The future of 3D printing and digital fabrication

The future of 3D printing and digital fabrication

A vision by Aristide Van Roy

(Architect, designer, entrepreneur)

Can 3D printing and digital fabrication really change the world?

Technologies have a huge impact when it comes to societal organization. At every stage of a civilization we could identify two main components: the technologies used by a society and the stage of development of this society. Let’s explore that relationship and a possible vision for the next 30 years ahead.

Today, CNC furniture design and 3D printed objects are good examples of both technological and societal advances. Fab-labs and crowd funding have a great potential of reshaping society with new models of social interaction. History has already shown us the path: from Ford to the standardization, from the Internet to the world brain we call “cloud”, each of these inventions came with a very predictable outcome on how we consider interacting with each other.

But the new structures and logics this new order calls are highly incompatible with the last ones: there is a battle between two sets of values and ways we perceive the world. Standar-dization have long been a model in terms of efficiency and progress, but is no longer able to help us building the 21st century. Today’s world fosters local and global economy, free access to files and materials, community centered interaction, non-linear processes, and so on. Globalization has led to money-producing logics that do not respond to our needs anymore. There is a need for a paradigm shift…. Paradigm as both a “model” and a “postulate”. This new postulate can be hard to get because we are, as I will explain later, always improving technologies and thoughts but sometimes we need to disrupt those one in order to build a reality that “makes more sense”.

What this article is aiming for is sharing a personal vision on the future of those new technologies. Here is how I see the future development of 3D printing technologies and digital fabrication:


High-end quality products directly “printed” at home

3D printers are awesome! I often see in the eyes of the novices some sparkling… But let’s admit it, it is far from reaching its real potential. I’m not talking about some new “2D extruded” technology that isn’t able to deliverer anything else than prototypes… I’m talking about a new technology you never thought of. If you have to teleport yourself in a distant future of 30 years (not that far), you might encounter great civilizations using unique technologies for every goods they need: electronic goods, mobile phones, clothes, food, drink, houses, cars and even sex toys…

The sad thing about the future is that it is built on the present and we can predict it based on current technologies. As a matter of fact we do, at this day, have all the technologies for such products but they are not connected! When you get a look at the history of inventions you may notice that it is indeed a dialectic process: combine several technologies, discoveries or inventions together and you have a new technology! The steam engine technology came from observations on physical forces of the steam. Use it as a motor, and you have the first automobile. Now place it on rails and you have the first locomotive! In other words, 30 years is very short and that’s the time we need to combine all the 3D printing technologies with other technologies. Right now, 3D printed products lack quality, strength, interaction with each other, and even life itself.

Supposing future 3D printers will deliver real products directly, it implies a shifting in the overall consumption process! Those machines produce every daily objects we want at home. It is what I call “home factories”: when complex industrial processes become affordable for everyone and we all can produce high quality products. We do not need to buy, sell, or ship them physically: 3D objects are downloaded from an online marketplace and then printed at home. It’s a huge step forward!

The choice of the term “home factory” is in fact due to the combination possibilities of 3D printing technologies and home assembly lines together. The production process should be automatized and become multi-linear to be effective. By multi-linear I mean a process of several materials, parts or several printed objects at the same time. But, we still face some challenges: a lot of electronic and mechanical parts couldn’t be built in the printer. To have a vision is to see what things can be instead of what they are: future 3D printers will print and assembly electronic goods at home! We should give life to those dead plastic objects! Mobile phones are a very interesting case: today we already can print the card board and the plastic casing, but separately and without electronic component assembly. In the last chapter will be described practical examples of goods and stuffs we could make. Just remember for now the concept of producing every daily objects we need, as complex as they are, from a single machine at home.


Local network: interacting nodes and services

It takes lots of time for an infrastructure to take place. In most of the eastern countries, we are facing great challenges to create new ones. In some other areas, people focus more on improving the existing rather than building new ones. This is why digital fabrication is making sense: it connects through existing infrastructures and networks.

