s nothing wrong with charging for 3D models.

The models included on the USB thumb drive really aren’t that great. Compared to the model of a Portal turret or Fallout power armor on Gambody, these models are fantastically cheap, but then again I could recreate a few of these models very easily in under 100 lines of OpenSCAD. You get what you pay for.

Portents of the Future

For the last year or two, the public perception of 3D printing has been in the gutter. A few years ago, the tech press was talking about how you could get 3D printable files for a dishwasher and fix your dishwasher yourself. Did one of the tiny slats in one of the vents in your car break? That’s a file down at your local dealership, and if you have a printer, they can just email it over. This was the promise of 3D printing.

Since then, 3D printing has fallen off the map for the public. It’s only about printing useless plastic trinkets, and it doesn’t look like Toyota will be uploading trim pieces for a ’07 Camry to Thingiverse anytime soon. There are problems with distribution — where does Maytag upload their parts? — problems with the technology itself, and someone has to get paid. A USB stick loaded up with STL files solves at least two of those problems.

But this is terrible. There is nothing remarkable about these models, and a quick perusal of any of the 3D printing repositories will find a suitable replacement for the models included on this USB thumb drive. This product fails simply because it doesn’t provide models of unique value to the customer purchasing it. Without that customer connection, buying this kitchen pack means paying for the convenience of not needing to locate and download the model you want to print. Ownership of 3D printers isn’t yet adequate to support that proposition.

That said, I could easily see Bethesda selling a USB thumb drive of 3D printable Fallout and Elder Scrolls assets. Valve would make a killing with a drive filled with 3D printable hats and knives. The idea of a USB drive filled up with printable parts is a valid one, but here it just falls flat on its face.

72 thoughts on “That Time I Spent $20 For 25 .STL Files

    1. We bought a fryer and made Mozz sticks the other night. I realized “We do not own a funnel.”

      Broke out the calipers to measure the oil jug’s opening, fired up TinkerCad, and 15 minutes later I poured the oil back into the jug with my shiny new red funnel

      1. I have a 50€ printer that does decent photos that won’t smear. Not all printers use inks that are water proof and survive touching.

        Between the proper paper and the cost of inks, it just doesn’t pay to print your own. You save a cent per photo, but it takes so much work and you end up doing corrections which cost you more money and time. If you’re printing a 100 photos or more, it just isn’t worth it.

        1. home printing really only works economically as a hobby if you want many large format prints, even then if you want a better quality than what most online printers provide you are going to pay around 800€ for the entry level models for a3 printing.

          oddly enough since these are professional printers the ink price is often a tenth of that found in common consumer ink systems, many of them use larger physical cartridges and have more tones for better colour accuracy, ours use 9 different inks, if you can use roll fed paper then even the best quality paper on the market is fairly cheap.

          1. i think the same will eventually be said about 3d printing. it is great for a hobby, but if you really need something printed it is just better and easier to send it out to a professional shop. there are 3 near me that do everything from FDM to SLS and their prices are reasonably inexpensive.

            Frankly i think a desktop CNC is a much better buy than a 3d Printer. but thats just my opinion.

      1. Agree, remember that printed scuba regulator which tripped a pressurized Schrader valve with a membrane and a pin on a lever? The shell was so porous that on inhalation it would fill with water before the air could fill it, at 100% infill it only worked after it was sealed first with acetone and then ABS-acetone goo caulking the inner walls. Maybe photocured resin prints are less porous but our regular FDM printers we are talking swiss cheese as far as porosity.

  1. Unless you’re printing ABS or something hotter, it’s probably not dishwasher safe. And there isn’t much for a reliable way to clean parts without risking contamination by material that gets between the layer lines and start/end points, most of these are just a bad idea.

    1. That would be the equivalent of filling a flash drive with other people’s content that you’ve downloaded off Thingiverse for free and selling it… or maybe selling just some works as a “hook” to get people interested in buying more content from content creators on Gambody etc.

      Again, this would make sense if decent consumer access to the Internet was not a thing. Those shareware demo disks with the first episode of Quake or whatever were very useful, they did have a legitimate market, 20 years ago.

  2. Is it really for someone who already has a 3d printer, though? I just picture a worker approaching a confused shopper looking at 3d printers and getting asked “well, what can I make with it?” who will point at one of those three USB sticks.

