Business

How rapid prototyping is fueling the custom goods revolution

A 3D printer making a turtle

Above: A 3D printer making a turtle

Image Credit: kakissel/Flickr

This sponsored post is produced in conjunction with Ford.

To date, manufacturing has been all about mass producing identical items for enormous markets. Diversity has come from different brands from large companies that have differentiated their products (regular vs. chunky vs. extra garlic tomato sauce, for instance). Now, for the first time in decades, we’re entering a brand new phase of manufacturing. Call it a ‘Maker’s Revolution’ or whatever you want, but the rise of 3D printing and web platforms connecting makers and customers are making it easier than ever to get products made just for you.

3D Printing and the Rapid Prototype

In the past, the challenge of mass manufacturing was that a product had to be perfect, and its process of assembly had to be exact before it could be copied and shipped millions of times. In the not too distant past, this required time-intensive assembly of prototypes that might never be adopted. Hours of work were discarded but were also required to get to an optimal finished product. Computer technology, and especially 3D printing, have changed all this.

Using CAD and a 3D printer, product designers can now fabricate scale models of parts or products in a matter of minutes. If something doesn’t work, they can make tiny tweaks and try it again. Suddenly, you can arrive at what you need in much shorter order and with much less manpower invested. Needless to say, this makes the whole process much much cheaper. Shorter manufacturing runs are suddenly more cost effective and feasible than they used to be. And because shorter production runs can now be profitable for sellers, it’s easier than ever for them to produce more tailored products for their customers.

Even though this technology has been around since the 1980s, popular culture has only recently adopted it. Suddenly, 3D printing is everywhere, and it’s spawning startups like Shapeways, MakerBot, and Dreambox. All of these are dedicated to bringing 3D printing to the layman public. No longer do you need to be an engineer. In fact, MakerBot specializes in selling desktop 3D printers so that hobbyists can get in on the action. The company’s Thingverse site even provides recipes for objects that people might want to print. All of these people could potentially go into business creating custom goods for an eager audience.

The biggest sign that this trend has gone mainstream: eBay Exact. Just last month, the massive auction site released an iPhone app allowing users to order customizable 3D printed products from three of the leading 3D printing companies in the market. Items range from iPhone cases to jewelry, and can cost as little as $9. Customers can choose different features like color, and have the products shipped directly to their homes.

All of these tools are making it possible for consumers to get exactly what they want when they want it. This may turn manufacturing on its head — just like the media. Now with streaming news, entertainment, RSS feeds, and YouTube, people can be very selective about the media they consume. This has changed the media landscape in new and interesting ways, and the same thing may start to happen with manufacturing, at least on a small level to start with.

Makers on the Web

The other trend feeding the custom product revolution is the proliferation of web platforms devoted to connecting customers and makers. This onslaught started with sites like Etsy, where buyers could scour through many makers’ online “shops” to find exactly what they were looking for. This is also exemplified by ModCloth, Fab, Storenvy, and any number of other sites selling everything from letterpress greeting cards to pashminas.

But this has given way to an even more tailored movement. Now we’re seeing companies like CustomMade, which specializes in connecting people to furniture and jewelry makers, and Makeably, which lets you buy anything from original watercolor portraits to caricature cake toppers for your wedding cake. These web platforms allow buyers and makers to remain in close communication throughout the production process. It’s not exactly rapid prototyping, but it does give buyers more information upfront so they can tailor products to their needs and tastes along the way. And many of these makers take advantage of 3D printing and computer modeling to make this possible and profitable.

One of the most interesting examples of this shift in manufacturing is a company called Maker’s Row. It connects companies, first-time designers, and hobbyists to a network of U.S. factories who are able and willing to supply the products they want to produce. This puts the tools of production in the public’s hands, which means a lot more diversity, a lot more choice, and a lot more ability to demand and receive exactly the goods you’re looking for.

So what does this mean for industry at large? Mass manufacturers of more elaborate and expensive goods, like auto manufacturers, contractors, computer hardware makers, etc. may have to adapt to an environment where personalization is king. Already, carmakers are moving to offer more customizable features and to involve buyers at earlier stages in the assembly process to make sure they are getting exactly what they want. The good news is that costs are coming down, and we may be looking at a much more diverse, individualistic future.


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