Advertising in the Third Dimension: An Advertiser’s Guide to 3D Printing

by Glen Emerson Morris

2013 will likely be remembered as the year 3D printing went mainstream. The best open source 3D printers are finally beginning to make items smooth and detailed enough to use as finished products. The previous generations of 3D printers were OK for the DIY crowd, but crude by modern manufacturing standards. The latest open source 3D printers are in another ballpark. Makerbot’s fourth generation 3D printer, the Replicator 2X with 100 micron of resolution has over twice the resolution as its previous printers, and affordable 3D printers with even higher resolutions are slated for release later this year.

To keep up with these developments, we’re launching this new column, “Advertising in the Third Dimension.” This column is really overdue. We’re now well into the third and final phase, or dimension, of the digital revolution. The first phase was the digitalization of media - converting things to computer code, including desktop publishing and digital video. The second phase has been the Internet - the distribution of digital files to anywhere on the planet. The third phase of the digital revolution is about converting information into physical objects and sensing and controlling things in the real world, like 3D printing and robotics. It’s the reverse of phase one. At maturity, this technology will provide all the functionality of the Star Trek matter replicator. It's the ultimate destabilizing

technology, and it will make boneyards of many current industries, but it's effect on advertising will likely be very positive.

No industry is in a better position to benefit from the third phase of the digital revolution than the advertising industry, and the changes that are about to happen will be phenomenal. While the first two phases essentially happened within the digital confines of the computer and its displays, the third phase will take place in the physical world. This new landscape will include talking android sales personnel, elaborate robotic & animatronics window and store displays, store interior lighting systems that automatically learn how to light the store to achieve maximum sales, window displays & sales kiosks that automatically adjust their sales presentations based on the age, sex and non-verbal responses from the people watching it, and the list goes on. It's a whole new dimension of possibilities in the most literal sense.

We’re about to see the biggest revolution in advertising since the development of the Internet. Since the primary forces driving it will be open source 3D printers, it's time every ad agency started thinking about getting one of these wonders and being understanding how it can be used. Many of the possibilites of 3D printing are yet to be imagined, but even now it's clear 3D printing will have a number of important uses for advertising agencies.

6 things an ad agency can do with a 3D printer:

1. To design and print prototypes of 3D promotional giveaway items. This is going to be a huge industry, very soon, and it tops our list because it is possible now.  The concept is to design 3D objects that promote your business and to make the files available for them to download and print, at their expense. There are several Websites that are set up to support this, offering both a place to post the files and make them searchable, and the ability to print the objects out and ship them to the consumer. As a proof of concept we have published a promotional 3D keychain for the CBMA, which can be ordered from in a variety of materials including polished sterling silver. Our total cost was zero, and the whole process took less than half an hour. I've written up the process in an additional article. What we have here is a completely new advertising channel with a huge potential and only marginal cost.

2. To print promotional items like iPhone cases with the agency’s name – custom sell phone cases are some of the hottest items with the DIY crowd. With a little tweaking you can make cell phones for all you account execs that clearly carry your company’s logo. The 3D printing service i.materialize has an app that will allow you to customized iPhone and iPad cases. Adding your company’s logo to every salespersons cell phone could cost little, if any more, than using regular cases.

3. To design and print promotional & thank you objects for clients. These days it’s possible to print some amazing small works of art with 3D printers, objects that could not be made with any other manufacturing process. Giving one of these small masterpieces to a client might increase the chances of the customer keeping it, and in a prominent position. Both and have an extensive offering of art and jewelry available. Much of it is completely unique and some of it very good.

4. To print parts used is automated animatronics window displays. The combination of new microcontrollers like the Arduino are making it possible to design animated displays like Disneyworld’s It’s a Small World but on a shoestring budget. Now that Philips has released a software developers kit for its Hue automated LED lighting system it’s only going to be a matter of months before we see programs developed to use the Hue system to drive automated window displays and store interior lighting. (We'll be releasing specs for a test harness we've specifically designed to test Hue automated lighting systems with in May.)

5. To print android robots (for live automated sales pitches). There are several robot kits that can be printed with 3D printers, and in the future, kiosks manned by 3D printed robots from kits will line shopping malls coast to coast. It sounds like science fiction, but the technology is finally becoming viable.

