Until the rise of the First Industrial Revolution, products were generally handcrafted and made-to-order as needed. Few things were made in advance to warehouse for later sale, supply chains (or what passed for them) were scrappy at best, and production speeds were painfully slow.
Because products were generally produced reactively and crafted individually by an artisan, the roles of designer and manufacturer were pretty much indistinguishable. To the blacksmith who is not only custom-crafting shoes for a horse, but custom-tailoring one unique shoe for each hoof, the distinction between design and production was moot.
That all changed with the rise of the machine in the late 18th century, when steam power mechanized and standardized the manufacturing process, but also greatly limited the potential for variation and customization to consumers. And Henry Ford’s Model T took manufacturing to new levels of speed, efficiency, and standardization at the start of the 20th century with the introduction of mass production and factories.
Products are made much differently now, of course, with technological advances continuing to increase the speed, volume, and consistency of manufacturing worldwide. But despite all of this, the basic design and manufacturing process hasn’t fundamentally evolved over the last century to meet the changing needs of customers, pushing production further and further from the consumer and constraining design flexibility, customization and innovation.
Digitial transformation with 3D printing
We are now at the dawn of a Fourth Industrial Revolution, where disruptive 3D printing technology is driving the complete digital transformation of the $12 trillion global manufacturing industry. And while it marks a quantum technological leap into our all-digital future, the coming revolution will also reclaim the power of custom-crafting from the pre-industrial age. Together, these forces will create a new era of mass-customization where design—and designers—have never been more important.
3D printing is completely reinventing the way things are conceived, designed, produced and distributed. It’s many advantages over traditional manufacturing include faster production speeds, lower costs, simplified logistics and lower carbon footprint. But among the most important advantages is increased flexibility: the ability to accommodate changes or modifications within the manufacturing process.
3D printing vs. injection molding
Heavy upfront investments are needed in traditional processes like injection molding, where physical molds, as well as a complex array of machine tools and equipment, must be custom created in advance. If product specs or design tweaks are later needed, those things need to be remanufactured at great expense to accommodate the changes.
Because of these associated costs, products are only created if there’s sufficient demand, so only the center of the bell curve is ever designed for. For users or markets perceived as too big or too small, the last industrial revolution just left you behind.
3D printing has changed this prohibitive system by democratizing the process—replacing the costly, limiting physical molding process with inexpensive, easily-adjustable digital files that lower startup costs and reduce barriers for entry. And as manufacturing systems become more flexible through 3D printing, the designer’s role will become more and more important because they’re now able to design for any user, at any scale.
As the process from design to prototype to production becomes smoother and more efficient, the designer’s ability to employ “enhanced learnings,” or a continuous cycle of learning and improvement from each build step to address form, fit and function will become paramount to ensure that every user is designed for, and that the product solutions can fit their individual needs. It’s only through living, breathing designers that 3D printing will continue to reduce the distance between idea and physical reality.
Designers are key
As a sign of designers’ increasingly crucial role, MIT recently held its first professional course in design for additive manufacturing, drawing leading research scientists, engineers, developers, designers and project managers from industries using 3D printing from aerospace to automotive to biotech to robotics and beyond.
The age of mass-production and standardization has ignored users who are perceived as too big or too small, moving the manufacturing process further and further from them and their unique needs. This blanket approach to design has become so ubiquitous that we’ve come to assume, and even accept, that some products just aren’t for us.
3D printing changes all this by elevating the designer to define the user and design specifically for them, no matter how many or how few, and make the “one size fits all” approach to mass-production a thing of the past.
The true potential of 3D printing will be realized when we can develop products that cannot be manufactured today, in ways that were previously impossible, helping to make life better for everyone, everywhere. That future is very much within our grasp, and unleashing the power of designers is the key.