A recent thought piece for the Seymourpowell blog on the rise in the public consciousness of 3D printing.
The democratisation of product development is on it’s way. That’s certainly what’s seems to be happening according to the press. The advent of affordable 3D printers and maker culture has started to show us opportunities for putting the design and development of products into the domestic environment, even for those with relatively modest budgets.
3D printing is evolving but it’s output at this point is mainly suitable for rapid prototyping. It’s good for getting parts you’ve created in 3D CAD into a physical form without expensive tooling or days of CNC machining. This is great – it speeds up development time and is often the best way to realise and idea in physical form. When you make an idea concrete and tangible it is far less ambiguous and can be quickly evaluated by the team and improved. As product designers, we love it.
Right now 3D printing on a domestic level can’t match the properties injection moulded engineering plastics have, namely strength, surface finish, UV stability and water resistance. There has been some beautiful sculptural objects and jewellery produced that really showcase the potential of the process and it’s advantages over injection moulding. But as Nokia’s admirable recent release of the 3D data for the back case of their Lumia 820 phone has shown, it has limitations. Hack their design, add what you want and print your own, great! Just be warned, it can cost over £50 to produce and when printed the part often cracks when being fitted to the handset. I’m all for open access to the tools of product design. Cost of the processes to design products, access to manufacturing, funding and distribution channels shouldn’t be a barrier to the the best ideas and products wining through to market.
Injection moulding, the process that dominates our industry puts great restrictions on designers, companies and manufacturers. The necessity to design parts that come out of the tool easily (the right draft angles and no undercuts please) and the high cost of tooling all inhibit the type and variety of products that can be produced at present.
So the real opportunities for me are in industrial 3D printing processes. Once you’ve cut steel, that’s it, the product is fixed. Where as with 3D printing at an industrial level it could free us from these constrains, giving us the possibility of bringing true mass customisation to life. Just like software, we would be able to release products as beta versions and through consumer feedback we will be able to iterate, upgrade and customise the product within the manufacturing process rather than just in the design process. Now that really is a new industrial revolution, I can’t wait to get started….