6. To print items needed for the office. Even today, though hardly common, the fastest way to get certain plastic replacement parts is to download the right CAD file from the products manufacturer. In the future, many product’s replacement parts will be available as downloadable CAD files for printing out on 3D printers. There are also several steadycam camera mounts available on some of the online marketplaces.

Coming in at a non-announced seventh reason to own a 3D printer is: to make another 3D printer. It turns out that some of the open source 3D printers are approaching 90% self replicable. It’s the goal of many in the DIY movement is to make the printers completely self replicable.

Any one of these reasons could more than justify the under $3000 price of one of today's new generation of 3D printers. I'm sure in a few months, there will even more reasons to consider buying a 3D printer. We hope you'll be reading this column to keep up with events. And remember, the 2013 Maker Faire in San Mateo will be held May 18 and 19. I'll be providing coverage of the event but I strongly suggest you send someone from your agency to cover it, too.

Stay tuned. We have an interesting year ahead.

How to Customize and Distribute Your First 3D Promotional Giveaway Item

By Glen Emerson Morris

To demonstrate how easy creating and distributing 3D printed objects has become we decided to create an actual promotional item for members of the Colorado Business Marketing Association. The budget for the promotion was set at zero, the time limited to half an hour, and the item had to be made available online to a large number of people when completed. Within a half an hour I was able to customize a CBMA keychain and post it on two of the world’s largest 3D printing sites, and one of them will print the object in a variety of materials and ship it worldwide, for a few mouse clicks and a credit card number 

The steps below explain how I did it, and how you can do it, too. To keep it simple, I chose to customize an existing 3D object rather than create one from scratch, and I chose an object that had a special ability to be customized. There aren’t a lot of customizable objects available now, but there are enough to start with, and we can expect a virtual flood of these type objects over the next few years (it will become an industry, much like creating clip art advertising is now.)

Arguably the best Website to go to find customizable 3D objects is, and it’s quite a place. has an online archive of approximately 50,000 files of 3D objects available for download or printing online. The site is operated by the group behind open source Makerbot 3D printer, and has become a major resource for low cost 3D printing.

Most of the 3D objects available from are intended to be printed exactly as designed, but a few of the objects have the ability to be customized. Some of these items it turns out, also make reasonably good promotional giveaways, and a few of these let you customize text on the object. Bingo.

Phase One - Customizing Your 3D Objec 

1. Go to, click on the Explore menu item at the top of the page and select "Customizable Things," to browse the selection of currently available customizable 3D objects. You can also search for customizable objects using the Advanced Search feature. To get to it, type in what you're looking for and  click on the magnifying glass icon. On the results page that opens, click on the Advanced Search button next to the Search button. On the Advanced Search window that opens, type the word "Customizable" in the "Description Include" field, and hit Search. At the time of this writing, two customizable keychains were available; the Customizable Message Keychain by allenZ, and Customizable Oval Keychain by nwhitworth. Click on the keychain by allenZ. (The keychain by nwhitworth would have been better for a longer text message.)

2. The window that opens now is the 3D objects home page, and it allows you to do several things. The page is dominated by a large 3D image of the object that can be rotated to show the object from several angles by clicking on the Thingiview icon in the images upper right hand corner. To customize the object, click on the button reading "Open in Customizer," under the images lower right hand corner.

3. At this point you will be asked to Login, or register if you haven't already, which is just a matter of providing a user name, password and valid email account. Once you're logged in, you'll be able to edit five different parameters of the keychain and preview the results. The five fields are: Message, Font, Font Size, Font Thickness and Stick Thickness. Once you've entered the text you want, and and modified the four other parameters if desired, click the "Create Thing" button. If all goes well, in less than 10 minutes you'll get an email with a link the the homepage of the object you just created. The object's page will have a link labeled "Download This Thing!" to download the object. Half the process is done now, and you have less than 15 minutes invested in this promotion so far.

Phase Two - Making Your Object Available

4. Now that you have a valid 3D file, the next step is the process of making the file available for download by a large number of people. Of course you can post it on your company's Website, but that approach has a few limitations, like how will visitors to your Website notice it, and how many of your site's visitors will know what a 3D object file is. Fortunately, there are several online 3D printing services that also allow files to be posted on their site for others to search, find print out. One of the biggest 3D marketplaces is Shapeways, based in the Netherlands and online at Getting an object posted on Shapeways is a two step process. First go to the site, scroll to the bottom of the page and click on "Upload Now" button on the left side of the page. You'll have to wait a few minutes as Shapeways works out the details of printing your object and generating the 3D graphics for the object's home page.

