I've recently returned from a week long class on 3D printing, and it’s easy to see that 3D printers are going to change the way we think about and enable design freedom and flexibility in the creative process. We’re going to see the implications in the availability of design tools, in who contributes to the design, in the conversion from design to manufacturing, and in the ability to design for the customer.
The one week class was well done and part of a Cornell Adult University program in Ithaca NY, taught by Hod Lipson and Melba Kurman. We spent several hours in the morning learning about 3D printers, a few afternoons in the computer lab creating designs that were 3D printed, and one afternoon touring a manufacturer that uses traditional CNC machining and 3D printers for prototypes and final parts. The experience and backgrounds of the class attendees were almost as interesting as the class content. Almost half the class had some engineering education and expertise, like me, with many of those engineers coming from the aerospace industry, one of the industry segments that is most likely to benefit directly from 3D printing. We also had other industries and interests represented, including finance/investment, medical/dental, and even jewelry, as well as a few hobbyists.
Afternoon One - Head for the Computer Lab and Discover the Maker World
There's a new design community and new tools developing, because of 3D printing. Not knowing what type of CAD experience we'd have in the class, Lipson started us off in the lab trying to use one of the professional level tools. It was quickly obvious that although the tool was at the level that most manufacturers use for good reason, we were not going to learn it in just a few hours to create our own designs. On a side note, they do expect incoming engineering students to learn these tools on their own to complete their first mechanical engineering homework assignment.
With a few tutorials in free, cloud-based TinkerCAD and a helpful computer lab assistant, we were on our way. Wanting to understand the transition process from design to print, I designed something using a combination of available primitives (circles), varied their shape and height, and adding models created and shared in the cloud from other TinkerCAD users. The end result is a key chain craft, something that's handy enough for me to show off my end result, but isn't exactly going to take the market by storm. (In contrast, my husband spent hours working on the design of a 4" tall blue horse that took 6 hours to 3D print and was so admired by most of the class that they printed a 2nd one for show and tell.)
We had other options as well, including skipping the design process completely and going right to buying 3D printed goods and just selecting the material or making slight modifications to existing designs (see shapeways.com, Amazon's recent announcement, as well as n-e-r-v-o-u-s.com). It didn't take long to get pulled into the maker world. (See Maker Faire for example.)
Design Freedom - Expanding Design to a Broader Community
Although I don't expect manufacturers to stop buying high quality CAD and CAx tools, the exercise made it obvious that design tools in combination with a library of models can put reasonably good quality design capabilities in the hands of those that don't have the time to invest in expert-level tools. I think that's an important aspect of design freedom that we need to keep in mind - expanding the number of people that can use 3D design tools. We're a long way away from the use of pencil and paper and depending on those few that could transition from 2D design to visualize a 3D object.
Design Freedom - Facilitating Quality and Performance Reviews with Prototypes
Back in September 2013, I wrote about some fascinating MIT research about the critical connection between manufacturing or production and innovation. As the designer, I was able to see this connection fairly quickly once my design was printed. Several of the vertical pieces on my design broke off in the first few hours, and I quickly learned how I needed to modify my design if I were to manufacture it. With literally just a few hours separating my design and my ability to test my final product, I can keep innovation and production tightly connected and go back to the design tool to make the necessary modifications, regardless of whether or not I'm going to send my design to a manufacturer down the street, in my own building, or across the world to be made in large scale production.
Design Freedom - Lowering the Barriers to Serving a Market of One
In the class, Kurman talked about 3D printers' ability to support "a market of one", a phrase I have often used as well. In a world where manufacturers increasingly need to be able to efficiently and quickly tailor or modify designs to smaller and smaller markets, 3D printing could support a level of design freedom we can't achieve today with most traditional production tools. This takes advantage of a combination of a top 10 3D printing principles Kurman and Lipson described in their book and detailed in the class - namely, that manufacturing complexity is free, (product) variety is free, and lead time is virtually zero. (You can find the rest of the list online in various book reviews.) Need to serve a customer's request to change the color or a dimension of a part? No problem. Just go back to the design, modify it, and resend it to the 3D printer.
What's Next - Two Potential Hurdles to Overcome and Making Steps Forward
These may be simple examples, but the class did reinforce my belief that the adoption of 3D printing is going to escalate dramatically in the manufacturing industry and have serious repercussions for how we connect design to manufacture and in the manufacturing itself. But there are some hurdles we need to get past, with the most significant including:
- Delays in the availability of production-quality 3D printers and technicians to repair them if necessary
- The need for better understanding of the material science and structural performance of 3D printed products
I do think manufacturers need to be exploring this technology now, and even if you don't think 3D printers aren't going to be part of your production line, start taking some of these steps now:
- Purchase a few low end (under 5K) 3D printers and begin studying how they work or could work in your organization, considering the implication for the design and innovation process as well as the production process
- Train employees outside of the design and engineering department on design tools that are available for the casual user or non-expert for free or at low cost, like TinkerCAD, and let them print their designs with 3D printers
- Test the results (speed, performance, quality, applicability) and review the impact on speed of innovation and production
3D printers are going to provide manufacturers with a new kind of design freedom that delivers shorter, more flexible design cycles and an easier connection between innovation and production.
Want to know more about our thoughts on 3D printing at IDC? You can find my earlier blog on the topic here, as well as one from my IDC Manufacturing Insights colleague Martin Kuban here. You can also see information about our ongoing 3D printing market forecasts managed by Keith Kmetz. Have some ideas how you're going to use 3D printing? Let me know by leaving a comment here or emailing me at email@example.com.