Colin McCormick

@cfmccormick

Is a search engine for 3D-printable models the next unicorn?

Search transformed the Internet and brought it to scale. It can do the same for 3D printing.

In the 1990s, the Internet was at an inflection point. Access was cheap, thanks to AOL and others, and there was beginning to be quality content. But adoption was slow, because ordinary people didn’t know what they could do online, so they weren’t interested in the technology.

What changed that was effective search. Google’s PageRank transformed the way people used the Internet, because it allowed you to easily find what you were looking for, and stumble across interesting things you weren’t looking for but were happy to find. That dramatically improved the user experience, and made it far more attractive to ordinary people. As a result, the number of people online soared.

Today, 3D printing is in a similar position. Access has become cheap, as printers fall in price to less than an iPad. And increasingly, there’s interesting content available, in the form of thousands of free models on sites like Thingiverse, YouMagine, MyMiniFactory, and Pinshape. But ordinary people still don’t have any idea of what they could make with a 3D printer, so they’re not interested in getting one.

Searching in vain

Like the Internet, what’s needed to change this situation is quality search. Today, if you go hunting for a 3D-printable model online, it’s hard to find what you’re looking for. There are many platforms hosting many different models, with new ones all the time. Yes, there are cross-platform search engines like yeggi, but these aren’t really mature. This abundance of platforms — with no single “front door” to model repositories — is barrier number one to ordinary users.

(And let’s not get confused about people who use CAD to design their own models to 3D print. They’re like the people who made their own web pages in the 1990s — they exist, but that will never be the way ordinary people interact with the technology.)

Most importantly, we don’t yet have any kind of ranked or prioritized search for 3D-printable models. Searching for “toy train” returns hundreds of hits, but in a random order. Unlike Google, where I generally find what I’m looking for in the top ten returned hits, I have to scroll through page after page of 3D-printable train models before I find one that fits what I want.

This is a real problem, and so far no one knows how to solve it. Unlike search for web pages, which can exploit information in the hyperlink structure and other data to create a pretty robust priority ordering, there’s no good basis that anyone has invented for prioritizing 3D-printable models. What defines a “good” or “relevant” model? In the absence of an answer to that question, search is now just based on text tags that the model builder decided to attach.

It’s worth noting that most search today is driven by this need for prioritization. Google is one example. Similarly, it’s not surprising that Netflix can help you find movies when you know the title, or Amazon can help you find products when you know their names. What’s noteworthy and valuable is that they can recommend movies you’ll probably like but haven’t heard about, or recommend products you might be interested in but don’t know about.

The front door to the Internet of Objects

The reason this matters is that whoever cracks this problem will have a huge opportunity on their hands. First of all, having a simple, prioritized search capability will attract a large new group of users of 3D printers, who will finally be able to see what they could use the technology for.

But more importantly, this tool would quickly become the “Google for objects” — the front door to the new “Internet of Objects” that will become increasingly important. Controlling this door would be enormously valuable. Want to make toys or jewelry as a gift? Want to find a replacement part for something that broke in your home? Start here, and you’ll quickly find the right model to 3D print. The possibilities for advertising, product sales, and any number of other revenue streams are enormous — enough to make the company controlling this technology the next unicorn.

While I certainly believe that 3D printing means objects are just data now, finding those objects is rapidly becoming the name of the game. So what’s the holdup? I wish I knew how to make that kind of search engine — if I did, I’d be dropping everything to pursue it. But I don’t, and I don’t think anyone does yet.

I hope someone figures it out soon, because I’m getting tired of scrolling through hundreds of pages of models to find something to 3D print.

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