3D Printing

Bashing heads together…

square bananaRussell Beard is a designer — a talented and experienced one at that, and by his own admission he can be quite opinionated about issues within his sector. Russ runs his own, expanding, product design consultancy — Square Banana — and writes his own blog on the Square Banana website. His latest post is reproduced here with full permission for 3DPI’s audience because it is specifically about 3D printing. It is highly recommended reading — highlighting the simultaneous frustrations and allure that 3D printing can produce. Russ also proposes some very interesting ideas on how to eliminate some of said frustrations ……

Right. Here goes. A subject that has been both close to my heart and a spark to my proverbial touchpaper at the same time. Bloody ‘3D Printing’.I’m not entirely sure where to start to be perfectly honest. This subject has been mulling around the Square Banana grey matter for months and months, attempting to structure itself into some cohesive, well-balanced argument, with only limited success. My theory – therefore – is to simply start typing and see what happens…Maybe I should start by ‘setting out my stall’. I am a product designer and I run a product design consultancy (just in case anyone reading this thinks I’m just a crackpot ranting machine — a myth I may not necessarily dispel in this post). I have used rapid prototyping in its many forms to develop numerous clients’ products for the best part of 20 years. I do not own a 3D Printer in any form. I am not affiliated with, nor have links with any 3D Printing company. I am not a ‘maker’ and I don’t have a shed…..yet. I am simply a professional designer with pretty good experience of how the industry (design + prototyping) has developed over the last 20 years.

So here’s my beef.

I am frustrated by the constant barrage of press releases and news articles hailing 3D printing as the next consumer ‘revolution’ and that it is going to herald a new age of ‘makers’ and entrepreneurs. Heck, let’s coin a new term; ‘homepreneurs’. Heart warming stories of little girls with bionic arms, printed in a jiffy on a 3D Printer, or fantastically customised iPhone accessories printed at the ‘click of a mouse’ while’u’wait at the local hypermarket. Yes these are possible – in the same way that it’s possible to cook a Michelin star meal for a room full of people – but it’s a very shiny side of a 7 sided coin, the other 6 sides of which are a bit mucky. I’ll apologise now, I like to use analogies…there will be plenty more.

Let’s be clear. I’m not a naysayer of 3D printing. I’ve been using it for the entirety of my professional career to date, to help me develop new things for people that can’t do what we do (thankfully). It’s brilliant and magical. The ability to physically replicate a virtual form, developed in software, relatively easily and at fairly low cost, has helped our industry (and many other industries) leap forward in terms of ‘time-to-market’ and ‘proof-of-concept’ like nothing else. But it comes with downsides. It is certainly NOT the ‘one click wonder’ that we are often led to believe. The bit leading up to the ‘click of the mouse’ when it starts printing is complex and requires specific skills and knowledge. The object, once printed, is not smooth, clean and ready to rock. It’s a bit jaggedy (technical terminology!), is connected to all manner of supporting bits and bobs (to stop it falling over when it’s being built) and requires a not insignificant amount of TLC afterwards (depending on what it has been built out of). I apologise to those who are reading this with a good knowledge of 3D printing, but I’m keen to keep things *really* simple. It also ain’t THAT quick. To print something the size of – say – a fist, that doesn’t look like it’s made out of LEGO, will take hours. Yes, hours. Not mere minutes. Not to mention that invariably you’ll need a couple of attempts at ‘printing’ your object of desire, given that it is highly likely that your first few attempts will fail miserably — the machine will invariably crash and you will waste a whole heap of expensive material in the palm-sweating, hair-pulling, swearbox-filling process. I’m sure these times, and processes will get better and become much less complex, but that’s where we are at, right now. That’s why I still use external experts who do all this for me.

I was attempting to explain 3D Printing to someone with no knowledge of the technology the other day, and it felt to me like it was at the stage that ‘amateur photography’ was at when keen, inclined people were able to set aside a bit of their shed, install a red light bulb, buy some trays, some developing chemicals, a stack of expensive paper, a few wires and pegs and some other paraphernalia, and develop their own photos. It became ‘hobbyist’. Those willing to commit to learning the basics of the craft were able to do it at home, play around with the limitations and potentially unleash the creative tiger prowling within themselves. Maybe 3D printing will be the same? The point is, despite it becoming accessible (for all the right reasons), it still took commitment, and every home in the UK didn’t convert their shed into a darkroom. It wasn’t until photography turned digital and the establishment had to learn the hard way that things can’t stand still, that the opportunity and skills normally required of an ‘expert’ now became accessible by all and we all became so-called experts. But digital photography does not bear any relation to ye’olde darkroom photography of old….it is simply the petulant, arrogant nephew with better ideas and less time on its hands.

So, with that in mind, what would the petulant generational version of the current 3D printing technology look like? That’s the game changer.

I’ll throw another analogy at you.