The world should be seen as multiple levels of networks interrelated and connected. Local networks are therefore pillars of our economy. Centralization of goods and services have polarized cities and even countries… Local making and person-to-person service have gradually decreased over the past years because of such polarity. If we do not act on local “infrastructures” we may tend to be all dependent of companies that provides us what we need: supermarket are today’s sad reality of the relationship between the food and the consumer. This is what happen when companies provides the service themselves instead of creating an interface for people to connect together. An app is typically an interface through which the consumer is connected with the physical environment around him.

Technologies also bring people closer: applications could show me where the nearest materials are, or allow me to print an object at my neighbor’s place because I see he has all the materials and time I require, or compare quality and service from different local makers, and so on.

Producing locally has many advantages such as using local affordable materials, reuse what we can, and recycle in the machine or not far. The consumption as we know it today is a dead end: basic materials are shipped from all over the world to a country, transformed in other countries and then shipped back to the other side of the planet… This is highly ineffective! A great number of local ecosystems exists around us, we just don’t see them!

Local also means diversity. Future 3D printing is going to change the scope of variety within the product. Printing a digital object doesn’t give the same output according to the place of “birth” in the world and local materials. Culture is also a key factor in the process! There lies the real diversity of products!


Global network: online marketplaces for objects

When we look at the bigger picture today we easily find some blank spots such as “Why do we need someone between the designer and the customer?” or “Why can’t we build a new model of interaction where the designer directly sell or share his object to the customer, the maker?”.

How could we do that? Simply by merging iTunes and Shapeways together! A designer from India could propose a product or service to anybody in the world and improve his design based on the consumer experience. In the meantime he could have ratings, feed-backs and ideas for a better product. There is no need for the “5 years trial” every designer know when working with the “classic” industry: anybody can do it within a year at home. The designer can analyze trends and new products without expensive market studies. And the most interesting fact is: this designer-seller could be organized as a team of designers, a corporation, a freelance designer, a community or an amateur… Anybody can do it and have a sustainable plan for his financial future: we choose the type of license we want for the product from free to profitable. Every download can generate cash revenue or symbolic exchange. The best rated the product is the best visibility it has. Competition has no limits and depends on the quality of what we offer. It is a meritocracy!

And finally, we need to build a new online economy: online marketplaces for virtual objects will become real marketplaces when we will be able to link them with physical products printed at home. Global and local are connected by the reality of the object. The “what you see is what you get” has no limits! 3D visualization is now easy with real scale holographs in the printer. No more need of product stocks or Amazon vaults to deliver a product when a server is enough. Time of delivery is linked with the size and complexity of the object, but it will always be at home in time.


Mass customization for every home product

Have you ever wonder why we do have shoe sizes? Why do you need to fit into something standardized and very limited in terms of possible configurations or modifications? Why can’t we just scan our feet and print our shoes?

Customers like to have plenty of choice and designers don’t want to lose their time creating the file themselves one by one. That’s why we build parameters and variables for a product and automatize the file process until we just have to press the “print button”. A product has always a fixed identity (what is it and does) and several forms it can get within that identity (colors, variants): this is what is called “parametric design”. NikeiD is an example of online interface which allows you to customize your shoe and buy it online. But that’s not enough! Mass customization can do way more than that! We could scan the body at home, keep the historic of our weigh loss (or not), while the printer adapts the 3D model to our body and shows us a preview of the clothes. Then, by moving slides of parameters such as shoulders, hip, arms, legs we could find the perfect match. Objects downloaded stay in your “digital wardrobe” as a possible basis for further modifications.

In addition, mass customization is not about choice but configurations. A blue-pink version of the Nike is two parameters away than the grey-red pair. In other words, designers have for task to define the system of parameters for a digital model and propose a “standard version” as one configuration amongst others. Please do remember that customers and not programmers! Yes, it involve more work for the designers but it is universal and easy to use!

