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April 09, 2013
3D Printing: Shifting Product Creative Contributors from Few, to Infinite
By: Sunny Webb

As the manager of a project that utilizes 3D printing, I receive a lot of questions about the prosumer 3D printer sitting in my office. Generally there are two types of inquiries: “Can you print me?” and, “Is this going to change the world?”

To address the first question: Hmmm, well technically, that’s not currently within project scope, but I aim to please, so here’s how you can do it.

And while the later question stems from headline-friendly stories like individuals who want to print weapons or consider medical applications – my answer is yes, 3D printing will change the world we live in – but probably not within those extremes of the possibility spectrum.

Let me explain.

One point along my college journey, I found myself enamored with the study of film. So enamored, that I talked a professor into helping me outfit and operate a full production studio. I picked up several life-lessons:

  1. You can spend a lot of time doing something that doesn’t pay you,

  2. In life, it is generally wiser to be behind a camera than in front of it,

  3. Video equipment used to be expensive, thus limiting content contributors.

I say used to be, because thanks to Moore’s law, we can now purchase a video-supporting Digital SLR for fractions of the cost of those high-quality digital video cameras that I purchased in college.

This is relevant to the conversation of 3D printing because the industry of 3D printing will be to manufacturing the same that low-cost video editing software/hardware was to the film industry. To expand on that thought, consider how the original “content creator” definition within the film industry was initially limited to production staff. In the days of Orson Welle’s creating Citizen Kane, Mr. Welles was contractually tied to act as a content creator for the RKO production company. Fast forward to today, and we have video recording hardware that is priced for the average consumer. Lowering this entry barrier led to the opportunity for non-contractual individuals to act as content creators for new material (think Sundance Festival) – which then in turn are acquired by production companies for further distribution (think Napolean Dynamite, Little Miss Sunshine, and Clerks).

This is an interesting shift, and it’s about to occur within manufacturing for the same reasons it did film: the price barrier to participate has been lowered. For those visual learners out there, I drew you a nice illustration:

The Shift of Content Creators

# of Content Creators

Traditionally, in manufacturing, new products are created by in-house R&D teams, and then distributed to the general public by large manufacturing operations. While the large manufacturing operations are still and will remain a critical component to the consumer supply chain, lower-cost 3D printers will inject a fresh new stream of “content creators” for innovative product concepts. Soon-to-be-gone are the days of relying on consumers to tell manufactures what they want – instead, they will show manufactures what they want. At that point, it will be up to the manufacturer to ingest the proposed product modifications, or to ignore them.

For example, I suddenly come to the revelation my office chair could be improved by adding a small indention in the armrest where I rest my elbow. Inspired by enhanced posture opportunities, I set forth to create the design of the perfect office chair armrest. Now suppose that after designing, I now have the means to print this with a 3D printer, and I show it to all of my co-workers, who erupt in armrest-jealousy. As an individual, it does not make sense for me to print these armrests at large volume scale - rather, I bring my new concept to the chair manufacturer and suggest an enhancement option for their chair. This example is essentially applying Henry Chesbrough’s open innovation model to product design.

Of course, this line of thought raises questions of intellectual property rights and other debatable topics – however in this specific blog entry, I’m talking about the opportunity for the design shift to occur – not what happens when it does.

The key thought of this upcoming shift is not whether 3D printers can replace manufacturing (they can’t) – but how 3D printers create collaborative opportunities for new product concepts between the individual and the manufacture. Manufacturers who embrace this upcoming consumer-driven design shift will surpass their competition because they will be proactively positioned to survive a trend we’ve witnessed in multiple industries.

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