You might have noticed this week that 3D Systems acquired Freedom of Creation (FOC) in the latest series of acquisitions. Yes? Interestingly this acquisition is somewhat different to the many that went before. FOC is primarily situated in the (consumer/luxury goods) design sphere… which is why Ponoko asked: ‘why would 3D systems acquire Freedom of Creation: Why would a 3D printer manufacturer buy a product design company?’‘it’s unusual for an equipment manufacture to buy a company that uses the equipment. 3D Systems makes machines for industry, and FOC makes consumer products.’

My tuppence if you will.

I suggested in a long and grumpy post that ‘it isn’t about the tool’ – (sssshhh don’t tell 3D Systems), what I actually mean is that beyond capability and cost, tooling should be at the back of our minds. If 3D printing is to make it (firmly) into creating for the consumer market we need to be thinking about suitable business models and what consumers/users want that a 3D printer can provide more efficiently than mass production (scope/not scale). Bath plugs won’t do it, but beautiful, if somewhat expensive tables are one step closer.

Freedom of Creation are one of the leading design companies using 3D printing to create desirable 3D printed things, so it is pertinant to encourage their growth and acquire their insight as designers and retailers, not only will FOC influence the development of future 3D technologies, they will continue to develop products that catch the attention of the consumer market, who are ultimately important.

Interestingly FOC are one of the first designer/makers to implement good retail practices. Many 3D printing platforms are poor at retailing their goods. Imagine needing to buy a hammer and walking into a retail store that looks like this; 

You have lots of choice, incremental variations of the hammer (paradox of choice), none by known brand names (poor trust economy, authenticity), and arranged in the most haphazard of ways (poor findability). You (probably) have to wait until the man finds it as you try to point it out from a distance (lack of accessibility, immediacy), and given the jumble sometimes you’ll get something unexpected.

What I mean, is that service based making platforms (ahem) often dilute their potential.

The ‘marketplace’ is saturated with user content, many incremental versions of similar things. Given the nature of user generated content it is difficult to categorise, reference and consequently find content. Filter and find mechanisms are poor. This is the online equivalent of the above as a retail space.

Choosing is difficult, paradox of choice though over supply and huge variation, choosing what to design is difficult also. There doesn’t appear to be an established recommendation system in either Ponoko, or Shapeways aside from featured selections? That would be one way of filtering out the noise in the system.

A degree of specialisation is probably a good way forward also. Breaking some of these market places out into spin-offs focusing on a smaller segment of the market is probably a good thing. Nervous systems is an excellent example, their strength as a brand is evident (though they aren’t heavily branded).

Curation is something FOC have been trying and Droog anticipate also in as a strategy in ‘design for download’. Brands and designers inform consumer choice everyday, in the 3D printing production world curation is a good way of capturing consumer attention and trust. FOC run ‘talents’ and engage established designers in creating for their platform.

Demand for 3D printed goods is vital for continued 3D Systems positioning, FOC are going in the right direction so long as they are allowed to continue unhindered. As a whole, we are still learning how to work with these tools which have socio-economic implications in that they alter the supply chain, traditional hierarchies and distribution networks, we need to be thinking of a whole system design, an ecology. Which might explain 3D Systems straying acquisitions. There is much potential here, lets figure out how to play.


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