It does, you know. You just have to get it hot enough.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Desktop Fabrication vs. The Future of Design

Ok, so that’s like an entire PhD thesis or book, and I’m not up for writing that just yet.

What I am up for is explaining how desktop fabrication — 3d printers, laser cutters, cnc — is changing how I think about designing and making things.

I’m making this bracelet/armband/forearm protector thing as part of a random project that I’ve been wanting to do for ages. The short of it is, “what could I do with a full-on PC strapped to my forearm? Would it be useful or would it just be annoying?” Instead of what I used to do — just go make something — I’ve decided to approach it using a formal design process. I’m doing lots of sketches and variations, writing lists of requirements, coming up with “negative examples” of things I don’t want to do and so on.

Over the weekend I was sketching out how it would actually attach and started to look at all sorts of straps and elastic bands and then it hit me — I’ll just 3D print something that fits my arm nicely and put a little clip on it. It doesn’t need to have any sort of super-flexible adjustments to fit a wide range of people, anyone who wants one can just print out an attachment part that fits their own arm.

It was one of those “duh” moments, but to be honest, but this is what the future is going to be like in terms of design and manufacture.

Until now, bespoke manufacturing has usually been very expensive or time consuming (or both). Example: I just bought a nice pair of boots and paid an extra $75 over retail to have them custom made to fit my feet. I traced my feet, took some measurements, sent them off to the company, and 3 months later I got a nice pair of boots in the mail. Three months ago I could have bought the same pair of boots in the store and taken them home immediately, but I was willing to wait 3 months and pay an extra $75 for a perfect fit.

So, it’s 5 years from now and I decide to buy some new sunglasses to celebrate the start of summer. I walk into REI or Sunglasses Hut or wherever, look through their catalog, try on a few pair to see how things look. Then, instead of settling for the one that both fits best and looks best, I just pick the one that looks best and wait for them to print one out, customized for my particular facial structure and difference in ear heights. (That latter thing is a real PITA for some of us, nothing like walking around with your frames mismatched to your eyebrow line to make you feel like a real dork.) Or maybe I find a pair I like and pay a little extra to have the clerk behind the counter change the color. (Or, just as likely, I slip the clerk a $20 and they print a knock off of a designer frame, one that has an expensive licensing fee, using a pirate dataset the clerk downloaded from the Internet.)

It doesn’t stop there — pretty much anything you can make out of plastic or metal is going to be easily made on the desktop by someone with typical blue-collar training and skills. Business models are going to have to seriously change to adapt to this new way of thinking about the design/manufacture process. If you’re old enough to remember when the all-in-one color photo developer/printer machines came out, you also remember how much cheaper/easier it was to get your photos printed at the drugstore than at the pro photography store. The same goes for flat-bed scanners and desktop printers — I don’t need to run down to the copy shop to make a few copies, I can just do it here at home. Take that convenience for 2D media and translate it to 3D. I just broke the the little plastic knob on my stand mixer — do I mail order one from KitchenAid or do I stop in at the 3D print shop on the way to work and have them dupe one for me? Or maybe I use the 3D duper we just bought for the office and hope the boss doesn’t mind…

Things are going to change. They’re going to change in (I hope) wonderful ways that we can’t even begin to predict.

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posted by jet at 12:25  


  1. So here’s the million-dollar (or more, if it breaks the economy) question: what happens when the prices drop low enough for you to consider getting one at home?

    I remember when laser printers cost upwards of $5,000, in 1980s money, for something that wouldn’t cost $100 today. Same with CD/DVD burners (I just bought an LG — name brand — DVD burner for a PC for $30). Why shouldn’t fabbers/3D printers follow the same path?

    Comment by Jamais Cascio — 2008/05/06 @ 16:45

  2. They will, to a point. I don’t think any of the current technologies can be simplified the way DVD burners are due to things like the number of moving parts, the precision of those parts, and the complexity involved in operating it. Even the “cheap” machines — $10K – $25K — need service contracts and more regular maintenance than pretty much anything I’ve ever owned. They also tend to use things like hot lye baths to remove ABS from the print boards and make a fair amount of racket while they are in operation. On top of all that, using them is still not a matter of drawing something in SketchUp and selecting “Print”.

    Oh, and good laser printers are still not cheap, they’re just not as expensive as they used to be. However, most of us have inkjets which are cheap and semi-disposable but not useful for any sort of serious print jobs.

    In the same way we ended up with cheap inkjet printers instead of cheap laserjet printers, I’m not sure if SLS or FDM with ABS will be what ends up in your garage or home office. I’m guessing the common/home 3d printer will use some as-yet-uninvented media that can be created from locally recycled/reused goods. Or perhaps it will just use recyclable starch and if you want a hard good made you send it to FedEx/Kinko/RedEyeRpm for overnight manufacturing and next day delivery.

    On the other hand, if things like building codes and home insurance agreements are changed to forbid this sort of thing being in the home; if patent-enforcement and DRM are enforced similar to the DMCA’s mechanism for media; and if the ConGlomCos can’t figure out how to make a profit on it; we might never see them common in the home. They’ll be the “printer for your newspaper” promised back in the 1960s that never materialized.

    Comment by jet — 2008/05/06 @ 16:58

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