Remember that feeling you had as a kid, when you walked through a stadium tunnel, or leapt out of a car parked alongside an open field, or ran towards the sea. That feeling of being given ultimate freedom to ‘go’ wherever you want. Like a dog being let off its leash. It runs…and runs…and changes direction…and then runs some more. Nothing is constraining its movement and it has no idea why it is running in a certain direction. It just goes. Anywhere. Because it can.

Within reason, that is what 3D printing should be letting us do, and is falsely purporting to allow us to do by providing ultimate creativity and unconstrained boundaries. In real terms, it is painting this lovely picture of freedom and then quietly putting down those inflatable bowling alley bumpers, which only allow you to travel in one direction, whilst gently and clumsily ricocheting from side to side. “Look at all the wonderful things that this technology can do!” *caveat – significant conditions apply. There is a HUGE disconnect between the reality and the dream weaved by the 3D printing powers that be.


Enough ranting.

That’s the easy bit.

Anyone can rant.

As product designers, clients come to us when they have a problem they cannot solve themselves, or they think someone else can solve more elegantly/cheaply/quickly etc. We are invariably presented with a number of constraints (usually quite a few), a cost target/budget, a timescale and a list of desirable outcomes. It is our job to then deconstruct the ‘brief’ (or create one in the first place) and then attempt to solve the problem within the framework applied. Sometimes this is possible. Sometimes you have to look at acceptable compromises or pull in a bit of leftfield thinking to break established paradigms. Whichever way it is done, the brief is fulfilled and the problem – invariably – solved.

My suggestion is to approach 3D printing in exactly the same way.

3D printing gives us fantastic benefits (let’s ignore the negatives for a moment). The ability to genuinely produce a 1-off. The ability to produce ‘impossible’ forms that traditional manufacturing processes can not. ‘Relative’ speed in comparison to other methods of production. Geographic indifference…you can technically print anywhere where there is power. There are others. Why can’t we use these positive ingredients as the initiator for a brief? A brief to determine the biggest ‘consumer’ opportunities for a technology platform with the advantages stated and the constraints I’ve griped about earlier. Let’s ‘ignore’ the niche applications, which are tried, tested and well documented (and no doubt protected to the hilt) namely; aerospace, high end automotive/Formula 1, dentistry, orthopaedics, prosthetics etc. etc. Let’s also try to ignore the whimsy of high-end fashion, objets d’art and self-indulgent sculpture if we can. Let’s really try and find commercially savvy, consumer focused applications for this remarkable, ‘magic’ process that has longevity, growth, bandwidth and scalability. I got a bit excited the other day when I read a headline that ‘Sainsbury’s had embraced 3D Printing’ – thinking that they had done exactly the above and were about to lay out a strategy for their novel use and adoption of this technology, only to read the same guff about customised iPhone covers et al.

The thing is, I know it is possible. I did a project many years ago, where we looked at an emerging technology platform and applied this design approach to developing opportunities within a defined roadmap (all the business clichés are coming out now!) of 10-12 years. At the time, the company I worked for was working on lots of exciting, cutting-edge stuff for all manner of corporate giants, but we couldn’t talk about any of it, due to confidentiality. So we pursued a self-initiated project that allowed us to investigate the various routes to market for this chosen technology, with the consumer at the heart of all of the solutions and with each opportunity based on sound commercial sensibilities. It is incredibly liberating to take the essence of a technology – the practical possibilities and advantages – and tailor these to specific applications that may never have been thought about beforehand, purely because that technology bubble was so focused on the ‘obvious’ applications and the more literal, immediately demonstrable quick wins. I firmly believe that – should a business have the foresight to treat this as an ‘opportunity brief’ rather than a PR exercise aiming to appease the ‘watch tapping’ investors, kickstarter fanboys and crowdfunding-delirious tech media – then we as consumers could see some really, VERY interesting things happening that will give us the creative wings and consumer power that 3D printing technology ought to be giving us.

Remember, 3D printing has been around – and will be around – for a very long time as a tool for high end professionals to achieve their specific, expert goals. The interesting thing is the consumer proposition. The masses. How can it evolve from the darkroom into instagram?

We are currently in the darkroom bouncing off the walls.

A bit of proven, consumer-centric thinking is what is needed. With consumers and their individual ways and differences at the core of it all. I’ve got plenty of ideas about where this could go, but I’d be shooting from the hip a little. We – like any other designers tasked with such a brief – would need time, energy and resources to deliver something strategic, considered and better informed. I have a hunch that we may all be blindly looking at the ‘output’ rather than the ‘input’ vehicle, but as I say…it’s a hunch.

There. That’s my piece. Make of it what you will. If nothing else, I truly hope a ‘product’ or ‘service innovation’ design business (he says through gritted teeth) gets a call from one of the major 3D printer manufacturers and the opportunity to bash some heads together for a small proportion of the money currently being pumped into PR.

Whoever gets the chance…good luck and a following wind!