Crowd Manufacturing

Long after his death Isaac Newton’s unpublished papers finally revealed a hidden obsession with alchemy. Newton was interested in particular with the Philosopher’s Stone, a proto-scientific cum mystical experiment reputed to transmutate one material into another. The Crown feared that the alchemists would devalue the coinage if they did one day manage to make gold coins out of lead. Newton, as Warden and Master of the Royal Mint, kept his alchemist musings to himself. Those who did not risked imprisonment and the hangman’s noose. The Crown knew then what many businesses are about to learn: even gold looses its value if it can be easily reproduced. This is precisely what is about to happen as a result of 3D printing.

A “crowd manufacturing cycle” is emerging that will disrupt the conventional chain of design, production, and distribution. 3D printing will do to many categories of products what MP3 did to music – but it will also do to the design and distribution of objects what Web 2.0 did to information. The emerging consumer and on-demand use of 3D printers will dramatically and irrevocably disrupt retail, design and distribution. But – crucially – some types of product will be immune to disruption.

First, a recap on what 3D printing is

3D printers are getting cheaper and better. At the same time, the tools to edit designs are becoming easier to use. 3D printers are fabrication machines that, literally, turn bits into atoms. While a standard printer places toner or drops of ink on the X and Y axis, the cheaper types of 3D printer do the same but also add the Z axis to construct a physical object. There are a number of different technological approaches, but the most common method builds real, three-dimensional objects from a digital template by depositing layer upon layer of materials to gradually build up an object. Unlike conventional manufacturing processes, 3D printing is suited to once-off production. This means that 3D printers can be used to produce personalized items in a manner that standard manufacturing methods cannot. 3M’s Lava system, for example, builds hearing aids that are minutely tailored to the ear canals of each individual recipient.

These technologies have been in use for industrial prototyping since the 1980s, but now steadily falling costs are bringing it within reach of consumers. In 2010 HP partnered with established 3D printer manufacturer Stratasys to become the first major vendor to sell desktop 3D printers, showing that 3D printing is entering mainstream professional use among designers and architects. According to Vyomesh Joshi, HP’s EVP in charge of its printing business, HP’s entry is also preparatory to a longer-term mass-market strategy in 3D printing.

The average selling price of professional 3D printers sold worldwide has halved in the space of ten years – and this steep price decline does not take account of the new generation of sub $5,000 hobbyist 3D printers. The cheapest 3D printers (such as MakerBot and the RepRap) can be bought for under $1,000 in parts and built by home users. Printers in this new low end are rudimentary and unreliable, but are cheap enough to allow the develo­­pment of a “homebrew” community of amateur enthusiasts.

This is the same dynamic that lead to the rise of personal computing in the mid 1970s, when Intel and Motorola chips allowed amateurs to build cheap but powerful PCs in their garages. Among these amateur enthusiasts were Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs. In only two years, the PC progressed from the Altair 8800 in 1975, a machine so crude that it communicated with the user via a cryptic series of blinking lights and switches, to the Apple II in 1977. The Apple II had a keyboard and monitor and became a must-have piece of office equipment. Progress may not be quite so rapid in the homebrew 3D printer scene, but when I put the question to industry leaders they broadly agree that high-end multi-material and print quality will inevitably percolate down to the desktop consumer devices.

At the same time new tools to edit 3D object designs are becoming available to non-professionals. The bare bones 3D modeler SketchUp, which Google acquired in 2006, has enabled a new generation of 3D designers to try their hand at an area of design that previously had too steep a learning curve, and required expensive software. The program’s user base doubled from one to two million between 2009 and 2011, and it has become a popular tool among homebrew 3D printing enthusiasts. Autodesk, the market leader in 3D design software, followed suit with a bare bones, free-to-use tool called 123D in August 2011. 123D, which works even on a humble iPad, marks Autodesk’s entry into the consumer space. Carl Bass, Autodesk’s CEO, told me that 3D printing and consumer participation is a major focus for the company. Another new product, TinkerCad, allows casual designers to work on 3D objects over the Web without installing any software at all – and can share their modifications with others. When TinkerCad launched its public beta in April 2011 over 1,000 people signed up in the first week.