    1. I can see this being purchased as a gift. My family all know that I have and enjoy using a 3d printer. I suspect that if one of them saw this within a week or so of my birthday they might pick it up. And I would probably enjoy it in that spirit. Sometimes $20 is worth having something… anything… for that person that is hard to buy a gift for.

  3. It sounds idiotic to someone who already knows a lot about 3d pinting, but I actually think it’s a very valid product.

    Imagine you are a parent and have no clue how 3d printing works, but your 8 year old sees the 3d printer in stables and asks for it for christmas or their birthday or something. I could see it making perfect sense (while you are impulse buying a 3d printer in a brick and mortar store) to buy some ready-to go demo parts to use as a starting point. Even if you suspect you can download files online, you know these files will work with the printer you just purchased and it is just a no brainer to getting started.

    1. That, and the friendly salesperson will likely highly recommend that you buy these files, as well as a handful of other overpriced accessories, to make sure you have everything you need (so helpful!)

      1. Yes. One year as a teenager I asked for tips or a heating element for my modular soldering iron from Radio Shack, I guess it was Christmas. And I ended up, besides the tips, with a kit of “soldering aids”. Apparently the salesman helping my mother insisted I’d need that kit, and an extra sale was made. I never really used any of that kit, I’d already been soldering for years, though the money could have been spent on something useful, like more soldering iron tips. Some times those salesmen aren’t so helpful.


        1. I would not be surprised if this is the main reason why this is bought. “Oh, you have a 3D printer, here have a nice gift from me, who knows nothing about 3D printing but still wants to be nice towards you”

      2. Reminds me of going to Best Buy to get a TV and they try to sell you a $90 gold plated HDMI cable. There is a fine line between honest sales/marketing of useful things, and fraudulent peddling of snake oil.

        The STL files could go either way, buying a bunch of CAD files sight unseen is a bit ridiculous. If they had the prints of the files sitting on a display so the customer could see what they are buying, I wouldn’t have a problem with it.

  4. > This isn’t the 90s, though, and I find the idea that someone could own a 3D printer but still not have access to the Internet extremely odd.

    Wowow. Is that horse safe? ;)

    Several friends of mine do not have access to “the internet”, since where they live there is no mobile network (none as in “zero”) and you can only get roughly about 64kbps land line dial up connections. Sure, those are “flat rates”, but waiting for hours until your “citrus press STL” is downloaded only to find out that it looks garbage when printed isn’t fun.

    I find the idea odd that someone could own a SUV to drive 500m to the next bakery if he has two healthy legs and a bum that would make a whale look slim :-)

    Products are usually sold to people who think they are in need of those products. Even WITH access to the internet my 96 years old father in law – who does use the internet and who does own a 3d printer but would NEVER be able to download a STL file and get it printed without help, but is happy to plug in a USB drive and follow some instructions on screen – would be glad to buy such a gimmick.

  5. The “Kitchen” pack in particular seems like a terrible idea. The bottle and cutting board are questionable from a food safety perspective, and as someone pointed out if that candle holder tips over and starts a fire the potential liability is terrifying.

  6. You’re misunderstanding the market. It’s convenience, plain and simple… why spend ‘x’ time perusing the Internet for files when you can just grab a USB stick and, well, go…?

    There are two primary approaches to the eternal question of time vs money…

    If you have a lot of money, but not a lot of time, you can spend money to save time. For example, hiring a landscaping service instead of cutting your own dang lawn.

    If you don’t have much money, but you have plenty of time, you can spend time to save money. A long-winded example…

    A 1lb bag of dried chickpeas costs about a dollar around where I live (NC, USA). A lemon is half that. Enough garlic for our purposes here is another fifty cents or so. A few ounces of sesame seeds runs you about a dollar or two more, and they aren’t strictly speaking needed, but they do justify themselves, as does the expense of a bottle of olive oil. Boil the chickpeas, covered in water, and soak for an hour while you mince garlic, lightly (!) toast the sesame seeds (they should be aromatic and golden — if you brown them, they’ll be nasty and bitter and you get to start over), and juice the lemon. Once the sesame seeds are toasted, grind them up into a paste, a bit like peanut butter. Once the chickpeas are done soaking, drain, rinse, cover with water and cook them on a rather low setting, with a lid propped mostly over the pot. Three to four hours should do you. When they’re done they’ll be “al dente” like good pasta — if they’re squishy, you’ve overcooked them (they’ll still work here, though).

