3D Software

Interactive platforms will drive collaboration in 3D printing

A new study has shown how online 3D printing platforms have fostered a new culture of collaboration that can turn almost anybody in the world into a serious innovator, but there’s a long way to go to make that happen.

The study focuses on turning users into innovators and analysed 22 online platforms. The results in the Journal of Engineering and Manufacturing Technology Management clearly state that companies have to set to build advanced platforms that help bring the end user into the design process.

3D printing has already changed the world and there is a vast amount of untapped potential. Every day we report on new breakthroughs and we have barely scratched the surface of what 3D printing is actually capable of.

Open source platforms could change everything

Online platforms and open source technology have a critical role to play in the democratisation of technology. Now anybody with a 3D printer, an active imagination and a likeminded group around the world can use platforms to work together and find solutions.

Mass customisation is also an intriguing prospect thanks to the non-existent tooling costs of 3D printing. Inevitably some kind of online platform will play a pivotal role in helping customers tailor their product before the final print. This has to go beyond simple spec choices like colour and size to be considered true collaboration, but that is destined to happen.

A new supply chain

This collaboration between the supplier and the customer subverts the traditional supply chain dynamic and the companies that handle this transition best and actually create communities could be the big winners. With voluntary and sponsored collaboration, which could take the form of competitions that are already popular in other forms of design, the potential is endless.

Now a customer or casual user can be involved at every step of the manufacturing process, from concept through to completion. This could have a profound impact upon manufacturing as users become designers, beta testers and reviewers.

Platforms will reward business with rapid progress

Platforms are in their infancy

Of course there are trendsetters in the field. Ponoko launched in 2007 and now we have the likes of MyMiniFactory, Shapeways, 3D Creation Lab, Sculpteo and Thingiverse, which allow users to get involved with the whole production process. They are helping to drive innovation and the study focused on eight that allowed the end user to innovate.

Currently, only a handful of platforms allow the consumer to play an active part in the design process with the manufacturers. Others are aimed at hobbyists, which are valid in their own right and actually offer more scope for real innovation as things stand. But the platforms that bring customers into the design process have the most potential for the future if the whole process is managed well.

Even flatpack furniture is a start

Collaboration can remain much simpler, with companies providing plans for ‘prosumers’ to print at home. This is the 3D printing equivalent of selling people flatpack furniture today. This, however, is not the future of innovation. We need to go further than simply sharing the final production. The people need a say in the product.

The companies have the technology in their hands to involve the customer in the design process right now. They have to build the platforms to take this level of consumer collaboration to the level that can truly have an impact and it can only work in certain circumstances.

Companies that embrace collaboration stand to benefit from turning the tight-knit 3D printing community into brand advocates, design consultants and R&D engineers. It’s a powerful incentive to take this initiative forward and create the platforms they need to involve the customers in the final design.

We’re looking forward to seeing this on a grand scale.