3D Model Subscriptions Are Coming, But Who’s Buying?

We’ve all been there before — you need some 3D printable design that you figure must be common enough that somebody has already designed it, so you point your browser to Thingiverse or Printables, and in a few minutes you’ve got STL in hand and are ready to slice and print. If the design worked for you, perhaps you’ll go back and post an image of your print and leave a word of thanks to the designer.

Afterwards, you’ll probably never give that person a second thought for the rest of your life. Within a day or two, there’s a good chance you won’t even remember their username. It’s why most of the model sharing sites will present you with a list of your recently downloaded models when you want to upload a picture of your print, otherwise there’s a good chance you wouldn’t be able to find the thing.

Now if you really liked the model, you might go as far as following the designer. But even then, there would likely be some extenuating circumstances. After all, even the most expertly designed widget is still just a widget, and the chances of that person creating another one that you’d also happen to need seems exceedingly slim. Most of the interactions on these model sharing sites are like two ships passing in the night; it so happened that you and the creator had similar enough needs that you could both use the same printable object, but there’s no telling if you’ll ever cross paths with them again.

Which is why the recent announcements, dropped just hours from each other, that both Thangs and Printables would be rolling out paid subscription services seems so odd. Both sites claim that not only is there a demand for a service that would allow users to pay designers monthly for their designs, but that existing services such as Patreon are unable to meet the unique challenges involved.

Both sites say they have the solution, and can help creators turn their passion for 3D design into a regular revenue stream — as long as they get their piece of the action, that is.

Supply and Demand

The idea of offering paid subscriptions for an individual’s content is of course nothing new. As previously mentioned, Patreon is already an option used by creators as a way for their followers to support them financially. In return, they get perks like early access to new content or direct one-on-one contact with the creator themselves. If you’re willing to support them at a high enough monthly level, there’s often the opportunity to have custom work commissioned. Perhaps the most notorious of these services is OnlyFans, which has become the unofficial home of bespoke adult content that can only be unlocked via monthly tithing.

With such services, there’s a clear expectation of continual content. Whether it’s early access to a YouTube video about retrocomputing or high-res images of a scantily-clad photo shoot, there’s an implicit guarantee that your monthly support grants you access to a regular flow of something that’s interesting or desirable. It’s simple economics — they have something people want, and customers are willing to pay regularly for it.

But how that fits in with 3D printing is a bit less clear. As most of us have come to realize by now, desktop 3D printing is best suited to producing highly customized one-off objects. Sure there are occasions where a group of people will serendipitously require the same object, say a holder for a particular tool, which is why model sharing sites were established in the first place. But that’s still just a one time exchange.

What about the next month, or the month after that? What could that same designer offer you that would keep your interest over the long term, much less be worth the cost of admission?

Experience tells us that, for the most part, the most important and valuable objects you’ll ever print on your desktop machine will have two things in common: you’ll design it yourself, and you probably won’t even know it was something you needed beforehand.

Technical Difficulties

Being Hackaday, we’ve thus far approached this from a practical standpoint. In this community we largely use 3D printing as a tool to build personal projects that may or may not be of use to anyone else. In such an environment, the monthly subscription model is a tough sell. But to be fair, some are more interested in the artistic applications of the technology.

In that case, perhaps you do have a favorite 3D artist, and you’d be willing to pay every month to get access to their latest piece. We could certainly see somebody putting out a few dollars a month to get access to models like wargaming miniatures or busts of celebrities or historical figures — in other words, streams of printable objects that could remain fresh and exciting for months or even years to come.

But even in that case, it’s difficult to see why we need a dedicated subscription service…much less two of them. In the announcements about their respective services, Thangs and Printables both cited the challenges of managing users and content downloads. The Printables blog post specifically points to Patreon’s lack of file hosing, and goes on to explain how creators are left to figure out how to securely provide their models to supporters.

It goes as far as to say that, in some cases, dealing with the logistics of this consumes more time than it takes to create the pieces being shared in the first place.

That’s a claim we’re skeptical of, to put it mildly. This isn’t the 1990s, and file hosting is hardly difficult to come by. For example, GitHub offers granular repository permissions that would allow you to create a private repository that only invited users could view and comment on.

We’d also point out that, due to the lack of any DRM on STL files, there’s no way to actually limit who can use them once they’ve been downloaded. So even if you did come up with an elaborate authentication system to make sure only paying customers got access to your latest model, nothing except their conscience would stop one of them from immediately re-uploading it to another model hosting site for free and making the whole endeavour moot.

