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Direct Digital Manufacturing Pioneers

3D Printing: The Next Industrial RevolutionBy Christopher Barnatt

Christopher Barnatt is a futurist, videographer, and Associate Professor of Computing & Future Studies in Nottingham University Business School.  His book 3D Printing: The Next Industrial Revolution (from which quotations in this article are taken) was published on May 4th, 2013.  ISBN: 978-1484181768. RRP $14.99 US / £9.99 UK / €11.50 EU.

There are three, parallel ways in which 3D printing may drive a manufacturing revolution. Firstly, the technology may increasingly be applied to fabricate prototypes and to tool-up and otherwise assist with traditional production methods. For example, 3D printers such as those made by ExOne may be used to create sand casts by spraying a foundry-grade resin onto layer-after-layer of casting sand. Producing such ‘3D sand casts’ not only allows more intricate and accurate parts to be created, but may cut total production time by as much as 70 per cent.

Secondly, 3D printing may drive a manufacturing revolution by enabling a new generation of ‘makers’ to produce their own products at home. Indeed, by potentially moving the means of production into the hands of the majority, 3D printing may threaten the very nature of capitalism itself. This said, while the hype that surrounds consumer-grade printers like the Cube, Makerbot, Solidoodle and Up Plus! continues to self-feed, in practice mainstream manufacture-on-demand at the domestic level remains a somewhat distant possibility.

The final way in which 3D printing may drive a manufacturing revolution is by allowing at least some companies to engage in direct digital manufacturing (DDM). This may involve the production of existing products with a 3D printed component, with examples including the 3D printed cleat incorporated into Nike’s latest Vapor Laser Talon trainers. More fundamentally, 3D printing may permit pioneering organizations to fabricate entire, highly customized products, or to produce things that would be impossible to make — or to make cost-effectively — using traditional manufacturing methods.

3D Printed Art

While conducting the research for my book 3D Printing: The Next Industrial Revolution, I interviewed a wide range of direct digital manufacturing pioneers who are already using 3D printing to make the impossible possible. Just one of these was renowned 3D printing artist Bathsheba Grossman. Bathsheba utilizes the 3D printing bureau services i.materialise and Shapeways to allow her to sell a range of sculptures and jewelry from the Bathsheba Sculpture website at bathsheba.com. In turn this has allowed to her develop a business model that is ‘more like publishing than like gallery-based art marketing’.

As Bathsheba told me, she got into 3D printing because she was — and still is — ‘very attracted to sculptural forms that are difficult to produce by traditional manufacturing means’. As she further explained, ‘The root of all my problems is undercuts: that’s any sort of overhang, through hole, reverse draft angle, or other feature that makes it impossible to remove an object from a mold, without breaking either the mold or the object itself. My designs are all undercuts all the time, and before 3D printing that made them very difficult to produce as economically viable sculpture. In the late 1990’s I had a portfolio of designs that were too unmoldable to make, and too geeky to sell in galleries . . . Cheap 3D printing and web marketing appeared at that time and suddenly those particular problems were solved’.

Unique Designs from Nature

Another pioneer that produces 3D printed jewelry and other artistic works is Nervous System. This was founded in 2007 by Jessica Rosenkrantz and Jesse Louis-Rosenberg, and describes itself as a ‘generative design studio that works at the intersection of science, art, and technology’. The studio uses computer simulations to generate digital designs based on patterns found in nature. These are then 3D printed to create a unique range of rings, bracelets, earrings, pendants, lamps and other artworks that are sold from the studio’s website at n-e-r-v-o-u-s.com.

As the studio’s manager, Aaron Holmes, told me, Nervous System’s 3D printed products are produced by Shapeways. Many are laser sintered in nylon, with others output in stainless steel and bronze using the binder jetting hardware created by ExOne. Other pieces of jewelry are manufactured in precious metals — including silver, gold and platinum — by using a 3D printer to create a lost-wax object master around which a mold is created for sacrificial casting. Internally, Nervous System uses a MakerBot Replicator to help with its 3D design processes.

Interested in how Nervous System became a digital manufacturing pioneer, I interviewed its co-founder Jessica Rosenkrantz. As she recalled, ‘We started making works using 3D printing in 2009 with our project Cell Cycle. We are interested in digital fabrication processes like 3D printing because they enable us to create complex, organic forms that would be difficult to create otherwise, and they allow us to create one-of-a-kind, customized products’.

Cell Cycle ‘was inspired by the skeletons of radiolarians and is made up of cellular jewelry computed from a physics model of spring meshes’. The Cell Cycle app runs on the Nervous System website (at http://nervous.com/cellCycle/), and allows visitors to interactively design their own customized jewelry in real-time, with a 3D model of their creation displayed on screen. When they have finished designing, customers just need to ‘finalize and purchase’, with data then passed to Shapeways who 3D print the object. It really is a very neat and innovative digital manufacturing solution.

