I blogged about 3D printing and the current state of affairs after my recent attendance at the NESTA talk. I’ve since had lots of contact requests from those in the industry and fellow academics, rather than have this conversation multiple times – here are my thoughts.

Post industrial manufacturing systems (PIMS). What do I mean?

The industrial revolution in the 19th century came about as a result of the convergence of new technologies, power, improved distribution and communication technologies and resulted in mechanisation, division of labour, new working practices, improved living conditions. Here the emergence of mass production shaped industries thriving on scarcity and push models.

Now it is suggested that with an ever more networked and communicative society we are moving towards a post industrial production system. As has been observed as a result of the democratising capability afforded by the internets we have observed fundamental shifts in the hierarchies traditionally found with music, film and publishing industries. Where consumers and industry alike, share, create, shape and distribute media and goods in fundamentally different ways.

Just as the internet (and relevant software and hardware) undermined the hierarchies traditionally found with the music industry enabling the amateur musician to create, distribute and retail their musical-wares, reaching a potential global audience in a way that was impossible before the pervasiveness of the internet it is suggested that production of physical goods are undergoing a similar revolution.

Tools, tools, tools

There are currently two main development points in the tools;

  • Commercial printers – produced for industry, high-end, proprietary
  • Personal fabricators – produced for hobbiests and homes. Often open-source, low-end.

As I have said before PIMS are just tools, but interestingly they are tools that create a microcosm of the factory, not necessarily dividing labour but combining and choreographing the sequences found in the factory and think distributed, local manfacture. This leads some to suggest a paradigm shift in manufacturing.

Development and Disruption. The usual innovation theory.

Following the NESTA event and a comment by Adrian Bowyer I have been pondering the current development trajectories of PIMS. In the traditional scheme of development we’d expect to see a development that looks something like this; 

The early entrance tool developers target the top and therefore seemingly most valuable end of the market striving to produce high end and ever more capable tools to capture increasingly greater shares of the market and drive profit generation. Here you find commercial models.

At some point however the incumbents that serve the high end of the market overshoot the needs of the lower end of the market and encounter the innovators dilemma. (If this means nothing to you, relax, it isn’t important.) Basically only industry buyers can afford the high-end of the market and those who serve this market need to maintain big profit margins that sustain their incumbent so they don’t have the ability to serve or/see value in serving the lower end consumer market.

In overshooting the consumer market a void in the market is generated that enables entrance by smaller companies who find the lower profit margins still worth pursuing. Here entrants can serve the needs of smaller and perhaps previously unperceived needs. We are already seeing this trend in the development of PIMS.

As Adrian pointed out the higher end developers perceive the disruptive potential from the lower end of the market. What this means for the development trajectories and agendas of the higher end market is not yet clear.

Dispelling a myth: The disruptive potential of PIMS is at times applied to mass production, here some suggest that PIMS in a distributed network will undermine mass production. A tenuous claim. Mass production encompasses economies of scale that cannot be challenged by PIMS.  Obviously this analysis depends on the goalposts, if customisation, evolutionary output or postindustrial design is valuable then PIMS will disrupt as mass production cannot provide these capabilities, but it is difficult to make a case for PIMS replacing manufacture of mundane fast moving consumer goods. The real disruptive potential here is in the reordering of traditional hierarchies of production and distribution.

not yet … Personal manufacture

In any discussion of PIMS the possibility of personal home fabrication is raised. People like Hod Lipson, Adrian Bowyer, Neil Gershenfeld are directly responsible for this ideology. With the emergence of a mass of low cost fabricators targeted at the hobbiest and eventually home consumer market some suggest that we will reach a point where we all have a personal home manufacturing system.

Home manufacture, Killer Apps… Tipping points & Diffusion

Right now we are too early for personal (home) manufacture. Beyond curiosity average joe doesn’t yet have a need for a 3D printer at home. Not comb, not curtain hook, the need simply isn’t there yet. A search for the elusive killer app is being sought by many in the development of PIMS.

In the mean time researchers and developers are pushing the technology further into the consciousness of the average household consumer using mainstream media.* Researchers seek to justify their funding streams and justify 3D printing in the STEM subjects, and printers are now at a cost where they are joining the geek gift section (think of that microscope you got for christmas when you were 9).

Capability is important, even at the low end of the market.

The time taken to fabricate, the quality and material options of fabricators are currently 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 which raises the barriers to their next 3D printer purchase.

A tipping point for personal fabrication?

‘There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.’ So often the Ken Olsen quote is rolled out here. The tipping point for personal manufacture will be around the convergence point of, price, visibility, quality, capability, accessibility and need. Most importantly need. Understanding the human is where the tipping point emerges.

Customisation is so often presented as the killer app. (Customisation really grates on me after so long looking at this research.) There are markets that customisation fits well with, and products that customisation adds value to. Research indicates increased willingness to pay and greater longevity of consumer product attachment.

Caution is a good remedy. Pushing the market too hard before a killer app exists or before the quality of printers improves is a mistake. A 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.

Utopian dreams and nightmares.

The utopian dream ‘redistribution of the means of production…’ (Marx) As previously outlined the real disruptive potential here is that of disrupting traditional hierarchies of production, distribution and income generation. The convergence of the internet and PIMS, associated software, communities and networks and the democratising potential afforded by this convergence makes it possible for those working outside the institution to engage in the market and ‘benefit more fully from the fruits of their labour’. See proletariat and bourgeoisie discussion in Marx.