5. Eventually you'll get an email that will link you to a page that will allow you to edit the object's information. To make the object available to the Website's visitors you need to do two things; in the upper right corner click the checkbox labeled "Display to the public," then scroll down to the bottom of the page and click the checkbox labeled "Display to the public." To save the changes, click on the "Update" button in the upper right corner of the page.

Shapeways is able to offer items in a variety of materials and finishes. The chart below lists some of the many combinations available and their pricing. It’s possible to select which of the possible materials and colors will be available for any given object to avoid issues like a Coca-Cola can opener in Pepsi blue.

Price per cm3



Minimum detail

Handling cost

Cost to print CBMA keychain


Full color sandstone

Like matte clay

0.4 mm




Strong flexible plastic

A bit rough

0.2 mm

$1.50, $1.75 for colors



Fine detail plastic


0.2 mm




Stainless steel

Slightly pitted & rough

1.0 mm

$6 steel, $7.50 bronze finish, $9 gold finish



Sterling silver

Glossy and polished

0.3 mm

$30, $35 for extra polished silver



A 3D object can be listed on Shapeways as either a free product, or one sold through their store, letting you set the profit margin (the amount is costs over the printing, shipping & handling fees). Selling collective 3D promotional items might actually turn 3D promotionals from a free into an actual profit generator. Some extremely loyal customers of highly desirable and prestigious products might be willing to spend more than the cost of materials for the right items. 

If you’d like to have your own copy of the CBMA keychain, simply go to, search on “CBMA,” select the material and hit Buy Now. Shapesways also sells three sample material kits, including a Color and Finish kit for $19.99, a Basic Kit for $29.99 (with assorted plastics) and a Metals kit for $79.99. For more information go to

Five Leading 3D Printers Compared

It could be argued that the emergence of online 3D printing services have eliminated the need for agencies to own their own 3D printer, but since we’re talking about an under $3000 investment, the cost of a couple of good laptops, ownership of a 3D printer shouldn’t be a problem for nearly any size agencies. Large press runs of complicated objects would best sent to an online 3D printing service, the rest would be done in house.

Most advertising agencies will eventually own one or more 3D printers, the only questions are when to by, and what printer to buy. At this point, the latest generation open source 3D printers is just now capable of the definition levels to compete with factory made objects. The table below lists the leading 3D printers with both an acceptable price and an acceptable level of print resolution. 

Three of these printers are available now, and the other two will be available later this year. It’s worth noting that two of these six 3D printers were funded through kickstarter. One of those projects raised twice the amount Desktop Factory needed to stay in business.





Build Size



Makerbot 2x


0.100 mm

11.2" x6" x6.1"





0.075 mm

7.9”x 7.5” x 3.9”



Type A Machines Series 1


0.100 mm

9" x 9" x 9"



Scheduled this year






Form 1 (June 2013)


0.025 mm

4.9 x 4.9 x 6.5 in



DeltaMaker (September 2013)


0.100 mm

10" diameter x 11" tall



Makerbot 2x is the new top end 3D printer from open source pioneer Makerbot, the first 3D printer manufacturer to open a brick and mortar 3D Printer store. The new model sports two and a half time the resolution of previous models, and comes with two extruders allowing things with moving parts to be printed. Though a bit pricey at $2,799, the Makerbot 2X is a serious contender for any agency wanting to buy their first 3D printer. 

DeltaMaker is based on a unique design developed for robotics projects, funded by kickstarter. By leveraging a pre-existing technology DeltaMaker has brought in resolution comparable to the Makerbot 2X but for considerably less. The DeltaMaker lacks the second extruder the Makerbot 2X has so it’s actually comparable for the Makerbot 2 single extruder model, which goes for $2,199, which is still noticeably less expensive.

 Lulzbot is a Colorado based company offering both their own brand of 3D printers and a 3D printing service. Last I heard they had over 40 3D printers, making them home of the largest number of 3D printers in Colorado. Their printers offer a slightly smaller build area than the Makerbot 2x, but the Lulzbot has a slightly higher resolution. They also provide filament (building material) in nylon, plastic and wood in a variety of colors and glow in the dark. 

