Traces of Innovation in Thingiverse

Traces of Innovation in Thingiverse

The paper was written by Harris Kyriakou, Steven Englehardt and Jeffrey V. Nickerson -- it was presented at the Open Hardware Summit conference 2013 in the "Innovation and Revolution" section.

Abstract:  Product designers of varying levels of expertise increasingly contribute their work to remix communities, communities in which designs are shared, modified, combined and implemented. Our study focuses on a community called Thingiverse, in which designers share files that can be used to create objects using 3D printers. Designers upload files and acknowledge the work they remix, creating an innovation network that is more dynamic than patent networks. The designs themselves can be analyzed to compute an originality metric, the closest distance from one design to another. This measure is used to analyze many thousands of designs. Original designs are, as expected more liked than imitative design. They are also the designs people decide to print. Designs that are derived from one or more parents are more liked and more printed, suggesting that these remix environments are providing value for its members – and catalyzing the evolution of new products.

Our analysis suggests that analysis of remix network structure may provide ways of tracing innovation processes and detecting the emergence of new ideas, combination of disparate ideas. Such understanding is a goal in its own right. As part of this understanding, we might refine measures of design inbetweenness and measures of conceptual independence. In addition, it may be possible to encourage innovation by guiding interested inventors toward potential pairs of structurally separated and conceptually diverse ideas. The transparent system of innovation provided by Thingiverse may allow us to amplify great ideas by prompting new possibilities.

While innovation networks abound, few have the fast pace of the Thingiverse network: ideas are inherited from others, and then manufactured, affecting the world soon after they are published. The creative combination of designs we found suggests the value in an open approach to innovation in which copyright and patents are abandoned for fast, breakneck innovation.


"The Open Hardware Summit” is the annual conference organized by the Open Source Hardware Association and the world’s first comprehensive conference on open hardware — a venue to discuss and draw attention to the rapidly growing Open Source Hardware movement. The 2013 OHS will be held September 6, 2013 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "