Interview with Cathy Lewis: on Bringing 3D Printing to the Masses: Part 2

Following on from a previous post we continue our interview with Cathy Lewis of Desktop Factory. Cathy will also be speaking at the MIT Smart Customization Seminar along with other Mass Customisation luminaries including Frank T. Piller, William J Mitchell, B. Joseph Pine II, Alison Page the Director of Mass Customization at Adidas, Jana Eggers of Spreadshirt, Monika Desai of Sole Envie and many more…

But for now, back to the interview with Cathy Lewis.
desktop Factory drawing
Do you think many/any major brands will open their products to customisation by releasing CAD files for manipulation in the same way that OpenMoko has? Or do you see 3D printing as being more for the Prosumer who wishes to design and make their own objects?

Initially the small business world, education and the prosumer will be the beneficiaries of affordable 3D printing. These early adopters have demonstrated to us that there is a pent up demand for the technology and with their existing applications they will pave the way for the rest of us.

As the printing technology continues to improve, more consumer oriented CAD software comes on line, we begin to see the availability of low cost 3D scanners and more and better choices in materials become available, contemporary brands will want to take advantage of the opportunity to more closely interact with their customers by offering CAD files of various products and replacement parts for a fee or even for free. This approach will also allow these companies to focus on high value activities — like the development of new products and services — versus getting the right number of replacement parts manufactured, shipped and stored in the right warehouse at the right time. Let’s face it — once people know how to design or scan and build their own objects they will have the ability to reverse engineer some products and replacement parts themselves. Therefore it will be in the manufactures best interests to share or sell the files — and this also gives them the opportunity to post suggested use and safety information as well.

open moko cad
Do you foresee more business models like fabjectory, shapeways and ponoko being realized with the lowering of the price point of the 3D printer, or do you think someone like Kinkos will flood the market by offering 3D printing in every store?

The 2D printing analogy is very instructive here. In the initial stages of the traditional printing market the service bureaus helped the manufacturers build the applications and teach people how to print more effectively. Over time the prices for printers came down and we all had them on our desks and at home. The service bureaus then moved into more value added and high volume printing like financial statements, etc. And 25 years later even though we can now print photographs in our homes most of us still have a retail outlet perform that task because it is easier and less expensive.

I believe we will see a similar evolution with 3D printing in that each of these players will have a role. But that role may change over time along with the capabilities and costs of the printers. There are over 450 service bureaus printing prototype 3D parts / tools and objects for companies today. They receive files from professional designers and engineers and they print out complex, expensive objects. Even large companies who have production level rapid prototyping technology in house will occasionally use one of these service providers.

These newer on line players you mention are helping users create their objects and get them printed or produced. This is a terrific way to build a market. As that market matures the consumer may choose to acquire their own printer which is where Desktop factory comes in. However, that does not mean that they will cease working with the other suppliers.

Over time I can see Kinko’s having 3D printers available to their customers — and while they do not sell product they are an excellent provider to assist in the development and support of the market. One thing to remember about a Kinko’s like operation, though, it is your responsibility to create a printable file and then manage the printing —they are generally not staffed with the most technically oriented personnel.

In essence, we are confident that a full 3D ecosystem will develop over time with a variety of service and printer providers, analogous to the traditional 2D printing industry. The success and longevity of the participants will depend on their ability to help develop the market and evolve their offerings as the users become more sophisticated and their requirements change.
fabjectory headthing

What do you see as currently the most interesting adoption of 3D printing within a process of mass customization?

When I think of true mass customization the use that stands out in the business to business environment is customized hearing aids with dental modeling in close pursuit. The application in the consumer arena that best depicts mass customization is the Fabjectory / Figureprints application where users are ordering a 3D image of their game character or avatar. As I said before, who knew consumers would want to make their virtual world physical!

and finally, Often when I tell people about my research they stare at me blankly until I compare it to the Jetsons kitchen fabricator thing (I never could remember it’s name). What is the description of 3D printing and Desktop Factory you use when faced with a glazed stare of incomprehension?

This blank or glazed stare you reference was actually my tipping point in joining Desktop Factory so I have developed two approaches in response. For the creative set who are bent on designing, customizing or improving a product I ask them to envision a technology that allows them to realize that dream, almost instantly, in a physical embodiment right on their desktop. For the rest . . . I reference Star Trek and a picture of a 3D printer quickly forms in their mind. They still may not believe it exists — and that is where the fun begins for me!
star trek replicator
Thank you so much to Cathy for sharing her insights into 3D printing and the opportunities it opens for prosumer design and mass customization.

For those of you lucky enough to attend the MIT Smart Customization seminar I am sure it will be even more revealing.

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