Peter Schmitt’s 3D printed clock
I was surprised by how much was already being done with the technology. The piece mentions final products that “include medical implants, jewellery, football boots designed for individual feet, lampshades, racing-car parts, solid-state batteries and customised mobile phones.” It goes on to introduce a clock created by Peter Schmitt of MIT – “he removed the plastic clock from a 3D printer, hung it on the wall and pulled down the counterweight. It started ticking.” Another MIT project involved creating a working flute (see video below). There’s a couple of UK-based companies doing interesting work. Within describes itself as “a young design consultancy … that has created tools which constantly push at the boundaries of the possible in the world of additive layer manufacturing.” It has a number of interesting case studies on its website, including an impressive chainmail glove! A related company is Digital Forming which hopes to let consumers customise mass-produced items, and apparently already has “an intuitive customization interface which allows individuals to customize their bespoke products online, in 3D, and in real time.” However the site they show screenshots of proudly pronounces it “launches early 2010″. Maybe there are some problems getting off the ground there.
Shapeways doesn’t seem to be suffering any such problems. And it’s the potential of sites like these that really interests me. They allow you to upload your own design, which they analyse to see if it’s printable, offer you a choice of materials, and then print and deliver them for you. (They have a fuller description on their website.) This is where the real and virtual worlds collide, and I think the social potential here is fantastic. Sharing interesting pages on the web using social media has rocketed, and is becoming a more and more important signal for search engines to use when ranking pages. Sites like StumbleUpon and last.fm try to direct you to web pages and music respectively that might interest you, based on what you’ve liked in the past.
Imagine a future where similar patterns can be used with user-created physical products! You click on a button and are directed to a mobile phone design that has been voted up by people with similar tastes to yours. A new designer can create a range of lamps and release them cheaply on the web, and use the feedback and votes to prove their profitability to a future employer. What really stands out for me, however, is the idea of many incremental improvements. One good idea can be the inspiration for another better idea – in this way you can imagine a single design being copied and improved, and copied and improved, and all the way voting systems like those offered by Facebook can help keep track of the successful variants. This isn’t inherently different from the normal evolution of products that goes on anyway in any marketplace… but I reckon user-generated content and the web might speed it up a few orders of magnitude. I guess this is similar to what Chris Anderson describes as “Crowd Accelerated Innovation” in his TED talk about web video (see below).
Of course I see websites stuck slap bang in the middle of all this! I’d hope to see an equivalent of an open-source repository, full of simple free designs that could be used to cheaply get a variety of products. Just as you can download films illegally from some websites now, I wouldn’t be surprised to see pirated designer products available from less reputable sites. While I suspect that professional level 3D design work will continue to be done in full-featured 3D editors, I can imagine a simple in-browser 3D editor (maybe like Google’s SketchUp?) being the tool of choice for the majority of users. Maybe manufacturers would even solicit customer feedback in the form of modified designs, but perhaps I’m just getting carried away.
Additive manufacturing has a lot more implications than I’ve discussed here, both technical and socio-political, and I look forward to seeing what time will bring.