While the utopian dream is asking a lot you’ll find it trotted out in support of PIMS and sometimes presented as:

Design by everyman.

A contentious line of development, while this is possible, (this debate scares designers, environmentalists, legal practitioners…) it isn’t necessarily desirable or inevitable. Many engaged in PIMS debates see this as an exciting developments. I’m skeptical for now, customisation-yes. Design by everyone no.

Lead user typologies (makers, hobbiests, designers… ) will continue doing what they already do, but it is asking a lot for average joe to firstly acquire the ability to design, and more importantly to acquire the will or drive to design. I’ve written about citizen authorship in design before, it is possible. We enable this through democratising design tools, providing toolkits, and co-design, there are lots of mechanisms that make design by everyone possible but for now at least customisation and choice is key.

In all of this human behaviour is difficult to change, but human needs and wants are difficult to suppress. It is not sufficient to ask humans to become makers just because, most of us lack the ability, drive or motivation to customise never-mind become a designer or maker.

Instead, currently the most interesting things are happening in the organisations, groups and businesses emerging around the technology. Consider new working practice.

So lets do business.

Various models are emerging around these tools.

Divided provisionally into Makers, Aggregators and Designers by Lipson & Kurman.

  • Makers – indicates hobbiests and professionals through to businesses that exist to produce your chosen design, which you may have created yourself, commisioned from a designer, or chosen from an aggregator.
  • Aggregators –  companies that create and/or choreograph a library of design files, sometimes open, sometimes not.
  • Designers – some create digital files (the design product) and distribute this rather than the physical output.

Models under-represented in this space include:

  • Marketplaces & Retail models (or add ons) built around the creative potential of PIMS. Bring Nervous System to the highstreet and see what happens, trial a Thorntons Chocolate factory. Sell the spectacle of creation.
  • Community/Open initiatives such as FabLabs where the maker space is open to the wider community.

In my experience most of the misunderstandings and raised eyebrows around PIMS occur in this discussion. Industry partners looking for the potential in PIMS stumble by measuring PIMS against a value system that is dated. PIMS cannot be measured alongside traditional industry norms. PIMS does not compete against mass manufacture economies of scale. It can’t, it won’t, it doesn’t need to.

Again: PIMS in its convergence with the internet (and perhaps personal manufacture) enables makers, hobbiests, (lead user typologies) to create, produce and distribute outside of the traditional hierarchies of established industry. PIMS allows for economy on the bespoke, unique and one-off production runs. Here it is useful to consider the long tail of manufacture. (Yes – I rolled my eyes too.)

Importantly PIMS enables successful generation of agile, lean or pull production models – on demand production. This lowers storage costs, reduces over stock and loss. An on-demand- digital-inventory is a retailers dream, one that has already changed the music, film and publishing industry. What will it do for physical products?

I wonder if distribution is the current killer app. On demand, immediate distribution of goods (obviously a delay while it fabricates).


‘I don’t care what anyone says, being able to e-mail a bicycle is a paradigm shift’ Alan Alda

Distribution mechanisms change with this new landscape of production. It might be that personal, home manufacture is realised, or it might be that distributed manufacture in the form of nodes of production in any case as Janne Kyttanen of Freedom of Creation  indicates;

ʻ… we believe in a future where Data is the design product, and where products are distributed in the same way that images and music travel through the internet today.ʼ

In a future where data are the design products there is a concern raised that file sharing cultures that emerged in the music and film industry will emerge with the digital distribution of physical object files.

So where do designers stand? Aside from the difficulties in pursuing IP protection how do these laws designed for an analogue world work and are they worth pursuing?

Intellectual property implications of PIMS (UK Specific)

I conducted an analysis of the intellectual property implications of PIMS in early 2010 and found that UK IP laws, designer for an ‘atoms’ world fail to protect the design product when it is digitised and produced personally. I won’t enter into discussions about the value of IP laws here but this poses an interesting dilemma for everyone concerned.

Registered & Unregistered designs ʻ…within the UK at least – private 3D printer owners making items for personal use and not for gain are exempt from the vast majority of IP constraints, and that commercial users, though more restricted, are less so than might be imagined.ʼ (Bradshaw, Bowyer and Haufe 2010)

Copyright & Design Files[T]he provisions of design and copyright law are such that it is not an infringement to create 3D printer designs for items protected by design right, to disseminate such designs or to use a 3D printer to make copies of the said item for personal, private use.ʼ (Bradshaw, Bowyer and Haufe 2010)

Patents ʻWhere a patented invention is capable of being made by a 3D printer, it therefore appears that the personal and private use is permissible, but disseminating 3DPDFs (even freely and with the intent that they be used for personal and private use) may be an infringing act.ʼ (Bradshaw, Bowyer and Haufe 2010)

Trademarks ʻSufficiently famous marks may be protected against competing use on any form of goods.ʼ’It appears uncontroversial that purely personal use ʻcannot be in the course of tradeʼ and so cannot infringe.ʼ (Bradshaw, Bowyer and Haufe 2010)

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? You decide. This is a whole other discussion.

Go explore further.

It will be awesome if they don’t screw it up. Michael Weinberg November (2010)

3D Printing on The Economist


One thought on “It isn’t about the tool. A follow up.

  1. Pingback: 21st Century Manufacture – The RSA | The HighWire

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