Democratizing design: 3D printing and on demand design

Regina Connell at Handful of Salt writes a blog about gorgeous high end craft and design…as a fan of both craft and technology, she asked me to muse around the intersection between them.

Good design is expensive – whether it’s an antique, a handmade statement piece by a modern craftsperson or a luxury post modern statement.

Producing a piece of craft takes a long time to learn, a long time to make, and customers who appreciate the cost associated with all of this. The 20th century has seen the slow demise in the desire for “something handmade”; mass production and standardization have for the most part replaced the time and skill it takes to make things.

Part of the problem is that – frankly – many who make “crafts’ approach it in a slightly egocentric way; they are the artist, they make what they like, and they then try to sell it. Often through stores that sell on commission, meaning they need to put a LOT of time, effort, and sometimes money (for the raw materials) into inventory that might sit at a retailers for months before they see any cash from the sale.

Some are lucky enough to sell by prototype, where a customer can custom order elements (I was the spine blue, and the legs red) – but this requires a lot of patience (and money) on the part of the customer. But the majority are not famous enough to demand the prices necessary to justify a well known distributor agreeing to represent them.

The high end luxury brands aren’t really all that different; although they create multiple of the same thing, only a percentage produce on demand – most come up with that season’s designs, manufacture them, and then sell at wholesale through a retail distribution system. This creates the same inventory problem for the design company, or for the customer (price + lead time to delivery).

To (eventually!) get to my point….most things that are high “design” items, whether handmade by one person, or designed and made by a high end company, are out of reach of the average consumer. And are expensive to make for the people and companies that make them.

The solution that is (slowly) emerging is 3d printing.

For those of you not familiar with what it is, it’s basically exactly what it sounds like; a graphic designed with a program that generates actual 3D information is “printed” using a machine that takes the virtual information and slowly, a micron thick layer at a time, builds a “real” version of what was in the computer before – currently in a hard plastic resin. But rapidly expanding in terms of color,  (eventually, faux) finishes, and (I believe) textures – so printing “leather” etc. might become a reality (with a nod to Corbusier, I’m not sure pony hair is an option, but then again, who knows?)

The technology has been around for quite a while, actually, predominantly to create prototypes for maufacturing, but has recently started getting good enough (and fast enough) to be used for making the actual objects. And although the size of what can be printed is currently limited, and it’s still fairly time consuming, but it’s improving rapidly.

The genius to this is that in the future, companies (or craftspeople) won’t have to hold inventory. Customers can order customized (personalized) furniture for much less money (no hand labor!) and much quicker than if they waited for the “real” thing (if they were able to own the “original” at all).

And the most interesting part: it will completely disintermediate the retail channel.

No longer will retailers wield the power they now do since a person can go online, look at a virtual version of the cad file (using virtual world technology? Undoubtedly!), place it in a virtual mock up of their house, pick the col0r/dimensions they want, order it directly – and get exactly what they want. Without having to pay the (huge!!) retail markup. Little waste (much more environmentally friendly!) as there’s no more guessing each season how many to make then dump, or in fact lose out on missed sales since the inventory wasn’t available. With a license fee going to the artist who created the original design.

It’s already happening! For small scale objects…give it time.

But it’s not the same as handmade” you say. Indeed – it’s not. But for the huge swathe of people who never would have been able to own anything so high end, it will open a whole new world of access to high end design that they would have never had….plus the option to personalize, which is, as the dear readers of my blog know, one of my biggest soapboxes for how consumers will demand all things in the future (what, you thought I meant only in how they get content delivered??).

And for the craftspeople, they can still create a prototype by hand, 3D scan it, and offer it to potential customers without having to make lots of product that just sit in the retail channel. While some will reject the notion because it’s not handmade, many will see the benefit to creating access to a wider market and a positive cash flow without extra investment – and then focus on creating new pieces without worrying about paying the rent in the meantime.

It’s a great way to grow and in many ways, frees an artist up to spend more time creating.

And it opens up a whole new world for crowdsourcing, social opinionating and sharing sites to sprout – which can become the new transaction facilitators between customers and artists. Getting rid of the traditional retail channel in the meantime.

The only hesitation I have to this bright new world of design democracy is that – as with digital printing, video creation, and music composition (and, erm, Photoshop) – what was once the privilege and realm of the (trained) designer will be democraticized to the point where bad design will become commonplace. Currently the barrier to the truly heinous and ugly is quite high…will Uncle Bob think he’s a designer, mixing purple legs and brown fringe? Undoubtedly.

Is the trade off worth it? Absolutely. And we will all think we’re design geniuses.

The island of “me”: Digital narcissism, personalization, and ego

I’m intrigued by a pet observation that’s been swirling and coalescing in my little head lately: namely, the internet – an instant platform for all our own little opinions and soapboxes – has made us all think we’re important. Way too important, actually. The digital world has given us our proverbial “15 minutes of fame” – except, when everyone have a loud opinion, perversely none count, and the soapbox isn’t 15 minutes, but forever.

It used to be that you knew your relative importance in the world – possibly you shared your opinion with friends, family, some co-workers (probably not), you might have been a big fish in your own teeny weeny pond, and indeed, some managed to develop extraordinary egos just on that alone. But on the whole there was a small audience and you knew you weren’t all that important. For better or worse, people believed in authority and respected it.