The Crowd Manufacturing Cycle

These simplified tools are doing to objects that Web 2.0 did to information: consumers will become co-creators, and object design will become subject to crowd innovation. Objects are about to become “Objects 2.0”. The design of personalized objects will become an ongoing process of crowd remixing and manufacturing in which there is no final cut. The combination of crowd modification of objects, and the shift in distribution that this will bring, is a new “crowd manufacturing cycle”. In this new cycle a design passes from digital form into physical existence by way of 3D printers, and then into the crowd by way of digital distribution. In this journey an object moves from digital bits, to atoms, and then to “social bits” from which many iterations will be created in a perpetual loop of customization and refinement. The diagram below shows these three dimensions of the crowd manufacturing cycle.

Just as YouTube offers anybody the opportunity to be a movie director, 3D printing allows any individual to try their hand at industrial design. This – at least in theory – is a democratization of design. A finely designed object may be the result of thousands of edits and adaptations by users, from which many thousands of iterations and variations may result. A simple drinking cup, for example, might be manipulated countless times to suit the personal hand grip of each individual who prints it to physical form. Already, some manufacturers are using 3D printing to bring consumers into their internal design process at an earlier point. Dr Andy Palmer, Nissan’s head of global planning, told me that 3D printing allows Nissan to take a “creative chaos” approach to testing new designs on customers at an early stage in the design process. But mass-personalization will go farther yet: Google SketchUp has partnered with the 3D printing service i.Materialize to run competitions like “Pimp Your Vehicle” that ask users to print customisations for their bikes and cars. This is the future of not only the automobile industry, but of all others in a world where consumers have the power to personalize. 3D printing may deliver on the promise of punk.

The disruption

In 1996 the song ‘Until it sleeps’ by Metallica became the first track to be illegally copied from CD and made available on the Internet as a compressed MP3 file. A pirate nicknamed ‘NetFrack’ was responsible. He announced the MP3 revolution in music piracy to Affinity, an underground electronic magazine:

I’ve thought of the idea of somehow pirating, music. … The problem in the past … was [hard disk] space. … We eliminated the size constraints. We use a new format to compress our music. The MP3 format.

MP3 music compression, NetFrack announced, could turn a 50MB copy of song from a CD into a 3 or 4MB file, and turn hours per download into minutes. By 2008, according to the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry, 95% of all music downloaded on the Internet would be illegal. By the same token the easy transfer to 3D design files from which objects can be printed will transform retail and distribution.

By the end of this decade it is a fair bet that millions of printable objects will be available for download in a new App Store type market. These items will be designs in flux – redesigned and remixed by the crowd, and printed at home or on demand by a printing service. A number of online libraries of printable objects already exist and have seen dramatic growth: In the space of 18 months Shapeways, one 3D printing service and objects library, saw a tenfold growth in the number of objects uploaded to its system. And just as the iPhone was sold from 2007 as platform for millions of apps, consumer take up of 3D printers will accelerate as ownership of one becomes a conduit to an almost infinite number of objects.

Much as iTunes bypassed Walmart as the world’s largest retailer of music (in 2008), an “App Store for Objects” will eventually challenge the retail distribution chain for non-electronic physical goods up to a certain size. A high street retailer will be unable to compete with the convenience of personalized manufacturing in the home. One strategy to mitigate this threat would be for high street retailers to open or acquire print-on-demand bureaus. The retailer could offer both conventional mass-produced stock and high quality personalized printing. According to several industry leaders, professional 3D printers will remain quicker and capable of producing bigger items than home printers. As a result, a high street hybrid retail-print bureau may be the future.

Consumption and retail will change. 3D printing, an enabler of mass-personalization, may threaten the prestige of brands. Much as Internet users became assertive creators of Web 2.0 content, consumers are likely to become creators, or at least adaptors, in the crowd manufacturing cycle. Incessant crowd remixing of brand name items will, at the very least, dilute brands’ cachet. The crowd manufacturing cycle will, at least initially, be good news for consumer choice. The rise of App Store-like libraries of printable objects will create a “long tail” of choice and availability – much as iTunes, Netflix, and Amazon have done for music, film, and books.