Suffering from Success

To that end, at least Thangs says they have a plan in place. Using their 3D search engine technology, the service will be able to “notify creators if content from paid membership plans has been publicly shared without permission on a number of third party platforms.” What the creator is supposed to do with said information is, unfortunately, a bit less clear.

Those who’ve been involved with desktop 3D printing for awhile will likely remember the saga of Aria the Dragon. When it was discovered that somebody on eBay was printing and selling the Creative Commons licensed model without any attribution to creator Louise Driggers, it triggered a huge debate about the nature of 3D printed art. The seller argued that Louise gave up her rights by putting the model online, and if it wasn’t for the negative press coverage the situation garnered, it’s not clear eBay or Thingiverse would have bothered to get involved.

When a creator finds one of their subscription models is being offered for free somewhere else, will they have to make as much noise as Louise did to get results? Or will Thangs put on the necessary pressure to make sure that these models are removed from rival services in a timely manner? Unfortunately, we probably won’t know the answer until somebody has their work copied out from under them.

There’s Gold in Them STLs

Let’s be clear, creators should absolutely have the tools necessary to charge for their 3D models if they wish, and we’d love to see people earning a living doing so. But creating two competing monthly subscription services just seems like a lot of wasted effort, especially for a problem that seems like it’s already been largely solved. Sites like Cults3D and cgtrader have allowed creators to sell their models for years, no subscription required. If you like a particular model, you can simply buy it like any other piece of digital content.

We could think of a lot worse ways to spend $45.

But ultimately, whether the 3D printing subscription services actually take off depends on the community. So what do the good readers of Hackaday think? Is this the kind of monetary incentive creators need to produce the next generation of printable models, or will it be looked back on as yet another misguided attempt to cash in on the hype surrounding a technology that seems perfectly content with teetering on the edge of mainstream adoption?

51 thoughts on “3D Model Subscriptions Are Coming, But Who’s Buying?

  1. Some of these 3D modelers also provide you selling rights access when you subscribe to them, which makes it (vaguely) profitable if you feel like selling locally/to friends/etc — if anything, the selling costs can cover the subscription and a couple spools of filament every now and then.

  2. I absolutely believe that people should be able to charge for their models and am glad to see sites incorporating some sort of pay model. I will say, though, that I am disappointed that Printables did not implement an option for people to individually charge for models. I don’t generate enough models to make anyone want to subscribe to me; however, I really would like to put a modest price on a couple of my more popular works. FWIW, I won’t pay a monthly subscription fee to anyone just to get one model that I want. I’ll just go without. Cults3D still wins for me in that regard. Please Printables (and Thingiverse), add an option for us to individually charge for models.

    1. Given that they are probably going to go the YouTube etc path of paying creators less and less as time goes on. Essentially turning into treating them as cash cows, only due a fraction of a percent of their revenue generation. It is probably better just to host the files yourself with an ad smothered download page and donation buttons (paypal, patreon, crypto etc).

  3. I think it’s a missed opportunity to implement a subscription system similar to what Flattr attempted. Let users pay a monthly sum and then automatically spread that to all creators whose models the user downloaded that month…

    1. This still looks like the failing cable TV business model: We prefer that you subscribe to 200 channels, instead of charging you just for the 2 you actually want. And cable TV has more likelihood of continual demand for the channels of actual interest.

      1. Damn, don’t remind me, I cut the cord earlier than many, due to my cable co offering the illusion of choice in channel packages, and shuffling the damn packages every 6 months. I was already exasperated with that, having to jump around the packages to get a couple of decent channels, then when they quit analog completely, three of the analog channels that I watched that were in basic, suddenly popped into packages only, one of them premium. I presumed this was intentional frustration generation, since when I called again to complain and switch packages around to chase the channels, and they gave me the “But sir, for only $250 a month you can have everything and a timeshift PVR head unit” nope nope nope. (The PVR unit was also very crappy, had channel and program lockouts and only 2 hours storage.) … Having everything was an anti-feature anyway, even for a tenth of the price, magnet for the kind of mooches who turn up on your couch and consume your food and drink all day.

    2. that would be nice, and better to all the creators.

      Or the simple way, just a way for people to pay for the models they downloaded, no subscriptions necessary, or maybe with a subscription you could download any model, then for those that want to download a lot, it would be cheaper so subscribe.

  4. As long as the subscription based options, or any payment features are additional to the sites then I’m not opposed. I’m sure they create at least some drag on page development and upkeep, so that’s a bit disappointing. The consumer 3d printing realm was largely conjured out of the RepRap project. Even though today cheap printers are available for purchase at prices you’d be hard to beat via DIY I guess I still see it as one of the few places you can still count on sharing and community to come without someone jingling a tip jar. I have published designs on Printables (mostly hearing aid models to be fitted to stuffed animals so kids can have toys that look just like them). I provided a low friction PayPal tip link if anyone feels inclined, but I’d rather see the designs get used regardless of whether or not it fills my pockets. The creative commons licensing choices make those terms easy to set up (even though they’re likely mostly indefensible for small abuses).