But now, with a built in “audience” (x number of facebook/twitter “friends”!) you start to believe in your own importance. You imagine that your audience gives a rat’s patooty about what you think, and all of a sudden that ego that your parents worked so hard to quelch, train, and curb, has been given a venue to run wild.

People are commenting on every article being published; they have to share their opinions, because in their mind, it’s important that other people hear them. They are sharing their music lists, their favorite entertainment sources, their political advice – all of their proverbial intellectual DNA. Somehow, people are starting to believe that their <fill in the blank> is important. Drinking their own Kool-Aid.

The result of all this can be seen with the furor over the Wikileaks scandal. The point is not whether you agree this is a good thing or not, but what’s interesting to me is that we’ve moved as a society to a point where everyone feels they have a “right” to know everything. Which is a direct result of the move towards a seemingly egalitarian society, because everyone has a say (dammit!) and an audience, inflating their sense of importance.

Just another example of how the digital world is impacting on our “real” society and human psychology. Entitled might be the best word of all.

What’s going to happen as we increasingly all feel so important? => Combined with increasing personalization, and how spoiled we are getting from getting everything delivered immediately, I’m predicting a world of individual narcissists all operating on their own little self regulated “islands”. Which raises all sorts of interesting thought “vectors”…mostly around individual serving sized food right now (I’m hungry).

But also around the challenges brands and products (two different things) will have in reaching people, and influencing them; we are truly moving from a “push” marketing model to an engagement one, and the companies that don’t understand how to be invited and embed themselves in consumers’ lives will fail. Seamless operating integration between various technologies (hardware, connectivity, content) will be imperative to ensure that consumers keep you permanently in their lives. And then partnering with synergistic content, to deliver “package” experiences to consumers receptive to your product/service. I definitely think the era of the stand alone brand is ending.

But ironically, all this partnering and invisible web weaving will reduce your actual choices. Which is why I previously said “seemingly” egalitarian. But you won’t know it, because you’ll be feeling very important.

Virtual me

A few years ago I met with a company that was in start up phase, with a cool vision: they were developing body scanning software (not new) BUT – and this is the cool part – they were taking it a step further by planning on installing kiosks in malls which were tied to the apparel inventory in the store at that mall.

So you could be scanned, tell it you were looking for a red dress, and it would give you the list of options: “At Macy’s Liz Claiborne has a red dress in your size. At Bloomingdale’s, Tahari”.

Note: as any women can tell you, sizing is a “rough estimate” not an absolute – so you can be one size with one brand, and a different one with another. The body scanning software eliminated this fuzziness – it correlated your actual measurements with individual brand measurements and then checked inventory there to ensure you didn’t have to waste a lot of time searching and trying on things that didn’t fit. It would send you to the right place/brand/size without all the hassle.

Aside from the fact that some don’t find shopping a hassle and it’s a very utilitarian approach to searching and finding, this is clearly genius. But I’d like to see it taken a few steps further.

The body scanning /real time inventory integration should be combined with avatars and virtual world technology. Not in Second Life, although that can be a real hoot (hey, I know, I’m a geek) – but the ability to scan, build an avatar that actually does resemble you (not the idealized 20 year ago in my wildest fantasy version), with correct dimensions, and then – and this is the next steps – have it try on apparel that actually is based on real manufacturers styles and sizes. You could *immediately* actually see if that dress fits, how it looks in 3D, and whether it’s flattering.

This would be a huge cost reduction for what is a practice barely improved since the advent of the Sears catalog back in 1888. Currently catalog or Internet sales are a fuzzy science – a teeny picture (maybe, a shot from the back too), that’s no where close to your size/body shape. I don’t even bother, but when I have, I order two sizes and return the one that doesn’t fit – or return them both in disgust.

These returns cost both the retailers and the manufacturers a huge amount of money and hassle. It keeps inventory management a guessing game for the manufacturers, who have to take back inventory that doesn’t sell in the retail channel and also share – if not own – any sales price reductions that the retailers implement. So, if something comes back, it either goes to the sales rack or gets returned to the manufacturer. For the retailers it’s more about hassle and the costs associated with logistics.  

With body scanned avatars – and accurate sizing reflected in a virtual garment – the number of returns would be greatly reduced, because you would *know* it fit, and that it looked good. It’s such a win-win-win solution for everyone involved (consumer, retailer, manufacturer) that I don’t understand why I’ve not seen any movement towards developing this.

I’m not sure I really want to see what I look like in 3D, which I’m sure is a concern for many (I like my delusions as much as anyone….). But the amount of hassle and guessing it would eliminate would be a powerful incentive to try it.

And then when customized apparel manufacturing starts to go mainstream – it will be a necessity. Straight from scan to cutting table, so to speak, even if a laser is doing the cutting. But this disintermediates the retailers to a large extent, so has less incentive to be implemented.

I’m disappointed that in truth, I’ve been thinking about this for at least 5-6 years and as yet, it seems the industry is sticking with the old.

The good news is that my delusions are for now, still safe.