From Millennium Falcons to microbots: 3D printers can print practically anything. You're only limited by your imagination—well, that and your skill at creating 3D printable images. Developing that skill might take a little time. But why wait? Tap into the experience and imagination of others at sites that offer 3D printable models—many of them free. Here's an overview of 10 of the most popular sites.
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1. My Mini Factory
The great thing about My Mini Factory is that the items there are guaranteed to be 3D printable. All of the objects have been vetted and proven to work. You might be surprised to learn that not every model you see on a 3D printing site is a bona fide 3D printable model. Some are only concepts, or wishful thinking. My Mini Factory has taken the trouble to confirm that everything listed on the site comes out the way it appears.
The site is very well organized. You can search by objects, people (meaning 3D designers), and channels. In the store, you'll see objects that really are a cut above—or should we say 'a print above'? Mostly, it's beautiful, originally designed pendant jewelry.
My Mini Factory is run by iMakr, a reseller of 3D printing hardware that has two physical locations, one in New York and the other in London.
This is the granddaddy of 3D sites. More than 584,090 3D models have been uploaded to Thingiverse. You'll need to create an account and sign in to explore and download all the awesome designs. The site has an undeniable energy—call it a spirit of competition—that drives its members to create ever bigger and better things, like a fully functioning 3D printed Subaru EJ20 WRX Engine. You're guaranteed to find something you like, from utilitarian cable holders to detailed models of the Roman Colosseum. And then there's this wickedly cool wireframe skull pencil holder.
Thingiverse is run by 3D printer manufacturer MakerBot.
We think of YouMagine as the Linux of 3D printing sites. Its goal is to bring designers together to create open-source 3D designs. "We believe that through collaboration and sharing all of us can make all the things better," the site says. The approach seems to be working. There are more than 10,000 designs to choose from, and they look to be of high quality with evident attention to detail. Take, for instance, the work put into this Steampunk Iron Man Hand. And though the Space Invader Toilet Paper Holder may not be an example of detailed artistry, it's awfully hard to resist.
YouMagine is powered by Ultimaker, a producer of highly regarded machines for people who are serious about 3D printing.
Besides being an excellent place to find designs, this site is set up to help start making your own. Autodesk 123D hopes that the designs offered by its community of users will get your creative juices flowing. The free downloadable apps that take you from photo to design are a great resource. The site offers three levels of membership. The Free membership gives you access to the noncommercial use of 3D models, the aforementioned apps, and unlimited cloud storage. There are also Premium and Starter Pack accounts; the latter includes a MakerBot Mini 3D Printer. This site really wants to get you involved in 3D printing!
Pinshape boasts a community of 70,000-plus makers and designers. Some designs are free, and others are for sale. Since the site is not owned by a 3D printer maker, its designs are hardware-agnostic. Pinshape is heaven for comic book fans. There are models for everything from a Life Size Thor's Hammer to Harley Quinn's Revolver from Suicide Squad. Pinshape also hosts contests. Currently, it's running one for creating assistive devices for people with limited use of their hands. Prizes include 3D printers and filaments.
Treatstock is a 3D print site that doesn't require you to have a 3D printer. Simply search for a model you like, choose the color and material you want, and order it from a 3D printing service. You can also have designers something that you design. Then have the final product mailed to you, or pick it up after choosing a nearby 3D printer. This site is an especially good resource for designers and printing services that are looking for customers. A printing service can be anyone who owns a 3D printer and wants to make some extra money—but Treatstock vets all of its printing services to ensure that they can deliver high-quality final products.
One great feature of Treatstock is its amazing 3D view of each model. You can spin the model around in every direction so that you know exactly what you're getting. There's even a '3D Glasses' feature that lets you see the model in 3D.
Treatstock's founder says that he came up with the idea for the site when he was searching online for his favorite toy airplane from when he was a child. When he couldn't find it, he created a 3D printed replica from old pictures. After letting his children print their own customized models of the toy and seeing how happy they were, he realized that many people might enjoy such a service.
Yobi3D has been called the Google of 3D printing sites because its homepage resembles that of the giant search engine. The only elements on it are a search box and some popular keywords. Type in what you're looking for, and Yobi3D presents you with a collection of rotatable 3D printable images. It couldn't be simpler. Hey, Google was successful for a reason.
3Dagogo, though much smaller than My Mini Factory, shares one important feature of that popular site: All of the designs that appear on the site have been printed successfully. If you have trouble with one, you can contact the designer for help. You don't need a 3D printer either: If you see a design you like, you can choose to purchase and download it—70 percent of the sale goes to the designer—and take it to a site that offers printing services. You can search for items by keyword or category, such as Art, Garden, Jewelry, and Models/Figurines.
Cults is a French 3D printing site, but fortunately the text is written in English, giving you access to the artistic genius of another country. You'll come away feeling that the French have a lot of talent and their own way of looking at things, with interesting creations such as a decorative planter and a 3D printed corset. There's even a Naughties section—Hey, it is a French site after all—but we didn't go there. This is a family site.
The name Cults is actually St. Luc spelled backward. St. Luc is the patron saint of artists and sculptors.
GrabCAD is geared toward helping engineers design and develop their ideas faster through apps and collaboration. Where aspiring 3D printers benefit is in the Library (under the Community tab), where you'll find a treasure trove of over a million CAD files. Download a battery-powered torpedo or 3D Puzzle Ant. A lot of the things on this site look as though they actually work. Maybe they do. The creators are engineers after all.
Photo credits: M3D, My Mini Factory, Thingiverse, YouMagine, Autodesk123D, Pinshape, Treatstock, Yobi3D, 3Dagogo, Cults, GrabCAD.