    Once you’ve got all that — get out your food processor. The big one. Mine is a four-cup Hamilton Beach model that’s about as old as I am, and it’s glorious. Drop in the chopper blade (the sharp metal one), the chickpeas, lemon juice, garlic, and sesame paste (tahini), along with a healthy but not too hefty dose of olive oil and a pinch or so of salt. Set the speed to high if your processor gives you a choice (mine does) and blast it for about five to ten minutes, pausing every so often to stir and check your seasonings. You may want to add more salt (making it less ‘flat’ tasting) or lemon juice (more tart) or garlic (more ‘kick’) or oil (thinner).

    When you’re done you’ll have a good pound or so of tasty hummus. Sure, that’s a solid afternoon’s worth of time, all in all, but then again, you’re saving ~$20 or so by not having to buy four packages of Sabra or whatever. Believe me, if you like hummus and you’re on any sort of budget, that ~$20 savings is dang well worth it. My hummus tastes better than Sabra’s crap anyways :D

    …of course, if you have neither time nor money, you’re kind of screwed unless you’re really good at balancing things out. (Good luck!)

    The USB flash drive of STL files, is aimed at the crowd that buys landscaping services and Sabra hummus. Their time is worth enough (at least to them) that they’d rather spend money on things, than spend time on those things. They don’t cut their own lawn or make their own hummus, and they’re sure as heck not going to spend an hour or two comparing 3D printer models on the Interwebs to get what they want. They’ve got stuff to do, you know?

    1. I see your point but when you want to wind up with a library of actual STL files, you still have to spend time finding the right physical hardware stick though. How does this help exactly? In terms of convenience, it is slightly more convenient than downloading a STL file since a few files are at least provided to you but given the files are largely junk and poorly thought through as to what widget they selected to begin with, I fail to see how this specific implementation of “time savings” actually helps much at all. Setting aside the lack of utility, food grade or flammability concerns, they should have just included this sample files as coming with the printer as preloaded files anyway.

      Now if you had something more akin to a 3D Printed Amazon Library of actually good parts that had hundreds of thousands of actually good STL files that you could quickly locate and were free or very low cost, you might start to have something more amenable to the landscaping services crowd than this slap a few files on the shareware disk from the 90’s type abomination that we are seeing here that is being touted as “a useful upsell” but actually isn’t.

      1. I’ve seen a lot of terrible models in the usual repositories. The ones with manifold errors, the ones that are a pain in the ass to modify, the ones that have never been test fitted. I’d certainly pay for a curated repo with validated quality models, even a few bucks per model if I knew it was going to work and there was money going to the original modeler.

        1. That’s why I like MyMiniFactory better than Thingiverse. Thingiverse may have more files, but a lot of it is untested stuff with renders only, never-been-printed, etc.

    2. Also… ten minutes in a food processor to make a pound of hummus feels like a lot longer than is necessary. Not saying your other points are invalid, I agree with needing to spend time or money (or both) depending on what your goals are and there are limits to how much you can learn or dabble in if you are otherwise working 40+ hours per week. I wholly agree that a great many people seem to fall into the “trap” that the value of their time is $0 when that isn’t really completely accurate.

      1. I’ve never scientifically timed it. The qualitative description of how long it takes is “significantly longer than you think it should”. Flavors gotta blend, yo.

    3. But why would someone who has more money than time spend the time to setup and wait for a print that has a chance of failing instead of just buying an equivalent thing already properly made and packaged on a store shelf?

    4. This seems like paying money for less convenience, though. There’s no way to see what’s actually included before buying it or tell whether the models are any good unless you go out your way to find articles like this one, whereas sites like Thingiverse have previews and comments from people who’ve tried printing the items there on the site itself.

  7. That’s a file down at your local dealership, and if you have a printer, they can just email it over after you pay $49.95 for it but it will only work on a DRM enhanced 3d printer and will self delete after one printing. This is the future of 3D printing.


  8. It seems to me that these USB drives really are just the electronic version of the books that one used to buy with plans for Lego, Mecanno, loombands etc. An easy first step to get a complete beginner used to the equipment and techniques. Having gained the confidence to use the printer, the owner can then cast about for other stuff and perhaps even learn to use a suitable CAD programme to design his/her own things.

    In the early days of 3d printing there were endless coathooks and bathplugs made by new owners of printers, they were not very good coathooks and they were not very good bathplugs but they gave the required practice on known good files. We all had to start somewhere and this seems to be as good a way as any. Plug and play then start the sometimes difficult process of doing what you really want to do.

