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Democratizing design: 3D printing and on demand design

Regina Connell at Handful of Salt writes a blog about gorgeous high end craft and design…as a fan of both craft and technology, she asked me to muse around the intersection between them.

Good design is expensive – whether it’s an antique, a handmade statement piece by a modern craftsperson or a luxury post modern statement.

Producing a piece of craft takes a long time to learn, a long time to make, and customers who appreciate the cost associated with all of this. The 20th century has seen the slow demise in the desire for “something handmade”; mass production and standardization have for the most part replaced the time and skill it takes to make things.

Part of the problem is that – frankly – many who make “crafts’ approach it in a slightly egocentric way; they are the artist, they make what they like, and they then try to sell it. Often through stores that sell on commission, meaning they need to put a LOT of time, effort, and sometimes money (for the raw materials) into inventory that might sit at a retailers for months before they see any cash from the sale.

Some are lucky enough to sell by prototype, where a customer can custom order elements (I was the spine blue, and the legs red) – but this requires a lot of patience (and money) on the part of the customer. But the majority are not famous enough to demand the prices necessary to justify a well known distributor agreeing to represent them.

The high end luxury brands aren’t really all that different; although they create multiple of the same thing, only a percentage produce on demand – most come up with that season’s designs, manufacture them, and then sell at wholesale through a retail distribution system. This creates the same inventory problem for the design company, or for the customer (price + lead time to delivery).

To (eventually!) get to my point….most things that are high “design” items, whether handmade by one person, or designed and made by a high end company, are out of reach of the average consumer. And are expensive to make for the people and companies that make them.

The solution that is (slowly) emerging is 3d printing.

For those of you not familiar with what it is, it’s basically exactly what it sounds like; a graphic designed with a program that generates actual 3D information is “printed” using a machine that takes the virtual information and slowly, a micron thick layer at a time, builds a “real” version of what was in the computer before – currently in a hard plastic resin. But rapidly expanding in terms of color,  (eventually, faux) finishes, and (I believe) textures – so printing “leather” etc. might become a reality (with a nod to Corbusier, I’m not sure pony hair is an option, but then again, who knows?)

The technology has been around for quite a while, actually, predominantly to create prototypes for maufacturing, but has recently started getting good enough (and fast enough) to be used for making the actual objects. And although the size of what can be printed is currently limited, and it’s still fairly time consuming, but it’s improving rapidly.

The genius to this is that in the future, companies (or craftspeople) won’t have to hold inventory. Customers can order customized (personalized) furniture for much less money (no hand labor!) and much quicker than if they waited for the “real” thing (if they were able to own the “original” at all).

And the most interesting part: it will completely disintermediate the retail channel.

No longer will retailers wield the power they now do since a person can go online, look at a virtual version of the cad file (using virtual world technology? Undoubtedly!), place it in a virtual mock up of their house, pick the col0r/dimensions they want, order it directly – and get exactly what they want. Without having to pay the (huge!!) retail markup. Little waste (much more environmentally friendly!) as there’s no more guessing each season how many to make then dump, or in fact lose out on missed sales since the inventory wasn’t available. With a license fee going to the artist who created the original design.

It’s already happening! For small scale objects…give it time.

But it’s not the same as handmade” you say. Indeed – it’s not. But for the huge swathe of people who never would have been able to own anything so high end, it will open a whole new world of access to high end design that they would have never had….plus the option to personalize, which is, as the dear readers of my blog know, one of my biggest soapboxes for how consumers will demand all things in the future (what, you thought I meant only in how they get content delivered??).

And for the craftspeople, they can still create a prototype by hand, 3D scan it, and offer it to potential customers without having to make lots of product that just sit in the retail channel. While some will reject the notion because it’s not handmade, many will see the benefit to creating access to a wider market and a positive cash flow without extra investment – and then focus on creating new pieces without worrying about paying the rent in the meantime.

It’s a great way to grow and in many ways, frees an artist up to spend more time creating.

And it opens up a whole new world for crowdsourcing, social opinionating and sharing sites to sprout – which can become the new transaction facilitators between customers and artists. Getting rid of the traditional retail channel in the meantime.

The only hesitation I have to this bright new world of design democracy is that – as with digital printing, video creation, and music composition (and, erm, Photoshop) – what was once the privilege and realm of the (trained) designer will be democraticized to the point where bad design will become commonplace. Currently the barrier to the truly heinous and ugly is quite high…will Uncle Bob think he’s a designer, mixing purple legs and brown fringe? Undoubtedly.

Is the trade off worth it? Absolutely. And we will all think we’re design geniuses.

1 ping

  1. The Edge: The Decahedralist on 3D Printing | handful of salt

    […] Part of the problem is that – frankly – many who make “crafts’ approach it in a slightly egocentric way; they are the artist, they make what they like, and they then try to sell it. Often through stores that sell on commission, meaning they need to put a LOT of time, effort, and sometimes money (for the raw materials) into inventory that might sit at a retailers for months before they see any cash from the sale. Read More! […]

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