If you’re a regular here on makers.htxt.co.za you’ve no doubt come across MyMiniFactory before.

On this site we’re found amazing and free 3D printable designs such as a Voltron action figure that is assembled from five smaller lionsAhsoka Tano’s lightsabers, McCree’s giant Peacemaker revolver and more. The London-based firm keeps coming up with winners.

We’ve spent so much time on the site we thought it only right to find out a bit more about the people behind it. So we sat down with Rees Calder, whose official job title at MyMiniFactory is head of marketing. But as with many startups, Calder wears many hats and does a lot more than just PR. We chatted, among other things, about Warhammer, LEGO and adopting the YouTube system of rewarding content creators.

Oh, and 3D printing. Lots of 3D printing.

htxt.africa How did MyMiniFactory get its start and where is it today?

Rees Calder I’m sure you and your readers are familiar with Thingiverse. Thingiverse has been around for seven or eight years, they’re more than twice our age, so they clearly have a big head start. But when we got into 3D printing a few years ago, the founders of this company were pretty much sick of Thingiverse and having to dig through thousands of models that were either crap or didn’t print.

The idea was, as 3D printing becomes more widespread, people won’t want to waste their time looking for files that don’t print. Especially when [for example] it’s a mom with two screaming kids who is trying to print and the file is broken or it breaks the printer or something like that. We’re maybe a few years out [from eliminating those problems] but the idea was to build a repository which we can guarantee are printable and of the highest quality, at least technically speaking.

So when you download a file from MyMiniFactory you can rest assured that we’ve tested the file for you, it’s not going to cause any problems, and it’s going to start printing right away. It’s more of a quality over quantity approach, and that was the motivation behind starting everything, and it has grown from there.

We’re much smaller than Thingiverse, but we’re perfectly okay with that. We’re not trying to take on Thingiverse, we’re trying to fill in a slightly different niche, I think. We’re trying to attract designers and users now to our quality content, instead of a huge library that they have to dig through.

We’re trying to create a hassle-free environment for people looking for content, that was the main idea. Over the last three years we’ve grown and we have around 20 000 curated, guaranteed printable designs and 160 000 registered users.

Print your own version of Rick’s portal gun from Rick and Morty

htxt.africa How does that curation process work? How do you determine what can be on your site and what can’t?

RC We don’t judge based on the design itself, we’re not in the position to say “oh, that’s a bad design, we’re not going to have that on our site”.  As long as it prints, it will go online.

When we started out we did all of this in house because we were very new and wanted to learn how all of this works. We would take every submission to the platform, validate it through something like Netfabb (or anything that can tell you if there’s any big errors in the files) and then we would literally print the thing out.

We had desks full of 3D printers and we would sit there and load them up, print them out and then photograph it and say “yes, it prints”.  That scaled up for a little while to the point where we had shelves and shelves of printers test printing all these things. This means that we also have a lot of hands-on experience 3D printing.

You’ll find with other platforms they don’t actually print anything themselves, so we used that to learn how these machines work and how designers interact with them.

We quickly realised that, with this amount of content submitted to the platform, printing this amount in-house just wouldn’t be scalable. We just wouldn’t have the ability unless we had a warehouse full of printers, which just doesn’t make any sense. In the last few months we’ve been having the community do the test printing for us – we have a very dedicated community of 3D printer owners. If you submit a design with pictures of the print that will be proof enough and the design will go up right away. But if you haven’t, the file will be submitted, validated digitally, and then it will be sent out to one of our community members who will usually print it out in a day or so. They will then take pictures, send it back to us, and then it will go online.

We’re kind of crowd-sourcing the curation. They’re happy to do it because they get to print these files first, and it’s a cool way to use their printer to contribute to the community, so that’s how we’re doing it now. Which means that, yes, when compared to Thingiverse or Pinshape there is a slight delay of files getting online because we do need to put them through that process. But, this means that, for the end user, we guarantee that hassle-free experience.

htxt.africa We took a look on the site and we saw very little – if any – advertising. What can you tell us about the business model of MyMiniFactory?

RC We have a few methods. For a long time we just focused on growth first and foremost – using our funding to generate users and traffic. In the last few months we’ve started exploring ways of generating revenue.

Advertising is one such avenue that we are exploring, so there is some of it on the site. If you look at the window after you download an object there is a reminder to credit the designer and there is an ad next to that.