In parallel, the supply chain will also change, and this will have an impact on global trade. As objects are increasingly printed locally the number of items that are manufactured and transported from remote, low cost economies will be reduced. There is likely to be an opportunity for low cost economies, however, to produce the consumables required for 3D printing, such as the build materials used by 3D printers.

The importance of chemistry in digital alchemy

Ownership of invention may also be about to radically change. The crowd manufacturing cycle introduces many intellectual property conundrums, not least the need for a mechanism to recognize and compensate an object’s many contributing designers. Ponoko, a printing service and library, has adopted a “royalty snowball” approach. It uses a system that attempts to keep tabs on lineage of an object and its contributors. Google’s 3D Warehouse of objects designed with SketchUp has a “credits” system that helps creators claim credit for their work. But the real question is not how collaborating creators will be credited, but how inventors of new things will be rewarded. 3D printing will subject physical objects to the same hazard of counterfeiting that struck the music industry. App Store owners and print on demand providers are currently wary about attempting to use digital rights management (DRM) systems similar to those attempted – with limited degrees of success – by music and film media rights holders to prevent illegitimate copying. There is, however, the atoms and bits distinction between digital music and digital-physical objects that may provide the solution.

A more promising approach than DRM may be to resort to chemistry. The ability to print objects may in some cases be constrained only by the need to have the right building materials to feed to one’s printer. Branded luxury items could be printed with proprietary blends of chemicals to create a distinctive and irreproducible finishes. The “secret sauce” of proprietary build materials might also protect designs that deliver specific functionality as a result of their composition. Objet Geometries produces a material that can allow for differing consistencies in a single part, so that a hairbrush, for example, can be printed with stiff handle but flexible bristles. The materials, not the design, may be the key for the protection of intellectual property in design.

This raises an interesting question about the power that chemicals suppliers will have. Many of the current generation of 3D printers are limited by design to using proprietary building materials that are provided exclusively by the machine manufacturers. Proprietary lock-in means that the costs of printing objects may be skewed by this “razor and razorblades” approach. According to Bart Van der Scheuren, Executive Vice President of Materialise, high margins on printing materials are the biggest hurdle to making 3D printing more competitive.

What will escape disruption

The crowd manufacturing cycle will radically upset the present chain of invention, manufacture, distribution, and retail of goods. 3D printing favors the creation of complex and relatively small items, in small or individual print runs. 3D printers, though far slower per item than an injection molding, have no initial mold cost to depreciate, which means they are suited to once-off or short run productions. Injection molding a complex item can also require costly separate molds and assembly of several discrete components. In contrast, 3D printing can build such an item as a single assembly, even if it contains a mix of materials. Fixtures for fighter jets that once were manufactured as assemblies of many different parts are now 3D printed by the firm 3D Systems as a single part, reducing tooling cost, materials waste, and object weight. As 3D printing technology improves it may be able to print objects that are currently impossible to manufacture.

There are, however, manufacturing applications that 3D printing may never be suited to. Objects that are both simple and large, and electronic devices, will be immune to disruption – at least for the present. Conventional manufacturing processes such as injection molding are better suited to large print runs of relatively simple objects. As Hod Lipson of Columbia University points out, 3D printing is economical when fabricating objects that have a high complexity/volume ratio. A large, generic, plastic garden table may never be economic to print – provided the production runs are sufficiently high. The cut off for 3D printing becoming competitive with injection molding is difficult to define, but one experimental 3D printing technology that fuses ink jet and laser sinter 3D printing should bring the cost per item down to a level where it can compete with injection-moulding for runs of up to a hundred thousand units, according to Neil Hopkinson, who is developing the technology at Loughborough University.

A warning to adapt

The three trends toward cheaper 3D printing, consumer co-creation, and digital distribution should be understood as part of a great adjustment. The current stage of 3D printing is analogous to the early 1990s when the music industry failed to foresee the disruptive impact that ongoing improvements in audio compression and increasing Internet connectivity would have on its business several years later. The “crowd manufacturing cycle” is almost upon us, and businesses whose products intersect with the specific applicability of 3D printing need to urgently consider how to mitigate the coming disruption.

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