    If Printables or Thingiverse start pushing subscriptions over sharing freely then I assume it will be the end of their roads with a short term windfall. At its core I still believe the 3d printing community, much like Hackaday, is more about enabling DIY and makers as neighbors and friends, not a marketplace.

    As to your ships passing in the night reference. That’s usually how it works, but I’ve found it takes little effort to get a conversation going. I recently needed to modify a phone holder model I found on Thingiverse. Even though it was several years old it took <48 hours to contact the author (half way around the globe) and I had the original model files to make my modifications from rather than having to hack on imported STLs. He shared them freely along with some helpful advice on how to accomplish my changes.

  5. As I start down the rabbit hole of D&D, this makes a bit of sense to me. I found someone on Printables who has already published a number of models I like, and have printed, so I started supporting them on Patreon as a way to say thank you for their work.

    1. Yup. The use case here for a subscription is not printing “widgets”, but stuff like war gaming models, terrain, dice masters etc. and probably similar in other hobbies.

      People who are not viewing 3d printing as “hacking” but “crafting”.

      Or other people for whom it is business, printing replacement parts for cars or something.

      Still not sure we need another platform for it though!

      1. This.

        A majority of models on myminifactory are gaming-related. They support subscription/patron-based monetization in addition to per-model sales, and I’m pretty sure they’ve done so for quite a while too.

  6. Completely tangential but I really like that Prusa supports STEP files – I’ve converted all my models from STL to STEP so they are more easily editable by downloaders.

    Please everyone do the same :-)

    1. I encourage to do so with every part I upload to Printables.
      STEP and source file (FreeCAD in my case).

      Noone wants to modify stinkin STL files…

      In addition to that I started the FreeCAD-Group on Printables some time ago which has gained quite some userbase over the time. Come and join if you like!

      1. Thank you JanW! I always post my freecad files (even though they’re ugly) to Printables in case they help someone. I also tag them with “freecad” so they are easier to find for people so inclined. Oh and the reason I use Printables now instead of Thingiverse (which I used at first due to name recognition) is that Printables seems more favorable to open-source stuff. Hopefully my handful of niche adaptors and brackets etc helps someone, somewhere, some time :-)

  7. History repeats itself. During the 3D printing bubble, there was no shortage of these services popping up. But there was a shortage of people actually using these services. There is most likely some demand, but I don’t think it will be big enough. As people rather have individual models they paid for, or free models. However, time will tell.

  8. Sadly this will only inspire designers to churn out quick low-quality models to keep up sheer quantity so subscribers will feel like they’re getting value from their money. Selling digital files is hard enough still and trying to relay the value of a single sculpt that took many, many hours to refine and detail in ZBrush on top of test print and document is a losing proposition.

    On top of that, once a monetization model is added to a 3D file host it always ends up causing a wave of spammy advertising from unethical designers which results with the entire domain getting blacklisted from large 3D printing communities. Try posting a link to a MMF or Cults design in /r/3Dprinting or the larger discord servers to see what I mean.

    1. You are looking at it from a designer’s point of view. You cannot “relay the value of a single sculpt that took many, many hours to refine and detail”, because that is only the value to YOU. The value to the customer is what it brings to THEM. You can spend months designing a piece of art, but if it is only worth $20 to me, then that is its value and no talking about how long it took you will change that. If you will not sell said item to me for $20, then I walk away, perhaps the next person will value it more.

      You need to find those to whom your work is of the same or more value than it is to you. If you make something in 5 minutes that is worth $5 to you, but $100 to me, I’m sure you’ll be happy to take the $100.

      With physical objects, each is a separate creation so they tend to have more value. Reproductions cost something to make, yet have less value, even if they are identical in every physical detail.

      Things are different in the digital realm. If you make something that you think is worth $100, but you can sell an infinite number of copies for no additional work, what is its value then? Would you be satisfied selling 100 copies at $1 ea? That would be the $100 you value it at, or do you want $100 for every copy, despite no additional labor on your behalf, even if it does not bring $100 of value to those who buy it.

      tldr; Stop trying to tell people what you think a thing’s value is, it only matters what the customer thinks the value is. It you want more than that, they walk away. Instead, set the price to maximize the profit. Maybe it is often better/easier to sell 5 copies at $20 ea instead of one at $100 ea, perhaps even 20 at $5 ea…

      1. In an editorial in (IIRC) PC Magazine, John C. Dvorak covered this. He mentioned buying a software package. I don’t care if you spent $50,000 developing this software, the second copy cost you $2. Convince me it’s worth the price you’re asking.

