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April 2013

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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 Object

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 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 to 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 Material Texture Minimum detail Handling cost Cost to print CBMA keychain

Price per cm3 Material Texture Resolution Handling Cost to print CBMA keychain
0.75 Full color sandstone Like matte clay 0.4 mm $3.00 $3.82
1.40 Strong flexible plastic A bit rough 0.2 mm $1.50, $1.75 for colors $3.04
2.99 Fine detail plastic Smooth 0.2 mm $2.50 $8.83
8.00 Stainless steel Slightly pitted & rough 1.0 mm $6 steel, $7.50 bronze finish, $9 gold finish $14.78
20.00 Sterling silver Glossy and polished 0.3 mm $30, $35 for extra polished silver $75.73

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

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