I bought my first 3D printer back in 2013. For the low price of $359, I purchased a Printbot Simple kit, made from laser-cut wood, with a build volume of 100mm x 100mm x 100mm. Back then, printers were cruder. MakerBot dominated the market with their costly Replicator model of printer, which sold for over $2,000. And to help pave the way for the home fabrication movement, MakerBot built a web site that would come to be known as the place to go for downloading 3D models that you can print. This web site would be appropriately known as Thingiverse – the universe of things to print.
I’ve spent a lot of time on Thingiverse over the years, just browsing the repositories and seeing what everyone was making and printing. As Thingiverse got older and its repository of 3D objects grew, it started to show its age. In recent years, the performance of the site went steeply downhill. Eager Thingiverse users would sometimes have to wait for minutes for the page to load or to browse to a listing of 3D objects. To add insult to injury, Thingiverse was the victim of a security compromise, and data on its 200,000+ users was leaked.
Around that time, Prusa Research was in the process of broadening their engagement with the 3D printing community. In 2019, they began hosting 3D models for download from the Prusa printers web site. Then, in 2022, the site was renamed and formally launched as printables.com, with a slew of capabilities. Prusa Research is a company that’s known for their quality and commitment – and printables.com has been no exception.
Flash Design Contests
To encourage people to make and post designs on printables.com, Prusa came up with a gamified rewards system. Interactions with the community and designers will earn you “Prusameters” that fill up your “spool”. When your spool is filled with enough Prusameters, you can redeem them for rewards, such as clothing, accessories, printer filament, and even a Prusa 3D printer.
To complement the rewards system, Prusa also has been implementing weekly “Flash Contests”. Each Friday, a new contest is started with a designated theme and 9 days for designers to create and upload their designs on that theme. According to the contest rules, the design must be created within the timeframe of the contest. This helps to keep contest entries fresh and encourages designers to create new takes on old ideas. It also levels the playing field somewhat. Every designer entering the contest has the same amount of time to get creative.
If you end up proving your design skills and winning a contest, you’re awarded with 400 Prusameters and recognition of your model. And being in the #1 spot spurs further visibility of your designs, leading to more downloads, which in turn earns you even more Prusameters.
As great as this sounds for designers, there are also some challenges that have come up along the way. One issue has been people stealing the designs of others and submitting them as their own contest entries. This is frustrating for designers, as many hours are spent designing, printing, re-designing, and re-printing a model until it’s just right.
There are also people that will grab an existing open-source 3D model, make a slight modification, and call it a ‘remix’. Please don’t get me wrong, here; I love the remix culture. I’ve even done it myself – taken an existing model and ‘remixed’ it to improve it some way. But that’s not what’s happening in this case. Instead, someone will make an insignificant modification just so it can be called a remix and submitted into the contest.
While the bad behavior is present, it’s often not rewarded, and shouldn’t discourage anyone from playing by the rules and submitting a fair entry.
Entering my First Contest
I’ve been following the flash contests on printables.com for several months, as I found them to be a great way to find polished and well-made designs that I can print. However, I didn’t feel that I could compete with some of the designers entering the contests. I’ve been using FreeCAD, OpenSCAD, and Fusion360 for several years now, so I felt relatively comfortable with 3D design tools. But I had always felt like I lacked the creativity to build something unique.
Recently, I came to the realization that I wasn’t going to improve my design skills unless I started more regularly working on 3D designs. I knew that being a part of the competition is what I needed to not only motivate me, but to also encourage me to experiment with new techniques and take risks. So, I entered my first contest on printables.com – the bookmark contest. I had actually designed bookmarks in the past when I first got started with 3D printing. They’re easy to create and are immediately useful.
In the span of a couple of hours one morning, I went through a few iterations of what I considered to be a useful bookmark and submitted my entry. I called it The Place-Saver Bookmark.
The Place-Saver Bookmark garnered a few downloads, but ultimately got lost in the sea of other, similar bookmarks that were submitted to the contest. Regardless, it was worth it in the end. I have several of these printed and dispersed in various books in my library. So, if anything, I personally have gotten a lot of use from my own bookmark design.
Entering my Second Contest
The week after entering the bookmark contest, I saw a new contest released on Printables.com – this time focused on eyeglass holders. After thinking about it for a few minutes, I realized that if I entered the contest with a design quickly, I could have more eyes on it before the contest got diluted with other submissions. So, I went to work right away designing a couple of eyeglass holders.