We’re [also] working with various manufacturers to advertise in our newsletter and occasionally on the home page. We are trying to keep it light, we don’t want to be bombarding users with adverts because that can be annoying.

It’s all very new and it’s something we have to figure out but, it stands to reason that, with our incredibly targeted audience (the vast majority own a 3D printer or are looking to buy one), it makes a lot of sense for printer and filament manufacturers to get in front of that audience.

With other platforms, such as Thingiverse operated by MakerBot, Pinshape now acquired by Formlabs and YouMagine by Ultimaker, we’re the only really independent player left with a significant volume of traffic. So, if a manufacturer wants to get eyes on their machine, we’re an obvious solution.

Another big [method that we’re looking at] is contests with a system called “Go Digital”. Basically, brands or companies will pay a fee to run a contest through our site and have designs created for them.

We’ve already done it with brands such as Pebble smart watches and Roccat (a gaming peripheral company). It’s kind of like crowd sourcing accessory designs for your range of products.

Similarity, Fiber Force, which is a carbon fibre filament, if they want a bunch of content for conventions and shows, but they don’t want to pay a designer, they [can] pay us a competition fee and then our community will, essentially, create that content for them.

Again, it’s all very much in its infancy, but that is another big stream of revenue that we’re exploring and we think that it’s something not many people in this space are doing. And, going forward, it’s going to have a lot of value for brands [and companies].

Another example is Parrot drones. We hope for a future where, after you’ve bought your drone, you think “okay, what can I download and print to enhance my experience?” And, as printers become more widespread, there’s going to be more and more value for brands to adopt these so called “physical apps”.

Just like a smartphone, when you get one you think about what apps you can get for it. In the future, we see a time where products will have a similar ideology around them. We want to be the community that generates that content and generates revenue from it. We’re also working on some other [methods] which I don’t want to get into now, but watch this space.

Relive Digimon with this 3D-printed Digivice

htxt.africa How does MyMiniFactory deal with intellectual properties, especially those which are heavily protected? Examples are companies such as Games Workshop who have ordered takedowns of designs. How does MyMiniFactory deal with rights holders and trademarked designs on your site?

RC We tend to deal with it very much on a case-by-case basis. There is, of course, a lot of content on the site which is not original. We kind of see this as fan art – 3D fan art. Just as someone can submit a painting of Batman to something like DeviantArt, we’re now living in a time where people can create physical, 3D fan art.

Again, it’s not us who are creating it, it’s designers on the platform who are doing it. It’s them expressing their love for a game or a movie in this way, and we’re happy to host that content.

If it ever gets to the point where, and this has happened in the past, a big brand comes to us and doesn’t understand what’s going on, we use that as a way to open up a conversation with them. [We try to] figure out why and, a lot of the time, they’ll come to see things our way and understand that it can be a good thing. It can be a marketing tool a lot of the time. So you’ll see a lot of Destiny [the game] content on our site.

A tonne of it has been uploaded and we have a big Destiny community on our site. Of course it’s different because [developers] Bungie isn’t merchandising this so we’re not steeping on anyone’s toes. But, it has gotten to a point now where Bungie has officially recognised stuff on the site.

They’ve retweeted about it, we’re in talks now with [publishers] Activision about actually working with them, so I think they appreciate the fact that it can be used as a marketing tool and a really cool way to let fans express themselves.

On top of that: we’re not actually selling any of these designs, I think that would open a different conversation if we were directly profiting off of them, but that’s how we’re approaching it at this time: the designers are creating things they love and they are wanting to share it with the world, and, if it gets to the point where we need to have a conversation about taking it down, we will respect the wishes of the IP holder. But it’s all about starting that conversation and exploring where it will actually go in the future.

htxt.africa On that note, how do you think toy and hobby companies such as Games Workshop and LEGO will compete in the future as home and hobby 3D printing continues to get to their level of quality?

RC That’s a very interesting question and we’ve had talks with both Games Workshop and LEGO in the past about it. I think they’re very much aware that it’s coming, but it’s not real yet, so the fear isn’t real quite yet, if you know what I mean. I think the only way for them to keep up is to embrace the technology. If they continue to fight it, if they’re stubborn and think it can’t replace what they do, they’ll be in trouble.

As you said, we’ll get to a point where LEGO is pretty much printable and you are, effectively, pirating toys, which will be a very interesting time. It’s up to them to effectively embrace this technology and use it rather than stay away from it.