    I am assuming that the (unfortunately) dead link was to a site that might offer some extension to the drive contents and possibly other related software.

  9. Perhaps when 3D printing gets to the level where you can print in many materials and nearly every home has one, I think this could be a good business model. Say you need a new part for your car but you want an officially sourced part then if 3D printing becomes good enough and everyone has one maybe this is how we will buy spare parts in the future. So I can see future uses and as Brian pointed out past uses it seems we are stuck in the middle ground where buying STL’s on a USB isn’t exactly the best idea.

    1. I was thinking just that, as well.

      I know that my Lowe’s and Home Depot don’t have any 3d printing parts, other than the pieces that I have re-purposed well outside of their intended use!

  10. Funny this just popped up on HAD. I just bought some STL’s from a place called Printable Scenery:

    Usually I would not do this and would try to design my own…but they have beautiful tabletop gaming models that are hard to beat for the price. I didnt like the connectors they used…so I chopped the STL and meshed it with my prefered connector..magnets..OpenForge style.

    Too bad I cant upload the modified STL files…but they look great, and my kids cant break the original OpenLock connectors. 3 year olds are like cavemen…they could break a steel ball.

  11. i think the only thing i ever printed that i didnt model myself was a knob for a potentiometer. i think i spent more time browsing model repositories for a knob that i liked than it would have taken to model one from scratch (and to my exacting specifications). i was going to print a raspi case i found but it needed some tweaks for my specific application, and the model was so full of bad geometry i just kind of used it as a template and then deleted it.

    selling models is kind of nuts, polygons are supposed to be free.

  12. I do t get it, 100% poor planning. I have 3 boxes of each color, when I get to 1 or 2 boxes of any color, I reorder. I use to manage a CNC job shop, they kept running out of boxes, I kept a min amount on hand before reorder, end of problem. I consulted for a bar, whe. Stock got below 3 bottles of any vodka, reorder.

    1. Vodka lasts forever; PLA filament sucks water out of the air and swells to more than its nominal diameter so it then doesn’t feed properly. I assume you either live somewhere dry, only print in ABS – the rolls of PLA in my makerspace in the UK would go stale so quickly we had to build a box full of dessicant with a hygrometer inside to make sure we could get to the end of a roll without it becoming useless. (That might be the fault of the makerbot, to be fair- if your printer is more tolerant of out-of-spec filament it might not be a problem)

  13. I have done some consulting work years ago for a chunk of the survivalist/prepper writer community. I could see them really wanting a good snapshot of thingiverse. The whole offline library or sharing customized .STLs via HF, EME, or AO-10(because that is the unkillable zombie OSCARS sat) really appeals to them, and I guess myself who never trusts ‘the cloud’. That said while they paid on time I got tired of the numbing constant proselytizing to both their post apocalypse aristocracy fantasy lifestyle and their religion. That said I doubt they would buy a flash drive with a few .STLs from Staples unless it was the Defcad AR-15 receiver collection.

  14. I have a hammer, and all I see around me is nails.

    I’ve recently listenend to “the power of habit” on audible (how i got there is a tale for another session… ).

    I dont suspect anyone would think USB sticks with stl files is a moneymaker. I am rather inclined to believe someone is trying to expose people who don’t know anything about the 3d printing of today to the simple idea that “of course you pay for models”, before they get into the affairs of 3d printing and quickly develop the habits of whipping up a quick design, or sharing it with a friend.
    This way, the children of today, becoming the consumers of tomorrow, when (if) 3d printers will become sufficiently affordable and reliable to become mental habits, these people are a little bit worse equipped to face the challenges that await them, and merrily pay (however little) for someone who already has the solution. Someone who can remember a day when “3d printer models came on usb sticks” are more inclined to not question the price of a 3d model, even if they never had a 3d printer during those times.

    Of course models are something you pay other people to design (no matter how simplistic). Thats how it has always been. right? riiigth?!.

    1. Being a consumer and paying for goods and services is not inherently bad. It is just another way of saying you have chosen to concentrate the finite amount of will and effort you have on developing a narrow set of skills that make you money (your job) and with that money you pay for most other things.

      I’m fine with STL files for sale if it means giving a paying job to someone who really loves doing CAD design, so that someone who has no interest in CAD can simply pay and save themselves the trouble.

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