3D Printed Sunglasses

Another DDM pioneer is Protos Eyewear, which has specialized in the creation and sale of ‘consumer grade 3D printed sunglasses’. Via its website at protoseyewear.com, the company sells a wide variety of frames, with all products laser sintered using a ‘proprietary mixture’ of powdered materials to achieve a high quality of finish. As Protos advertises, the ‘intricate layering process [of 3D printing] results in bold and striking designs that are impossible to make through standard manufacturing methods. Protos eyewear is lightweight and durable, and the material provides a unique look and feel’.

In common with Nervous System, Protos Eyewear have created their own software to take advantage of the customization possibilities presented by 3D printing. As Marc Levinson, CEO of Protos, and Richart Ruddie, its CTO, told me, they have developed an application that allows them to custom fit a pair of sunglasses to a customer’s specific facial measurements. Customers can therefore not only choose a unique style of frame, but one which they can be certain will actually fit.

From Hardware to Software

As my interviews progressed it became clear that custom software development is already a critical tool in the armory of many digital manufacturing pioneers. Today, it is 3D printers themselves that continue to make most of the headlines. But, just as happened in the early personal computing industry, it is likely that the value focus will fairly rapidly shift from hardware manufacture to software development.

Any designer can already buy a 3D printer — or utilize a 3D printing bureau service — and set themselves up as a digital manufacturing pioneer. But it will increasingly be a company’s unique software applications that will distinguish and add most value to their offering. After all, if 3D printing technology develops as many hope and claim, then within a decade off-the-shelf hardware will be able to scan and recreate any physical thing. The ability to continually develop software that will keep a company’s digital designs individually unique for every single customer may therefore become critical to the success and even survival of many manufacturing organizations.

3D Printed Toys

Again demonstrating this point, another digital manufacturing pioneer that I interviewed was MakieLab. Here customized dolls called MAKIES can be created online that are then laser sintered in nylon and clothed via traditional means. The MAKIE creator web tool (at http://makie.me/) offers each customer a very wide range of options for their customizable doll, including a choice of gender, skin colour, head shape, eyes, eyebrows, nose, mouth, hair, outfit, and even the width of the smile and the shape of the hands. Due to the range of options available, every MAKIE doll created is unique — and to date over 77,000 have been shipped.

Founded in 2011 to ‘model toys then manufacture toys overnight’, MakieLab plans to broaden its product range and to continue to take advantage of the potential of 3D printing to create unique products very rapidly. As co-founder Jo Roach revealed, ‘We decided to make 3D printed products because the toy industry is ripe for disruption: customizable, personal toys are far more interesting than generic made-in-China toys. They encourage creativity in kids before they even get to the toy store, and for MakieLab they allow local production and fast iteration. Customers can ask for horn rimmed glasses on Monday and we can have them in the store by Friday.’

Also creating customized toys are ThatsMyFace.com. Here bespoke software allows customers to upload a front and side photograph of their face, which is then turned into a full-colour, 3D printed head using ZPrinter hardware from 3D Systems. These miniature heads can then be purchased stand-alone, added to a standard 4, 6 or 12 inch action figure (for example Batgirl, Superman or Wonder Woman), or put on to the body of a Lego mini-figure. In common with MakieLab, a host of customization options are thrown in for good measure. As sales director John Keaton told me, ‘We’d like every kid to have their own custom action figure one day’.

The New Frontier

When I began my interviews in January 2013, a respected and very helpful industry insider told me that only the military were currently using 3D printers to make final products or parts thereof, and that ‘nobody would tell me about that’. Nevertheless, as the above examples demonstrate, already at least some pioneering artists and entrepreneurs have begun to explore 3D printing as a final manufacturing technology, and with impressive results.

While spanning many different industries, already it seems that direct digital manufacturing pioneers have more than a few things in common. For a start, they are employing 3D printing technologies either in defiance of traditional manufacturing limitations, and/or to produce custom goods. Secondly, the majority of DDM pioneers are creating customer value added (and cementing their market position) by developing bespoke software that has the opportunity to keep them at the cutting edge as competitors emerge and 3D printing technologies change.

Finally, every single direct digital manufacturing pioneer that I spoke to shared a passion for 3D printing as a truly transformative technology. Or as Jessica Rosenkrantz of Nervous System enthused, 3D printing will continue to allow companies ‘to make better, more interesting products’ and will ‘free us from the limitations of mass production’. As she continued, ‘Since the technology is much more accessible than traditional manufacturing, more people will be able to pursue their ideas and make products that meet their specific desires and needs’

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