This is one I get asked surprisingly frequently: “Do you think there will be an iTunes for 3D printed objects?”  The short answer. No, I think it is extremely unlikely that a store for 3D printed objects will exist.

Now by “iTunes for 3D printed objects”. I mean a single online store, that sells digital designs which can be downloaded and printed at home with a personal 3D printer. This store would also have a marketshare so huge, the generated revenue rivals and often surpasses that of traditional physical competitors. If you are following in the footsteps of iTunes I hope you are wearing some pretty massive shoes, because you have some serious hurdles to overcome.

Competition

Firstly, pretty much everyone with any kind of entrepreneurial ethos has had the same idea. It is going to be very hard for any one digital store to attract enough content and sales traffic to outstrip the competitors. At the time of writing the big marketplaces in the 3D printed object space are:

  • Shapeways – I like to think of Shapeways as Redbubble or Etsy for 3D printed content. Essentially user contributed content that Shapeways print out on their own fleet of (very expensive) objet printers. At the moment Shapeways performs all the printing itself, shipping you the finished object. However it wouldn’t be impossible for them to start selling designs in a downloadable format.
  • Thingiverse – I like to think of Thingiverse as github for open source 3D designs that can be printed. Working on an open hardware project? Want to freely share and collaborate on designs with others who share your interest? Thingiverse is the place for you. Again it would not be impossible for Thingiverse to branch out and offer a paid marketplace, where people can pay for designs.
  • Cubify Store – Started out by following Apple as closely as it could. Selling printer hardware, and offering a store that people could use to purchase and download digital content. However more recently they have started to print and ship like Shapeways.
  • TurboSquid – These guys are a marketplace for stock 3D objects for artists and animators. They have a huge cohort of artists who contribute content to their store, and while many of the formats are not directly compatible with 3D printers it wouldn’t be impossible for them to convert them, and create a special 3D printing subcategory.
  • PirateBay – While unlikely to ever have a paid marketplace, the pirate bay now also has a ‘physibles’ category for content that can be 3D printed.
  • Not to mention a few other smaller groups playing in the space: the3dstudio, MeshFactory and exchange3d that could continue to improve and find other ways to innovate and compete.

Personally I think the first four have a fair crack at the space, and I think it will be difficult for any one of them to dominate the market enough to gobble up iTunes like marketshare.

Professional Content

Secondly, and more importantly is that all of the above marketplaces sell that I classify as “Indie” content - Independent designers and artists making elegant and awesome bespoke content. The masterstroke that Steve Jobs pulled off when launching iTunes, was to convince five major labels EMI, Universal, Warner, Sony Music Entertainment and BMG to sell their music on iTunes. Independent content was eventually added, but it was the availability of mainstream “popular” content is what drove adoption of both the iPod and the iTunes store.

In the 3D printing space, if someone launched a store that had a catalog of printable spare-parts from Ikea, Toyota, Bosch, Fisher & Paykel and Mattel? Oh boy would they have my attention. However, getting a catalog of designs from these vendors is no easy task.

Aside from obvious piracy and copy protection issues. How does a marketplace guarantee the quality of the printed replacement part? 3D Printer quality is improving at an incredible pace, but with all the different materials and techniques on offer - how can you be sure that the printed replacement part will be a strong enough substitute?

While huge hurdles, each of them are not impossible to surmount. If you do happen to have answers to the above and the technology to deliver? Just wow. I never knew the future was going to be this awesome!