        1. That’s stupid. You don’t pay for the cost of something, you pay for the value it provides to you. It’s not some utopian socialist world where nobody gets to make any money. If you don’t to pay $50,000 for the second copy of the software, then don’t. Nobody’s obligated to sell it to you for any less than that.

          1. Ah yes, leading by insulting the other fellows opinion. A classic strategy of artful debate that shows the clear superiority of your own opinion. Since you said that I will mention that both your opinions are stupid, because I just steal it and pay nothing. Sincerely yours, ~All of China

    2. The value of a thing is what people will give you for it, not what it took to make it.

      That sucks, but it is true.

      If no one wants to pay for what you make, then its value is 0 – no matter how much work you put into it.

      I fix up old (1950 and earlier) sewing machines as a hobby. It takes (depending on the condition of the machine) anywhere from a couple of hours to a couple of days to complete one. Nobody will pay you a living wage for that kind of thing. If I were to try making a living at it, I go broke pretty damned quick – nobody wants to buy a 100 year old (but solid and nearly indestrucable) sewing machine for more than the price of a new (but crummy) sewing machine. That sucks, but that’s the way it is.

      People view plastic sculptures as trinkets – valueless decoration. It doesn’t matter how much work goes into it. It’s plastic and it’s disposable – value near zero.

      If you want to make money from your art, you’ll need to make it attractive to people who value art.
      Take that carefully made and polished plastic object to a company that can cast things in bronze. Get some bronzes made – if your art is atttractive, you’ll be able to sell them for far more than the plastic prototypes.

  9. This is not some new niche being served, but an existing niche being served better. Currently, modellers run a Patreon and distribute models by some 3rd party hosting method (e.g. filesharing site, updated bittorrent repository, etc) due to Patreon being shite at file hosting. That leaves a lot to be desired in terms of reliability, access control and revocation. Rather than tilting at windmills and trying to get Patreon to up their file hosting game, instead Printables & Thangs are using their existing very good 3d model hosting service and tacking on the subscription portion. This will probably be a perfect fit for modellers who solely work with 3D models, but probably less so for those who produce mixed medium art (e.g. models, but also composited scenes, or rigs, or animations, etc).

  10. Not sure why this is news – there are already tons of 3D file subscriptions (mainly in the miniature scene) because specific creators or studios have demonstrated consistent quality and have a back catalogue users want. Many are Patreon integrated – e.g. The Makers Cult and their Universal Guard and other War Hammer 40K proxies.

    Do I like free STLs and generally put my designs up for free? Yes.
    Do I also believe creators should be allowed to charge whatever they believe is a reasonable price for their work? Also yes.

    That means that some files might require money and creators might decide to also offer a subscription or other bundle. While we might get a bunch of low quality subscription .STLs that nobody buys more 3D is always a good thing. What I’m hoping for is more money in the space helps more creators make more/ better things and maybe leads to better CAD tools we all can use as most of my value in 3D printing is making custom objects to fit the things I already have on hand.

  11. Absolute 100% coal. Taking 3d printing and SaaSifying it… This is supposed to be about finally downloading a car, not paying another godforsaken monthly subscription for microplastics

  12. I hope they can pay for some better developers so they can fix the performance & usability issues the site has. Search boxes jumping around playing hide and seek, pagination allergy/aversion (which leads to a really bad case of Facebook scroll slowdown syndrome) and a terrible search engine makes the page a pain to use at times, and it’s quite frequently simply completely unavailable.

    1. I’d agree. If I can direct my share from the few files on thingiverse towards the usability cause, it’s worth it. Although personally, I’d rather these companies go for a credits or single payment model. Sure, it’s bringing this into the stock photography model, but it’s the best model for the end users and creators in my opinion. Want a lot, buy credits. Want one thing, buy that one thing. Although what do I know, I’ve given everything I’ve ever created away so probably not the best person to ask.

  13. Main customers are people with no engineering knowledge who print rainbow articulated caterpillars and sell them for 6 bucks at the flea market. Yet another ecosystem centered around converting chinese plastic into american landfill waste.

  14. Most of my designs, scratch an itch. I print something I need. One and done.

    I put the design up on thingiverse or cults or … Mostly for me to know where it is incase I need another one. If someone else wants my design it makes me happy. If no one cares, so what, I got my thing printed and used.

    I am not doing designs for profit. If someone asked me to build something for them, I might do it for free, or if they are gonna make money off my design, I’ll all for a cut.

