First week of the year and I already find myself on the road again. I had to fly up to Boston yesterday for a few days of meetings. I hate being on the road again so soon, but I tried to make the best of it, and used the flight time up here to catch up on some reading that had been sitting on my iPad drop box account for a while now.
I spent most of my time going through a report from the Institute for the Future (how cool of a name is that?) on the future of open fabrication. There was a lot in here that got me thinking, some of which I wanted to capture here and go through the process of thinking by writing.
The first few chapters go through the basics of open fabrication – things like 3D printing, design software and emerging communities – and this is where things got interesting. IFTF makes a connection between open source 3D printing, specifically the Makerbot and the "pirate" manufacturing operations in China (so called Shanzai) – a connection I haven't considered before, but the more I think about it makes sense.
Not everyone is going to invest in a 3D printer and 3D printing will still be somewhat limited, so if the open fabrication / personal maker movement is going to take off, there needs to be more than just 3D printing as a realization mechanism for everyone's personal concepts. Not sure I am ready to ship my digital idea to China to have it shipped back to me in a UPS box, but it would be nice to have the option I supppose.
The report then goes on to talk about opportunities for existing manufacturers in the coming age of open fabrication. The one that jumped out at me is the the idea that manufacturers will be able to sell digital designs for local makers to print or otherwise fab in their own shop. Sort of changes the manufacturers business model that something akin to that of Apple's iTunes. Perhaps that is the long terms plan of places like GrabCAD or Thingverse and I think places like Tech Shop will have a role to play here as well. One new angle that IFTF added to this idea was that in addition to selling the model itself, manufacturers could also sell for a premiumm access for users to edit certain features of the model – for a personally bespoke , or to customize for purpose. Imagine if iTunes sold you a song for $0.99, but sold you mashup rights to that song for $1.59.
Another point that the report touches on that I found interesting was the need for standardized structured data in order to realize the real potential of the community collaboration to build on and improve the shared designs. The reason that open source software works so well is that there is a standard way to write the programs (Ruby, JS, etc) and a standard way to check things and out (apt-get, GitHub, etc). If folks that have never met are going to design the next ggreat car, much less the next great office chair, these same structures will have to emerge for manufactured products as well.
A walk down a rather strange path begins with a discussion of printing food. I could have sworn the last soy burger I got from the cafeteria at work was printed, but maybe it was injection molded. In all seriousness, the idea is that there is an opportunity to use existing 3D printing technology to create things like edible wedding cake bride and grooms (of course that could lead to all sorts of wierd new reception traditions – "Who wants to eat the bride?") and cupcakes with a 3D rendering of your face. Never bet against how strange people can be, so there is likely something to this.
To end this (probably too long) post, I'll share something that has been bugging me since I finished the report: if 3D printing and more importantly 3D scanning become both more capable AND more prevalent, what is the role of the designer? It sort of reminds me of the situation that the monks who used to copy books faced when Gutenburg started printing books — they quickly had to find other things to do. This isn't to say that all design is merely copying what someone has already done – I know that is far from the truth, but I also think that alot of it can be fairly detivative of things that have already been done. Of course that's the boring work, so maybe this will free designers to focus on "the fun stuff" and just as Gutenburg's press created more opportunity for authors (vs. copiers) by creating a larger market, the open fabrication movement will create a new wave of opportunity for designers and new designs.