We recently attended a NESTA seminar about 3D printing and the potential applications of having 3D printers in the home. Having such printers within the home, could potentially cause a huge disruption to the manufacturing industry as the internet has disrupted traditional media.
For the uninitiated, 3D printing is using a similar-sized machine to a normal paper printer to print any usable object imaginable, such as cars or flutes, direct from a computer using 3D design software. We may have a future where everyone will use DIY to print all the objects in their homes. With Hewlett-Packard seemingly dipping into the 3D printer market it seems as though some big name brands are taking steps forward to prosper in such an environment.
In terms of research and planning, imagine online communities designing usable objects collaboratively, and the agency rapidly printing out these prototypes in time for co-creation workshops within the same week. This kind of rapid prototyping would be an even tighter-wound feedback loop, similar to the ‘launch and learn’ concept Seth Godin notes in his book Meatball Sundae.
Brands like Adidas, BMW, Timberland and Sony have been using 3D printers in-house for years, to rapidly produce prototypes. Yet the technology has not filtered through into the home environment, despite 3D printers often being the size of a normal office printer. When this happens, as Matt Mason the author of The Pirates Dilemma has noted “there will no longer be any boundaries between producer and consumer. While 3D printing has proven to be extremely useful in the research departments of brands, what will happen to Nike when kids start printing out Air Force 1s at the rate they illegally download music?”
There were three speakers at the seminar we went to, Adrian Bowyer of Reprap, Hadyn Insley of FabLab Manchester and Alice Taylor of Makieworld. Bowyer and his colleagues at the University of Bath have created low cost open source rapid prototyping system that is capable of producing its own parts and can therefore be replicated easily. A 3D printer that prints itself! It takes 2 days to copy itself. Replication means potential for exponential growth as the machines create other 3D printers. All the parts can be purchased for around £300. It uses Polylactic Acid, a polymer plastic, which can be synthesized using fermentation of corn starch, potentially meaning the materials for manufacturing could be grown in your back garden, adding an incredibly vibrant green to the manufacturing process of everyday objects. Bowyer finished by asking why if the CD pressing plant, the photographic dark room, and the printing press are sitting in everyone’s living rooms, then why not the factory?
Hadyn Insley then took his turn in addressing the audience. FabLab is a fully functional fabrication workshop which gives everyone in the local community of Manchester, from children to entrepreneurs and businesses, the capability to experiment with 3D printers and turn their ideas and concepts into real, usable objects. They are focused on making the tools for rapid digital prototyping available to the masses. The 5 steps towards this end are:
1) Equipment – providing 3D printers, they have a few that the local community can use for rapid prototyping.
2) Software - digital fabrication requires 3D design software, which is currently quite expensive.
3) People – providing training in using both the equipment and the software.
4) Facility – providing a physical community network.
5) Accessible – on Fridays and Saturdays, FabLab is open for the public to attend to create their own concepts.
Insley hoped that FabLab of Manchester would make 3D printing more accessible and affordable by creating a UK network of FabLabs.
The final speaker of the morning Alice Taylor , started her company intending to conceptually go from people making online avatars to 3D printing doll type toys, so that children could literally create themselves in toy form. Taylor didn’t stop there asking “rather than printing a dolls house why not print a dolls science lab?” At the moment a prototype that Taylor prints costs about £600 but this will certainly come down in relation to Moore’s law, as 3D printing gets cheaper. The finishes aren’t smooth at the moment, but the benefits include being eco, localism, less in shipping costs and being made by the user. She hopes to increase the green element to a degree where biodegradable objects are made and re-used by 3D printers. When asked “Won’t Mattel and the big toy companies just copy this?” Taylor replied of course they will as the internet has shown, but the point of differentiation is being different, doing it better and at a lower cost.
The Q&A began with a question about when HP will create their own home usable 3D printer. The panel answered that probably have already. The news that HP have bought a 3D Printing company called Startasys shows that yet the industry has been scared of open source for years considering it could potentially take away from their own manufacturing of products. It has been guessed that the home use of technology has been already delayed by about 4-5 years already.
Speaking about the distribution of this technology, the floodgates will open in good and bad ways, as an abundance of new objects are created, like the internet’s distribution of music, but the potential to reuse materials will prove useful. This prompted my question about the current materials used. The current high end 3D printers work with cartridge like technology but all the materials are solid and are then layered by the printer. All involved would like more eco-friendly material so that waste can be reused. With home 3D printing, the area of supply materials is still very open to debate.
Finally a point was made about the internet distribution of 3D printing designs could lead to professionally created digital models which could then be personalised at home, via tweaking the design with software. There is most certainly an opportunity here for big brands who specialise in manufacturing to become leaders in the electronic blueprints for 3D printers. All in all it was very interesting seminar, the result of which will certainly have a revolutionary impact on all types of manufacturing and industry. If you’d like to know more about The Emerging Economy of Factory at Home have a read of this fantastic paper.