  15. As somebody who occasionally designs something useful to other people I’m not aware of any appropriate library site where I can monetize without either paying a subscription myself for the service or committing to frequently producing worthwhile content. The subscription model seems to me a wildly poor fit for the majority of both creators and customers.

      1. Their search is terrible & their website is really slow in my country (UK). Images sometimes fail to fully load. It’s lame, I don’t understand how the reprap community hasn’t rallied around a better solution than the 3-4 main distribution websites. I could code something better than cults by myself in a week or two, imagine how great something a more “open” would be? F prusa, ultimaker and the other crappy corps

  16. I’m somewhere in the middle. When I find a design I like, I usually check out all of the other designs by the same creator, because more often than not good designs follow good designs.

    But as Tom says, they’re not always aimed at exactly your current needs, so that’s hit-or-miss, and not something that I would want a per-creator subscription for.

    The per-model pricing makes more sense for me. But I’d be stoked if a designer-based system also incentivized some of my favorite designers to make more.

  17. This article hits the nail on the head for me on every single point. I can understand D&D fans being willing to subscribe to regular 3D content, but just about everything I print is a one-off item to serve a particular need. If I find a design that is better than one I could create myself I am perfectly happy to pay a fee for it commensurate with the difficulty and effort it took to create it, but a generalized subscription model is a complete no-go for me … just like cable TV, online news sites, and Office 365 was. My needs simply aren’t that continuous and in general the product can’t be dependably worth the expense, at least not for me.

  18. My guess on why a subscription vs a per model marketplace is likely due to logistics and legality.
    If they do a per model shop, then they have to deal with return policies (bad files, items do not work for their intended purpose, etc.). Also if someone makes a bunch of models of Disney characters, then the store may have some legal issues for selling copyrighted items. If they are just doing subscriptions, then that legal issue gets moved onto the designer instead of the store.

  19. Waste of time. It will fail, perhaps kept on life support for a couple years before everyone admits that it failed.

    Most existing good 3D designers won’t use it, if they are already putting up models for free. First-adopter hustle crowd will try to jump on the hype wagon and manufacture a lot of social interest in the thing they are invested in (note: crypto, NFT, AI). It’ll quickly become a platform flooded with spammy remakes that drown out originality. And raving reply-guys that will pounce and shame anyone who points out a flaw. The good designers will move to a different platform.

  20. There are many(!) designers on Patreon creating gaming miniatures intended for 3D printing — some of whom have literally thousands of patrons — with each patron paying a few bucks a month in order to access a stream of monthly content. It is a VERY well-populated and entirely digitally-distributed niche.

    I suspect this move is aimed mainly at such markets, and not so much at the ‘widget makers’.

  21. Wow. People should check out the forum feedback for the announcement on the Printables website. It is almost universally negative, with most buyers saying they don’t like it (just like everyone hates cable subscriptions) and most designers saying that they can’t create enough designs repetitively to entice anyone to subscribe. Almost everyone is asking for a third option … free, subscription, and pay-by-item. I’d be amazed if Prusa ignores all that feedback and goes ahead with the current model.

  22. That’s nice. People who want to sell their designs should be able to do so.

    But I’m far more interested in the Open Source scene and seeing progress there. I think the paid modelers will do well churning out for the trinket market while the Open Source people will design new tools and machines which help change the world. What I hope to see from this is a greater separation between the people who just want to sell something vs those wanting to make something. And that I hope will make all those share-alike non-commercial licenses become less common. Those things are just open enough to encourage open source developers to build on them rather than start from scratch while being closed enough to ultimately kneecap the future potential of those projects.

    I like what has happened with open source 3d printer and other tool parts being available from mini-factories selling on Amazon or Ebay. It means one can choose to mix and match what things they want to customize and build themselves vs buy ready made.

  23. I would gladly pay for this assuming it didn’t suck. I tried out STLFlix a while back but their platform is just not good.

    If there was a paid option with higher quality decent models I could see it being viable but they need to be dang good quality, print well and be things people want.

  24. I think generally it’s not so much like a cable tv service but more like ” I like what you’re doing and I want to support you in doing it. ” I don’t think patrons are thinking about it from “What do I get from it” I think they are looking at it more like supporting an artist.

    The point is there are lots of people already doing this. They just happen to be doing it on a site that is not catered to their art of 3D modeling. It’s also good to see that Thangs is able to find your models if they are posted on other sites. That alone might be worth some sort of subscription for the artist. Thangs also has a workspace feature that is sort of like Git for 3D… it’s all pretty cool you should check it out. It’s like a 3D hosting site that actually understands creators.

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