So whether that’s in some combination, so you buy a LEGO set and you can go home and print accessories or personalised parts, or if LEGO themselves goes completely digital and replaces physical sets with downloadable blueprints.

3D printers may get so good that [Games Workshop and LEGO] sell their products for less money but you’re buying blueprints instead of the physical products. That could be a potential route but then there’s the problem of people sharing the files illegally but some people are exploring the option of streaming files directly to printers.

I think that’s there only option in the next ten years or so: figuring out innovative ways to take advantage of the technology. And I think what’s so great about it is the customisability. Maybe in the future you can buy a LEGO set and print your face onto the [minifigure’s] head or your name on them or something like that.

I think that, in order for them to really succeed, they need to capitalise on the [benefits of 3D printing] and try to take advantage as much as they can, instead of resisting or fighting this technology. And it’s through having conversations with companies such as us, who have extensive experience in creating designs and art in 3D printing … will be a good way for companies like this to figure out how to address this issue going forwards.

Put a head-bobbing Dugtrio on your desk with this free 3D print

htxt.africa What do you think the biggest problem with 3D printing is at the moment?

RC I still think that ease of use is the difficult one – using these printers is too difficult. You still have to be a bit of a tinkerer, a bit of a maker. [To go back to my previous example] it’s still not a mom in a kitchen with screaming children pressing a button and printing a design out.

I don’t want to use the word “difficult” – anyone with a brain in their head and a good list of instructions can 3D print something – but it’s what happens when things go wrong. Having to unclog your machine or fix it when things for wrong… there’s still a lot of that kind of problem.

It may not be the greatest analogy, but I kind of think we’re still in the DOS phase of 3D printing. Similar to using a DOS computer, you had to really know what you were doing. You had to understand how a computer worked and how to talk to it, you had to understand how to fix problems and it was difficult.

Now, a kid who is three years old can understand how to use an iPad. I think that that’s still the biggest issue: we’re not at the iPad stage yet. I don’t doubt that we will get there, it’s just another five or ten years away. It may be more, though, because it’s hardware and not software that’s changing.

Of course the difficulty of 3D design is an issue as well – it’s still very difficult to design things. You get software that’s easier and easier to use, but to design exquisite Destiny prints, for example, it’s a lot of work. You really need to understand the software and the technology to use them in conjunction effectively.

The barrier to entry is still high but we’re trying to solve that problem with ready made content, but people will always want to make their own stuff. We’re currently designing our own software called WeDesign which is still in beta, and it’s simple, easy to use software aiming to make 3D design accessible to the masses.

A unique selling point is that it’s collaborative: two or three people can work on it at the same time just like a Google Doc. [All the collaborators] will be able to work on a project at the same time, so it will be good to facilitate education and teaching design.

We believe that once the barrier of design breaks down the whole thing will be more accessible. And it’s not that difficult to imagine: a while ago making a game was very difficult. Now, you can use something like Unity which allow you to make games.

It’s still a lot of work, but anyone can do it. We need design to go down a similar road. Of course, if you want to be good you have to put in the hours, but at least the barrier to entry is lower. We’re already seeing it happen with Sketchup and Tinkercad and software we’re developing.

Once the design and machine aspects are less fiddly and more plug-and-play, thing will move on a lot quicker. After that true multi-material printing and other such innovations will push us forwards.

htxt.africa What’s your personal favourite 3D print?

RC Haha, that’s a very difficult question and it will change week to week. Right now I really like articulated pieces that come off the print bed moving. I think it’s a great demo of the technology. My favourite right now is an articulated cuttlefish by 3D Central. I also love the more functional stuff – the whole office uses the 3D printed GoPro attachments.

htxt.africa To end off, is there anything new MyMiniFactory is doing that people should know about?

RC Yes, MyMiniFactory Studios. basically, it’s a place for very talented designers to join, essentially, a revenue share system. We recognise now that we’re generating revenue that the only reason we’re making that money is because of the great content put forward by these designers.

We think it’s only fair that they share that revenue. Instead of going the traditional route of selling STLs, which we think the market is just too immature for, we’re taking a different approach. How it works is that you’ll generate income based on the popularity of you design.

It’s very similar to how YouTube [content creators] generate income based on how popular their videos are.

It does mean that they will have to submit their work exclusively to MyMiniFactory, and we hope that that means more traffic, because if it’s the only place to find that design the designer will generate more revenue.

Anyone can apply and we have about 20 people already creating content for it.