Shaping the future?

by agwelch

In advance of next week’s 3D Printshow (taking place at the Business Design Centre in Angel), here’s my editorial piece from the latest issue of New Design addressing the excitement around product development technologies:

A visitor to the Design Museum watches a 3D printer in action (Image credit: Design Museum)

A visitor to the Design Museum watches a 3D printer in action (Image credit: Design Museum)

It’s official. Product development is trendy. Public interest in technologies that have been the stock-in-trade of the design world for a number of years is at an all time high. 3D printing and digital manufacturing techniques are, if one believes the hype, poised to catalyze a new industrial revolution.

The TCT Show is now in its 18th year and is witnessing unprecedented interest in the technologies that have been central to its existence for two decades. Manufacturing technologies – 3D scanning, 3D printing, and rapid prototyping – are moving beyond the confines of the workshop and emphatically into the public consciousness.

Indeed, a major autumn exhibition at London’s Design Museum, The Future is Here, takes as its theme the potential for revolution within product development. Visitors to the exhibition, curated by Alex Newsom in collaboration with the Technology Strategy Board, are invited to engage with the technologies that are not only shifting our understanding of the role of design and manufacturing, but also the role of the consumer.

We see examples of emerging technologies and new design platforms such as crowd funding, social networking, digital looms, online communities (particularly the work of so called ‘hacktivists’), 3D printing, networked manufacturing, CNC routing, and open source micro computing amongst many others.

One of the exhibition’s key themes is customization: how new manufacturing technologies are enabling the consumer to alter products to suit their own needs and tastes. The company Makiedolls, for example, produces action dolls designed by the customer. The customer chooses the eyes, nose, jaw, smile, hair, clothes, hands and feet that they want their doll to have; the bespoke doll is then 3D printed and given a porcelain finish at a London lab before being dispatched to the recipient. Another exhibit comes courtesy of the sportswear company Adidas. The Mi Adidas range of trainers allows consumers to personalize their footwear prior to purchase through an online app.

Such a level of customization and personalization is made possible by manufacturing technologies that negate the economies of scale associated with traditional methods. “Will changes in traditional manufacturing cause a reversal of the traditional manufacturing powerbases?” asks The Future is Here curator Alex Newsom. “Small-scale makers and sellers have typically produced the type of objects that factories don’t. But what if small companies, ore even individuals, began making objects that were previously only viable, either technologically or economically, through mass-manufacture?”

So what of the role of the designer in this brave new world? Will the democratization of design herald the death of the designer? Is it the case that we are all designers now? According to research carried out by Ipsos MORI, the results of which were displayed around the exhibition in environmental graphics, the professional designer need not worry unduly just yet. Asked whether they would like to have more input into the design of household items only 20 per cent of the public said ‘yes’ with 66 per cent preferring to ‘leave it to the professionals’ (14 per cent ‘don’t know’). Furthermore, only six per cent of those surveyed said they would be ‘interested’ in owning a 3D printer with 88 per cent ‘not interested’. Whilst customisable goods are popular, the public would rather be tweakers than designers.

What is true is that now more than ever the designer has at his or her fingertips a range of product development technologies that can speed the pace of innovation, open fresh markets, and carve new creative niches. Additive manufacturing may be reaching a tipping point in the public’s imagination but this recent visibility is built on years of expertise, experience and development – much lead by the work of product and industrial designers.

Image credit: Design Museum

Image credit: Design Museum

New Design contributor and industrial designer Russell Beard wrote a companion piece which I urge you to check out on his blog:

How Things Have Changed