I came up with two designs that I submitted, each a different type of holder.
Design #1 – Sunglasses Visor Clip
For my first design, I decided to create a visor clip for holding sunglasses in your car. I spent a couple of hours in the afternoon printing a few different concepts, tweaking them, and re-printing them. That’s generally my standard process for creating 3D-printable designs – create a baseline, print it, iterate, print it, iterate, etc… until you end up with something you’re happy with. Here are the iterations I made on the visor clip.
Ultimately, I ended up with this design being the one I submitted. Not only does it hold your sunglasses in your car, but it also has a slot in the end that you can slip a parking ticket into!
Design #2 – Glasses Holder Wallet Card
For my second design, I had a moment of inspiration from a wallet card phone stand that I had purchased online years ago. The general shape of something to hold a pair of glasses is basically a rounded off triangle, so I thought it would be unique to design a wallet card that can be formed into that shape. I worked on a design off and on for two days, and ended up with something unique that worked quite well.
One thing that’s challenging when designing something that’s meant to be 3D-printed, is understanding the limitations of the material. I know that most people are going to be printing with PLA, which is rather rigid and can sometimes be brittle in thin places. So, to design a wallet card that can be regularly bent without breaking is a bit of a challenge. To solve this, I turned to a specific kerfing technique that I’ve seen used in CNC and laser cutting with woodworking projects.
To create the hinge on my wallet card, a lot of experimentation was required. I printed a lot of models with many different variations on kerf sizes and patterns. In the end, I feel like I landed on something that works well and can take quite a bit of use before showing signs of wear. Not to mention that it’s a quick print (only 30 minutes) and uses less than 2 meters of filament.
As the timeframe for the contest drew to a close, I saw the number of downloads and likes rising on my wallet card. I thought that maybe I would have something that finished in the top 10 and won maybe a silver trophy. I was overjoyed to awaken one morning, and find that I had indeed placed, and was awarded a few prusameters for my spool as a result.
Since then, I’ve had several more downloads. As of the time that I’m writing this article, the model has been on printables.com for 3 weeks, and I’m about to reach a 100-download milestone.
I’ve also received some very nice feedback and comments from other printables.com users. Despite some negative interactions I had with a user on my glasses clip design, the positive interactions with other users have made up for it.
The Next Contest
The Eyeglass Holders contest was followed by Business Card Holders and Celebration Decorations. I decided to sit both of those out, as no strong idea really came to mind… or at least not an idea that I would have time to create. However, the next contest that came up on my radar was Catch-All Trays. And for this one, I had an idea right away.
As you can see from the screen shot below, we’re 4 days into this contest and there are already over 350 entries. As a comparison, the eyeglass holder contest had 324 entries in total. It will be easy for a good design to get lost in the sea of submissions.
As I’m writing this, I haven’t yet submitted my entry into the catch-all trays contest, but by the time this article posts, it will be in. For this contest entry, I’ve designed a magnetically re-arrangeable catch-all tray. There are 6 main pieces that you can print, insert magnets into, and reconfigure in thousands of different orientations.
I’ve designed the pieces to use a small (but strong!), inexpensive magnet that you press-fit into holes in the sides of each piece. By alternating the polarity of each magnet, each piece fits together in perfect alignment, with a satisfying magnetic *snap*! This approach allows you to design your catch-all tray in any manner that you’d like. And if you’re not satisfied, you can easily rearrange your tray and experiment with thousands of configurations.
To give you an idea of what’s possible, here are a few orientations.
Designing 3D-printed objects is something that I find relaxing and enjoyable. My designs may not all be prize-winning, but the thought of an idea that was in my head now sitting on someone else’s table thousands of miles away is quite exhilarating.
Just like with any skill, someone’s ability to design models will improve with practice and education. All you need to do is pick a 3D design tool and start learning how to use it. Find a book, read some tutorials online, or watch some YouTube videos to get started. My tool of choice at the moment is AutoDesk Fusion 360. There’s a free personal license for makers with reasonable limitations, which is the license that I use.
The first step is to just start making something… anything. So, open up Fusion 360, FreeCAD, OpenSCAD, or any other 3D modeling tool, and take the first step to getting that idea out of your head and into someone else’s home… or like in the case the Wallet Card Glasses Holder, someone else’s pocket!