Type A Machines Series 1, located within San Francisco’s Tech shop, was voted best mid-range 3D printer by Make magazine, which means this machine is about as solid a printer, and value, as you’ll find in its price range. It scores highly for having two extruders, making it able to print objects with moving parts or with multiple colors.


Form 1 was designed by Formlabs, a team of ex-MIT Media Lab engineers, and funded through kickstarter. They asked for $100,000 to scale up to mass production, and managed to raise $2,945,885. Currently scheduled for a June 2013 release, Form 1 will offer a new level of definition. Formlabs anticipates a price of $149/liter ($0.15 per cubic centimeter) for their first print resin. The print cost will vary depending on how you build your model (solid, hollow, etc). A 53mm tall rook chess piece, for example, uses ~13 cubic centimeters of resin. One liter of resin could produce about 75 rooks. The rook, for example, would cost about $1.50. Leading 3D Printing Services

3D printing services are beginning to spring up online and in larger local markets for much the same reason desktop publishing service bureaus sprang up some 25 years ago. Some of these companies have even integrated the online printing service with 3D design applications. The result is that’s it’s getting easier and easier to create 3D objects and have them printed remotely.

Still issues remain. One of the problems is that there are many CAD applications on the market and service bureaus can only afford to support a finite level of applications. The situation is somewhat similar to the production issues involved getting a magazine through the printing cycle. Lot’s can go wrong in the prepress process for 3D objects especially in the software that creates the slices of the object the printer needs to print. As with a print service bureau, you need to make sure a 3D printing can support the design application you are using.

3D printing services tend to fall into two categories, those with marketplaces and those without. The addition of a marketplace means the vendor also offers an online library of items to be sold or shared with the online community, in effect offering a manufacturing on demand service. 3D marketplaces are going to be major economic force over the next 10 years. Imagine Amazon’s print on demand book service but printing real items instead book




3D Marketplace


12 Types



13 Types



35 Types



11 Types



6 Types



20 Types



18 Types


Based in the Netherlands, Shapeways is one of the major players in the 3D marketplace space, and an excellent Website to visit if you want to learn more about, or actually start using, 3D printing.  In addition to having x thousand objects available for printing, Shapeways also has an excellent tutorial section with many articles and videos on the process of designing and printing 3D objects, materials issues. They also link to many of the free 3D authoring applications available, in effect becoming a one stop destination for those wanting to create and share 3D objects.

i.materialize is part of a company that is one of the oldest rapid protyping services in Europe. The shots on this page are of their factory floor and their industrial size printers. Lower right is a picture of one of the architectural models the company made. They have a beautifully designed Website that functions as a catalog for the many objects creative artists, inventors and engineers have posted on the site. In many ways the site seems like the usual general online store, but there’s no inventory of anything anywhere except raw materials. Some of the unique (and impossible to make any other way) art objects available on i.materialize would be worth giving to premium clients as appreciations.

Sculpteo is a French 3D printing service noted for having a robust 3D object marketplace and one of the largest selections of materials available from any online printing service. They recently won the 2013 CES Best Innovations Award for Best Software and Mobile App, and not surprisingly they’ve designed their printing service to allow it to be embedded, or integrated, into any Website.

ZoomRP is a self service rapid prototyping service noted for a very short turn around time, as in same day printing and delivery, if needed, if you have the budget. The service is owned by Solid Concepts, one of the major 3D manufacturing services, so the level of support provide can’t be beat.

Ponoko is one of the primary innovators behind the 3D marketplace concept. The Ponoko Website let’s people use browser based 3D design apps, including Autocad 123D. Based in New Zeland, but with offices in several companies, Ponoko can provide faster turn around time for America based businesses than can services with facilities only in Europe or Asia.

Redeye is one of the oldest players in the 3D rapid prototyping services at an industrial level. Their clients include many of the largest aerospace, manufacturing and engineering firms in the world, and not surprisingly they don’t feature a marketplace, or have much of a tutorial section. They’re for pros who know what they’re doing.

ProParts is the service division of 3D Objects, one of the oldest and largest manufacturers of commercial grade 3D printing systems, and one of the main drivers of innovation in commercial 3D printing. Like Redeye, they server the world’s upper levels of clientele.