German Researchers Publish Paper That Shows Us Just What’s in a Thingiverse 3D Design Remix

Formnext Germany

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The Sarahs’ successful prints: a dragon and a raven

The first time I ever 3D printed something was when 3DPrint.com’s editor-in-chief Sarah Goehrke and I visited Proto BuildBar together in 2015. We each chose designs from popular 3D printing platform Thingiverse – she went with a dragon design, and I printed out a small, black raven, which sits on my desk next to my Edgar Allan Poe coffee mug. I didn’t really think much about the Thingiverse designs or where they actually came from – I just knew that when I typed in what I was looking for, dozens of designs would pop up on my screen as if by magic; all I had to do was choose a favorite. Four researchers from Germany decided to explore the online design platform and determine just where all of the designs came from, and recently published a scientific article about what they discovered.

“Personally, I am fascinated by the creativity of the community. Sometimes you see a design and ask yourself how did they do this? And then, analyzing it, we found that often the answer was that people cleverly recombined what was already there,” Marco Wirth, from the University of Würzburg, told 3DPrint.com. “Much of the creative potential of the platform really lies in the open exchange of models.”

Wirth, together with fellow University of Würzburg researchers Christoph Flath and Frédéric Thiesse, and Sascha Friesike with the KIN Research Group of VU Amsterdam, investigated how Thingiverse users are able to reuse existing designs to make new ones – this is known in the 3D printing community as remixing.

In “true maker community fashion,” the researchers published a scientific article, titled “Copy, transform, combine: exploring the remix as a form of innovation,” in the Journal of Information Technology under a Creative Commons license, so anyone can read and use its contents.

The abstract reads, “With the emergence of open internet-based platforms in recent years, remixing has found its way from the world of music and art to the design of arbitrary physical goods. However, despite its obvious relevance for the number and quality of innovations on such platforms, little is known about the process of remixing and its contextual factors. This paper considers the example of Thingiverse, a platform for the 3D printing community that allows its users to create, share, and access a broad range of printable digital models. We present an explorative study of remixing activities that took place on the platform over the course of six years by using an extensive set of data on models and users.”

Blockbot V3.1: an example of a remix within Thingiverse

The researchers investigated four different aspects of the remixing practice, in order to form a set of “theoretical propositions and managerial implications,” starting with the basic role of the practice in design communities. The paper shows that remixing is a vitally important part of the success of Thingiverse, as over half of its available designs are based in remixes. A good example of a remixed Thingiverse design is the Blockbot V3.1, by Thingiverse user msruggles; you can even see on the design page that there have now been a total of five remixes of this design.

“The beauty of studying 3D printing is the fact that you can look at all the designs and print them for yourself. Research is often abstract but in this case we had a very visual experience that help to understand what is happening,” Friesike told 3DPrint.com. “I am especially surprised by how a few patterns can explain basically all the remix behavior we see on the platform.”

The team also studied the various patterns of remixing processes, and were able to illustrate that every bit of remixing activity on the platform is able to be explained by eight basic remix patterns. They denote two types of remix relationships – parent (Things the remix is based on) and child (the remix itself) – and grouped the patterns into separate classes: convergent, which are characterized by remix relationships with several parent designs, and divergent, delineated by relationships with several children designs.

The paper illustrated how, since the Thingiverse platform has grown, it has added features that make remixing easy, like the customizer in the browser window. Finally, the researchers explain the profile of users on the remixing platform, and how the practice is used as a creative tool by multiple user groups.

“As researchers we have known for a long time, that most ideas are based on existing knowledge. However, it is very difficult to show that. If we go to a company and ask them where their idea comes from, they will tell us, that they came up with all of it on their own,” Friesike explained. “We know that this is not true, but most of the time we are unable to show it. Within the 3D printing community the reuse is explicitly allowed and the mandatory declaration of the sources of inspiration allow us academics to explore how ideas evolve. In doing so, we show how much creative potential open knowledge entails. Besides a creative and passionate community, Thingiverse contains so many great designs because designers can inspire each other and nobody needs to fear that reusing someone else’s ideas might be frowned upon or downright illegal.”

Concept of remix relationships and generations.

Not everyone is a fan of remixing, which is technically a sophisticated type of plagiarism, and has a complicated status in terms of copyright law. But this paper provides a different take on the practice, and illustrates how the open community of Thingiverse is actually able to benefit from users building on others’ ideas. Discuss in the Thingiverse Remix forum at 3DPB.com.


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