The Rise of the Consumer Designer

29 July 2014

The rise of 3D printing in the public sector has generated much interest and attention. Many predict it will revolutionise the way we shop, design and manufacture goods, while others suggest it is only a temporary fad. What's clear is this additive technology is becoming more affordable and accessible for consumers. 3D printing is rapidly gaining acceptance. With the increasing popularity of personal 3D printers and online communities, a new wave of do-it-yourself designers has emerged. What implication does this technology and DIY movement have on consumers and future design?

3D printing is now inexpensive. Competition and advancements in this technology have driven down the price of these printers. With many desktop models starting below $200 (OneUp $199), 3D printing is now within everyone's reach. According to Wohlers Associates, the personal 3D printer market segment increased as much as 346% since 2008. These early adopters include mainly hobbyists, do-it-yourself's, product designers and engineering students. With this growth it's quite conceivable every future household will own one – just like a desktop computer and average inkjet paper printer.

The process of using 3D design can be quite complex. Many current systems require fairly high-level CAD modeling expertise in order to produce designs in digital form. However, recent improvements have simplified the design process for users with minimum skills. Startup company New Matter has delivered a user-friendly interface that's fairly easy to use with their recent launch MOD-t printer. In addition, a suite of tools has been introduced to simplify the design process. Modifying a 3D model can now be as simple as altering a photo on a smartphone or tablet – much like adding effects and filters with Instagram. Familiar editing can be done by a tap or drag movement to change the shape and size of the design.

Consumers can now easily download designs from the internet, alter them at will to suit their needs and then produce perfect products at the push of a button.

Recently there are a growing number of online communities devoted to 3D printing. Hobbyists and designers can choose to upload and publish their 3D models onto the online community to sell or simply share with others. There are already established marketplaces such as Ponoko, Sculpteo and Shapeways that allow individuals to sell the 3D models directly to customers. The purchased product can then be printed by the service provider and shipped to the customer. Other online services like Digital Forming allow customers to download CAD templates and actively modify the design with online tools and set parameters. Customers can then print the redesigned product off their desktop 3D printer and use it instantly.

Watch: Introducing the New Matter MOD-t 3D printer

The rise of these online communities has lead to a new phenomenon called social manufacturing. Product development and design blueprints are no longer concealed as secrets. Design is now a collective and collaborative responsibility opened to everyone. GrabCAD is an online community that has over 167,000 engineers and designers interacting and producing work together, offering members collaborative tools to share designs and 3D models. In addition, GrabCAD allows engineers to invite manufacturers and customers to their projects so that all parties involved can share real-time updates and feedbacks in a united platform. This kind of open space allows customers to actively participate in the design process and provide input. They are, after all, the end users of the final product.

Traditional manufacturing may slowly become a thing of the past as we gravitate towards mass customisation. 3D printing has allowed the creation of bespoke products – goods that can be manufactured on-demand, in single units; something once too expensive and time consuming for mass manufacturing. Sydney startup Sneaking Duck offers personalised optical frames through the use of 3D printing. The frames can be custom-fitted to the customer's face, with the customer selecting the base design, frame colour and arm length. The customer then places their order online and waits for their new spectacles to arrive. In life science, company 3D Systems: Bespoke Products has come a long way producing prosthetics with 3D printing. These prosthetics are highly specialized to fit the individual needs of each user and there is no "universal" mould for such personal requirements.

"This is where 3D printing really makes a difference – the ability to cater to individual needs is literally changing the face of the world, one design at a time."

The world is changing and we cannot avoid it. The 3D printing revolution is only the beginning of the cultural and social change we are on the brink of. Online communities have become a social tool that will radically change the way we design and manufacture goods. It has also allowed consumers to work with design experts, engineers and manufacturers in ways we have never imagined. We can now be part of the social collective that the online world is so openly embracing.

Another implication is that future product designs will benefit tremendously from consumer's collaboration with industry experts. Any input from the consumer – feedback, comments, ideas, suggestions, modification, etc. – provides the opportunity for design improvement. It is this combination of effort and perspectives that leads to greater product innovation. Manufacturers and companies will capitalise on these ever-growing online communities and use it to it's highest potential for their product development. In conclusion, 3D printing will democratise social manufacturing and mass customization. And, it will continue to transform the every day user into the every day designer.