As the Snowflake Effect of mass personalization continues unabated, DESIGN is playing an increasingly important and common role in our lives. We are ALL becoming designers! Today I’d like to take a quick look at some of the most significant areas where mass personalization of design is now becoming a reality:
- The ability to create and manipulate full three and four dimensional models
- The “bookend” capabilities of 3D scanning to help create these models
- The ability to quickly create physical models with such things as 3D printing, rapid prototyping, or stereo lithography
Although none of these capabilities are particularly new, what IS new is how they are now following the familiar trend lines of rapidly decreasing costs, increasing functionality, and ease of use. Several articles or postings in the past few days have brought this point home:
- Chris Anderson’s* fun new site “GeekDad” covers 3D printing and 3D scanning in his recent post “Is home 3D scanning and printing within reach?”.
- Peter Wayner’s “Beaming Up 3-D Objects on a Budget” in the New York Times, April 5, 2007.
On the input side, 3D scanners make it easy to convert from physical objects to digital 3D models. In his New York Times article, Peter Wayner notes how you can now purchase a desktop laser scanner, such as the NextEngine 3D Scanner for only US$2495! This is great example of declining size and price. In fact, NextEngine CEO Mark Knighton says, “Our goal is to democratize 3D scanning.”
To quickly see what this scanning process applied to two figures of Star Wars characters Hans Solo and Jabba the Hut:
1. Go to https://www.nextengine.com/indexSecure.htm.
2. Click on the “Gallery” tab in the top navigation bar.
3. Choose “Han and Jabba” from the gallery.
You can also view a movie of the post processing of the scans into Autodesk 3D Studio Max. Or you may want to read this more detailed review of NextEngine from Prototype magazine that has a good set of images and description of the whole process.
To scan very large objects, such as cars, you can use hand-held devices that work more like a camera but record the object’s surface in 3D rather than a flat 2D picture. Check out this informative video from Zcorp, which demonstrates how their handheld 3D scanner works.
On the output side, 3D printing creates physical objects from 3D digital models. Just as with the 3D scanners, the price and size of 3D printers are dropping dramatically. Desktop Factory is making a low cost 3D printer that sells for $5000 to $7000.
Take a few minutes to check out the video from Zcorp that vividly shows a 3D printer in operation.
Believe it or not, printers such as this one from Zcorp actually use the same kind of dot-matrix process as 2D paper printers, except that they just use plastic and other materials instead of ink and they build up the full object in multiple (hundreds to thousands) passes. This process is currently limited to using materials (3D ink) such as wax, plastic, and ceramics.
However, it is also possible to use 3D printing to create molds into which molten metal or other materials can be poured or injected. This enables a much greater range of materials to be used in creating 3D models. Think about this as the equivalent of adding “color” to 2D printing. So now you can have 3D printed models made from metals such as gold, silver, cast iron, and brass.
3D as a Service
For larger objects and to provide more choices of materials, Minico Industries and other companies are offering to do this 3D printing as a service. Great Eastern, for example has a full set of those machines from Zcorp that I described above. You just send them the 3D digital model files and they send you the real thing in the mail overnight or within a few days.
Think of it as the modern version of sending your film away to be processed and having the prints returned to you in the mail. As with photo processing, eventually most of these 3D printing shops will be displaced by the ability to just do it yourself yet they will retain some services for high-end and more complex jobs.
High Definition Communications?
Speaking of complex objects and assemblies, note that these 3D printing capabilities are NOT limited to creating single part objects—even more amazing! For example, in the 3D printer video mentioned above, they can make complete models of very complex assemblies, including things like fully functional ball bearings, engines, and buildings. All of this can be done in full color and can include regular 2D printing on the 3D objects for things like labels, logos, etc.
As is noted by several of these manufacturers, 3D printing is really all about extending our abilities to communicate. In this context, if picture is worth a thousand words, I wonder how much a full and real 3D model is worth?
Room for Improvements
Today, 3D scanners and 3D printers are still only cost effective for businesses and larger budgets, and some of the processes are still too difficult for truly mass use. There are also limitations in the range of materials that can be created. While it is currently possible to create some metal materials (e.g. bronze), steel and cast iron remain a future capability for 3D printing. Now THIS is a great example of one of my favorite quotes from William Gibson:
“The future is already here, it is just not very evenly distributed”
Perhaps even more vexing are the challenges in working with 3D design at all. First, when it comes to human computer interfaces, we are still living in a very “flat” world. We are still stuck with EXTREMELY two-dimensional ways of interacting with digital models using things like mice, keyboards and flat screens. Second, we still need to see a major increase in such things as haptic feedback or force feedback where we can literally FEEL the virtual or digital models in our hands. Imagine having some digital clay or Lego blocks that you could pick up, feel, assemble and shape.
3D printing and scanning help dramatically with bridging the physical and digital worlds, but the interface challenges remain largely unresolved. However progress IS being made. Recent examples include some mice that enable you to “feel” the edge of a shape or a highlighted word by transferring motion to your hand as the cursor runs over these things on the screen, and some of the new game controllers vibrate or otherwise simulate “real” effects. The new Nintendo Wii console with its Wii Remote controller is particularly interesting for this feature and in one example, it enables you to “really feel” the virtual tennis ball when you hit it with your virtual racket while swinging the real “Wiimote” in your hand.
Whether you are one of the “imaginatively challenged” who is still asking “So What?” or if you are one of those whose cognitive sparks are now flying, consider some of the following scenarios:
- “3D Faxing”, which enables you to “send” a physical part to a distant location. It is not quite the equivalent of teleportation, such as in the well-known Star Trek line from Captain James Kirk, “Beam me up Scotty”, but it is here now and it’s increasingly affordable, so I’ll take it!
- Doctors and medical professionals creating practice models or real components for implants and prosthesis
- Museums building replicas that you can pick up and use, avoiding damage to real artifacts
- Jewelers being able to sit you down and design the perfect ring, bracelet or watch and then “print” it for you, all at the same visit.
- Creating 3D portraits of yourself, your family or your pets.
But my favorite scenario of late is an image from one of my favorite features in Wired magazine. Their back page is reserved for “FOUND: Artifacts from the Future”. Just imagine that you could go online to find “just the right thing” for you or someone else, and not only order it online, but then have it “manufactured” right on your desktop, right before your eyes, right now!
Or imagine that your local hardware store could be reduced down to a small vending machine or service window capable of producing just the right screw, nut, bolt, hinge or other parts for you on demand in minutes. Sure… this kind of production would be more challenging for objects that are complex assemblies, like a vacuum cleaner or a camera, and so these might require that you pick them up just down the street from where you live.
BUT, note how this takes us right back to where I started, which is the increasing role each of us will play as a “designer” as we utilize these kinds of technologies and services to build unique products for each of us as unique individuals in unique situations. THIS is what the Snowflake Effect is all about.
Think about it and stay tuned for MUCH more on these topics here at Off Course – On Target.
* Yes this is “that” Chris Anderson whom I’ve also talked about extensively with his fantastic observation of the “Long Tail” effect. As Chris notes in his article, “this is the arrival of the ‘Long Tail of Things’ that I talk about in the last chapter of my book.”
Highly recommended reading:
· The original Long Tail article in Wired magazine 12:10
· The Long Tail book
· The Long Tail blog.