For more info, please check the video of a coffee table from Opendesk on MatterMachine: here


End of the planned obsolescence

Craftsmanship did not disappear with the arrival of the industrialization: 3D printing is going to take larger parts of the “industrial market” and will leave to the classic industry domains of expertise where it is the only viable solution. To succeed, 3D printing should be affordable and install into the consumer the idea that industrial objects are now a luxury.

When it comes to objects, I generally make two groups. In one group, I place beautiful and well-made objects designed to sustain both to time and trends. In the other I place what I call “utility objects”. To me, it makes no sense to spend a great deal of energy to produce a plastic bottles you will put into your trash when it’s empty. It just doesn’t make any sense! Why not just try to improve the 3D printing process to create “low design” tools and objects that could be recycled locally? Why can’t we open the object and replace the broken part?

Planned obsolescence is a model created in order to “boost” the economy by boosting the demand of products. New trends are also designed to increase the sales volume. But the current demand, the real one, is lower without any of these. But could we build a society without planned obsolescence? By voluntarily accepting some products are not made to sustain we can design them in a more responsible way and gain more energy, materials, and time… Made locally and very cheap! Trends will always exist but let’s focus on a way to make objects last longer regardless of the expiry date of the trend. Some objects like mobile phones are used on daily bases. The challenge is to make future 3D printed products sustainable.


A community centered economy

Open-source and crowd funding have proven themselves as possible models for a new economy within a specific framework. Could we extend such models to a real global economy?

Community members meet on the Internet around interests they have and share regardless of their geo-location, language, culture, ethnicity, and so on. Social Medias such as Facebook have a huge impact on our sense of belonging to a product value or a brand. Multinational companies use once again linear models for producing, selling and improving products. A recent shift happened when the industry didn’t target a “typical consumer” anymore (such as in street advertisement), and started from the real demand of the online consumer using data gathering to apply specific offers. The consequence I see is the arrival of a need for a transversal and more flexible model where values are not determined by the brand anymore but by several objects, ideas, concepts around that brand, always evolving in time. There is a change from a company product centered economy to a community centered economy.

Value is in the eye of the one how sees it. Crowd funding allows everyone to create value in the product of another. It may be symbolic as a “like” or financial as a donation. Products well designed and responding to real new demands are on a regular basis successful. No need of a VC (venture capitalist). No risks involved, just your personal image in front of the community supporting your project. People supporting your project are the “new shareholders” as well as potential clients. Nevertheless, there seems to be a form of systematization between the demand and the offer of a new product in such process: needs and demands are real and not expected anymore, they directly meet a potential offer via a project, every project manager can judge of the quality and performance of its product by the demand for it, the overall system foster progress, entrepreneurship and invention. The next step should be to gain more input from people’s demand in a way they basically make the project themselves (everyone is a designer).

Products are not goals in themselves! Today, we value social interaction around a product we sale: who did it, where did they make it, is the product sustainable, what did I learn from it? Fab-labs are micro-economies more focused on these question rather than the product itself. But could we adapt those structures to a future global economy? To have an economy you need to have a cash-flow: to work we should design a” cash-flow system” and an infrastructure on a global scale. Free and open objects are not going to be financially viable unless the infrastructure is able to generate a cash-flow. A new social and economic model will depend primarily on our capacity to decide what kind of relationship we want with each product. An iTunes like interface is too strict: we could actually choose between downloading for free, paying the amount we want to, paying the fixed amount, exchanging service in return of a better product, and so on. As I said, quality of a product is in the quality of the service we offer!


Every single object has an ID

The emergence of the digital world is at the very foundation of the dismantling of the trio “form-material-information”. A design product, like a chair, was an inseparable all: its form was linked with the materials used and the final object didn’t carry the information on how to make the product. With the 3D printing process we can apply a shape, structural or not, to any material and gather information on the original idea (the 3D file). The direct consequence is the ability to have 3D files, materials, and their production made from different people: we are not obliged to buy the physical product from an authorized seller anymore. Selling ready-made 3d printed objects is still made possible but the main focus is to generate an economic model that do not require the “old logistics” behind its production process.

