A small part of my research has looked at new technologies in manufacturing though this is no longer the predominant focus of my  research it is the part of my research that provokes most discussion. Since 2007  I have observed the development of what i’ll broadly call post industrial manufacturing (PIMS), this includes additive and subtractive manufacturing. I’ve analysed this on the micro and macro scale and enjoyed watching the natural progression of human perceptions of the technology.

Way back then (historical really) these processes were mostly referred to as rapid prototyping or rapid manufacturing. A fallacy as it wasn’t (& isn’t) rapid. At this point in time the technology was predominantly used for prototyping. Creating of one-offs to prove concepts, test structures or talk to the uninitiated in a 3D tangible manner. The technology was limited, not well understood and designers and engineers were still figuring out how to use it. There was also much talk and excitement about personal manufacture, that one day we’d all have a desktop factory to make things at home.

Now in 2011 the prototyping capability of the technology has been quietly and happily integrated into specialist companies serving aerospace, prosthetics, vehicles… We don’t question so much the value of the technology in the prototyping sense. Unless you are an academic concerned with with the aesthetics of the output, intellectualisation of the creative process and the ‘theoretical shift of the concept of prototype’ which are dated discussions at best.

Beyond this we seem to talk mostly about personal manufacture. Ok so we have Makerbot and RepRap and a myriad of other low cost personal fabbers and we have businesses built around aggregation, downloadable design and customisation. We even have people saying that 2011 will be the year of the personal 3D printer. I could go on, but I won’t. Meh.

I should mention that I am well versed in the innovation theory, ‘disruptive technology, tipping point, trough of disillusionment, crossing the chasm, the long tail…’ We can all build a persuasive argument for the disruptive potential here.

So where are we?

Right now we are too early for personal manufacture. While there is a push among the key players in the 3D printer field to push the technology into the consciousness of ‘average joe’, (beyond curiosity) average joe doesn’t yet have a need for a 3D printer at home.  (Stupid examples are always thrown in to demonstrate needs. Curtain hooks and combs are presented as great things that people will make. No, no and no.) This push may capture a percentage of the market, obviously the early adopters (hobbiests, lead user typologies) … and a small surge of consumer demand that dries up as people realise they don’t have much use for a low-res-one-material printer, then a stagnant stage where we all sit around wondering what went wrong. There is as yet, no killer app, nothing to pull the technology through diffusion yet.

At the recent NESTA talk ‘Personal Manufacturing – the new look entrepreneur’ many of the questions about 3D printers were about why 3D  printing is valuable if the user has to learn to design. Right now it isn’t about design, I think that 3D printers situated in the home in the early stages will be more about a new distribution channel (Droog think so too) and customisation than design.

On the quality of 3D printing, one of its greatest limitations, Adrian Bowyer at NESTA made an observation that he was less concerned about the quality of the 3d printers but rather that he would like to churn out printers quickly and let evolution take place naturally. This works if the printers go to those persons able and willing to adapt and develop the technology, however churning out low quality printers for the consumer market early on will saturate the home market with the low-res and leave joe wondering what he spent his money on. A fondue2.0 set, gathering dust which frankly raises the barriers to their next 3D printer purchase who needs two fondue sets afterall? Trough of disillusionment anyone?

Adrian also points out that open source models have been released earlier than is traditionally  found which may stunt growth at the top of the market? *twiddles moustache*

Misperceptions: 3D printers are a tool that has been, and is still often evaluated against old criteria. 3D printers or fabricators cannot be measured alongside larger scale industrial processes, the economies of scale are not there. Large scale is not what 3D printers pursue, 3D printers allow for economy on the bespoke, unique and one-off production runs. This is a technology that supplies the long tail and doesn’t serve the goals of the pre-existing economy.

The new entrepreneur: In a discussion of the ‘new look entrepreneur’, I’m a little disappointed that NESTA discussion didn’t really cover entrepreneurship, new working practices, new sequences of production, distribution and wealth generation. Most importantly, this is a technology that (alongside networks, communities of practice and democratisation) allows the SME  & entrepreneur to produce and distribute in a way they were unable to before, creating new economies, inverting traditional sequences of production, manufacture and retail, new working practices, new markets… [Insert your favourite utopian future vision here].

Design & methodologies…

Perhaps the most interesting thing that comes from this are the new working practices and design methodologies that are emerging in this space. Whatever these be called from open source, always in beta, open design, perhaps post industrial design approaches are called for? (My PhD research is situated in this space).

PIMS is so often analysed and criticised from a technological determinist viewpoint. And after all of this, the debate on PIMS isn’t about the tool. Tools are tools and this is only a tool.

Society, networks, people and attitudes, wants and desires are the point. Understanding the human is what will make or break PIMS, understanding that the goal posts have moved (A little of something is better than a lot of nothing), and there need be no end, evolve. Clever people will realise this (Alice Taylor is trying to) Nervous system is doing so. Humans are so very good at creating needs and wants (I’m not saying this is a good thing, but it is true).

Someone put the consumer psychologists and retail kids to work and don’t forget the community, aggregator, marketplace approaches like FablabsPonoko & Shapeways.

Can I stop having these discussions now, ok, thanks, bye.

Economist covers 3D printing.


3 thoughts on “It isn’t about the tool. 3D printing: An epitaph of sorts.

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