By now, you’ve probably heard of 3D printing or additive manufacturing — the process of taking a digitally-generated design for an object and sending it to a 3D printer to be built up, layer by layer, using substances that resemble ceramics, plastics and metals. It all sounds a bit like magic — but it has attracted the attention not just of DIY tech enthusiasts, but also of venture capitalists and tech entrepreneurs eager to discover the Next Big Thing. Some (including me) have predicted that 3D printing will lead to a new manufacturing renaissance in America, while others have compared the 3D manufacturing movement to the computer hobbyist movement that eventually gave us companies like Apple and Microsoft.
But is it really possible for an average person to learn 3D manufacturing — or is something best left to rocket scientists and industrial designers?
New companies like Shapeways and MakerBot Industries are betting on the former, having already started the process of creating entire communities around 3D manufacturing. On Thursday, Shapeways hosted a two-hour workshop ("Design for 3D Printing") at the offices of New York City venture capital firm Union Square Ventures, where a group of twenty people learned how to design and print customized iPhone cases that could then be listed for sale on the Shapeways Web site. My customized iPhone case, it turns out, has a market value of $30.36 — roughly comparable to what you’d pay for a name-brand iPhone case at the Apple store.
It turns out that learning the basic process of how to design, print and sell a 3D object takes all of two hours and a fairly standard technology arsenal: a Macbook and an external mouse combined with a free Shapeways account and a free version of Google SketchUp. Hours before the workshop was scheduled to start, each of the participants was emailed a starter file. As I found out later, this was the equivalent of being emailed an almost-finished Hemingway novel, where you have the opportunity to fill in the names of the main characters and make a few tweaks to the front cover before offering the book for sale to readers everywhere at a slight mark-up.
The first step in getting your design ready for market is to create a basic design concept in SketchUp, Google’s free 3D modeling tool. Even if you’re not a designer, the Google modeling functionality is amazingly intuitive — at least, as soon as you get used to manipulating an object with your mouse in three dimensions. While the idea of using a 3D modeling tool is enticing, the prospect of designing an object from scratch is, frankly, terrifying. This is where the starter file came in handy, since it already contained the exact specifications for an iPhone case.
The next step is to customize your object. There’s no reason why your case needs to look like a commodity. Since you’re the creator here, there are various bells and whistles that you can use to customize it according to your specs, such as by adding your name. Using basic functionality to size and rotate the object, you can then “push” or “pull” the object in three dimensions and cut out holes. By twisting the object in 3D space, you can view on your screen what it looks like when you have carved your name into the case or added various other artistic doodads, such as circles, triangles or squares.
Finally, once you’ve customized the case, you need to export the design file to Shapeways and get the model added to your free online account. Within minutes, my customized iPhone case had been accepted on the Shapeways site. By changing the materials used to print the case, I have the option to raise or lower the cost of printing the object. Part of the cost of printing the case was (thankfully) included in the price of the Skillshare class. For now, my object is listed as “private,” but with a few quick steps, I could easily list the object for sale and pocket some extra dollars by selling a white, customized "Dominic" iPhone 4S case — by the millions, of course.
The level and quality of objects listed on the Shapeways site is continuing to grow. Some people have figured out how to print 3D dinosaurs for novelty value, while others are focused on printing 3D jewelry or practical objects for tech users. It’s like Etsy meets Kickstarter meets an undergraduate architecture class. For average users, designing more than a basic shape can be frustrating. Frankly speaking, learning how to use Google SketchUp — from the perspective of a non-designer — is as frustrating as opening up Adobe Photoshop for the first time, and expecting to crank out an artistic masterpiece.
However, there are signs that 3D manufacturing could blossom into the Next Big Thing. In places like New York, where there is a potent combination of tech, design and artistic talent, it’s easy to imagine the trend taking off with the DIY crowd. There’s something very satisfying about knowing that you made something, especially if you can pocket a bit of cash from it.
As 3D printing becomes increasingly democratized, the true craftsman of the Internet era will be the people who are designing objects from scratch in small batches and then selling them online. As the teaser copy for the course read, “We’re on the edge of a new normal, where everyday products are custom made for and by every one of us.” Some of the items that have been printed out using 3D printers are truly extraordinary. One day, it might even be possible to print out a Stradivarius violin.
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