But how could we assure the product quality in front of so many possibilities? Products must have “identities”! It means that the physical object has to be seen as an all and encoded in an online database. Each new product comes with a code bar sending to an online product configuration. Every physical object can be duplicated or reproduced according the database. It opens new doors in terms of interaction between the physical model and the 3D model: analyzing the materials, scanning colors, verifying the product is built as it should, finding the 3D file in the database, showing the name of the owner or having a spreadsheet with the planned costs and the current cost of production. Gathering information is a great challenge for the digital modelling because it creates new inputs and makes the 3D file “intelligent”.

The next Industrial revolution is already set for many entrepreneurs and industrialists. In Germany, The Industry 4.0 was created as an innovative industry model where companies such as Siemens (video) and Bosch could give every product an ID according to the online consumer order. When you order a special configuration for a product its bar code is scanned by a series of machines one after another. The ID is designed to activate only the machines required for the final product. It allows the industry to have customized mass production within the Fordist linear production line. By applying such technologies to future 3D printers we can produce great improvements in time management. Due to their high modularity, we could optimize the process by sending two (or more) complementary objects at the same time and minimizing the delays and gaps.

Another incoming revolution is the “Internet of Things”. Daily objects are more and more digitally connected. Exchanges are made on the Internet which is becoming a huge cloud of interacting nodes (a total brain). Every single product has captors-receptors that send-receive input-output information to various computer software or mobile phone applications. At the small scale of a house, such products could be part of a “human ecosystem”. Products have therefore their own identity and function within a unified all.

Future fields of application:

Architecture: structural beams with oriented fibers according to the charges (see the production of extruded plastic bottles), buildings “all in one” from the complex 3D files (from walls to pipes), drone application for improving an existing building or laying bricks, crowd funding for your personal home or a real estate investments, a new style in architecture not based on standardized parts but the return of ornaments.

Design: mobile phones, peripheral devices, game consoles, musical instruments, furniture design, 3D printers printing 3D printers, jewelry, every possible consumer goods.

Fashion: intelligent clothes and bags, adaptive morphologic materials, bespoke clothes from the machine, body scan, weigh history, 3D model of my actual body, fit parameters.

Food and drink: cream basis shaped into fries or pizzas, microwave and programmable diners.

Personal and intimate products: sex-toys with different materials and textures, 3D scan body part and duplicate them, adapt in real time the size and shape of the object, realistic materials and organs, hygienic, washable and reusable materials, for male and female application and private digital library of goods.

Medical application: scan external and internal bodies, scan body properties, produce 3D models of the organs, print organs, chirurgical works, keep medical records, organ prosthesis directly applied to the body, scan and duplicate baby during an echography, and determine the quality of a donor’s organ.

Mobility: cars, drones, bikes, and so on.

3D visualization and communication: visualize 3D objects in holograms, scan objects and send them to someone, 3D Skype conference.

A paradigm shift in digital fabrication and the need for innovative new social models

The Maker Movement is just a beginning! It is the first step to induce a paradigm shift. We’ve risen our level of awareness until a point where the linear “classical” production line is seen as past history. This awareness is shared by both the consumer and the industrialist.

We need designers more than ever! The products complexity will increase, as well as our requirements and expectations. Designers and engineers have more responsibilities towards both the product and the user-consumer. They are the “architects” that design the product and set parameters. Consumer do not buy a single physical product anymore but the DNA that shapes the product they want.

My biggest hope is to see changes in the relationship between the object and the consumer for a better, more responsible, and sustainable one. Instant access to technologies should be easy for everyone. Is it the goal of the next industrial revolution? Can 3D printing and digital fabrication really change the world? I believe so…

Keywords: industrial revolution, paradigm, 3D printing, 3D printers, digital fabrication, fab-lab, CNC, parametric design, mass customization, home factory, Internet of Things, Industry 4.0, local, global, sustainable, products, design, marketplace, economy.

Aristide Van Roy

Brussels BE

05 December 2015 (v1)

License: CC BY-NC-SA

Link to pdf: here