You might be thinking, “Ok, so you’ve told me about how 3D printing works, you’ve told me to download some stuff, you’re weirdly insistent that I buy a mouse… But why? Why should I bother with any of this? Why should I care about 3D printing?”
Ok. Yes. I haven’t really touched on that yet. In part, it’s because the reasons are so diverse, so myriad, that it’s hard to condense them into a nice little blog-post package.
In the not-too-distant future, there is no part of our lives that 3D printing won’t touch. Whether we’re talking in big, industrial ways, like a complete restructuring of global supply chains or revolutionizing the way we build houses or skyscrapers, or in incredible life-saving ways, like printing organs on demand, or all the way down to personal consumer levels, like being able the print replacement components for any broken appliance in your house, the changes are coming.
But today, I want to talk to you, the designers, makers, crafters, and creative ladies of the world, and the people who support them. 3D printing can be applicable to you RIGHT NOW.
1. 3D Printing is amazing for small businesses. Like, super, super ideal.
You have a wonderful idea for a physical product. You want to make it and sell it.
But as any designer or small business owner knows, going from “idea” to “reality” is hard. Traditionally, you need equipment. A workspace. Funding for samples. Funding for production runs. Supplier connections. It’s an expensive and risky proposition, and it’s enough to make a lot of designers and makers abandon the idea of working for themselves.
With 3D printing, an idea is really all you need to get started. You can work on your couch, you can work in a coffee shop a la JK Rowling, you can work on a beach in Hawaii (if you have a better life than everyone else). One you have your finished design, and you’ve tested it, revised it, and can proudly put your stamp of approval on it, you can order one. Just one. Photograph it, put it in your online store, and you’re in business.
Because the cost per piece with 3D printing is basically the same whether you’re printing 1 or 10,000, you can make your pieces on demand if you choose- no need to shell out thousands of dollars for inventory. You can offer more sizes, more colors, more materials- it’s no additional work for you, and you can cater to a larger cross-section of customers.
3D printing basically allows you to do real, live market testing- you can learn what sells and what doesn’t, what you’re missing, what your customers like and don’t like, and how you can improve. So you make a ring that doesn’t sell a single piece- big deal. You’re out the cost of the sample, and you’ve learned something incredibly valuable- but you don’t have to worry about trying to sell through dozens or hundreds pieces of an unpopular style.
A customer wants a special size or slight customization? No problem. You can make a single, one-off piece for them based on their specifications without having to completely start from scratch every time. And you can improve your product easily, with no down-time between iterations.
This type of model is so incredibly freeing for a designer or maker. Because of the low level of investment, you can really experiment, take risks, and push the boundaries.
2. 3D Printing makes the impossible, possible.
For about 5 years now, I’ve tried to figure out how I could make beautiful, realistic floral jewelry that 1. would retain the delicacy and individuality that I treasure in real flowers and 2. wouldn’t have to cost a million dollars. I tried electroforming, sculpting with metal clay, direct metal work, dipping flowers in resins, sourcing ready-made components… nothing ever gave me the result I was after. Even if it had, trying to produce them would have been costly, time consuming and expensive, requiring multiple molds for each part.
And then, I started using 3D printing. And it worked. Because I could print my designs directly and cast from them individually, I didn’t have to worry about joining individual stamens or petals. The unique proposition of 3D printing meant I could place the bulk of my effort on the design of my pieces, rather than overly concerning myself with whether it had too many undercuts or would be too hard to make with traditional methods.
Now, that’s not to say that you can make ANYTHING with 3D printing. I certainly could- and do- still make models that would prove too costly for me to print and sell, and of course, 3D printed objects still have to follow the laws of physics, metallurgy, all that fun stuff. On many occasions, I’ve had to make adjustments to my designs to make them printable, because these materials DO have their limits. At the end, you want to have a beautiful, usable, durable object- so the rules of good design still apply. 3D printing isn’t a way to avoid having to solve real design challenges, and although it’s amazing for practically all prototyping, it’s not the best, most cost-effective, efficient way to produce EVERYTHING- just some things. The challenge is determining which ones.
But when you look the level of complication and detail you can achieve with 3D printing next to, for example, traditional mold-making- there’s no comparison. You can do things with 3D printing in one step that would take 10 or 15 or 20 or 100 steps with more traditional methods.
3. Handmade and Tech are not mutually exclusive.
For too long, handmade vs. machine-made has been painted as a 21st century version of John Henry vs. the steam powered hammer, except with handthrown porcelain porcupines and individually dip-dyed wall hangings instead of nails and railroad ties.
As someone who is pretty well-versed both in hyper-handmade techniques AND now digital techniques, I’m here to tell you that these two things are not as far removed from each other as they might seem. 3D printing, for all its sci-fi promise, still requires a tremendous amount of human touch, both during the design process and in post-processing.
It’s not just plugging numbers into a computer and having a ring or vase pop out. A lot of 3D modeling is much closer to sculpting than it is to coding (although the latter can absolutely be used to stunning effect). The ethos of handmade or bespoke design can still be applied to 3D modeling- the format is just different. You’re translating between two languages- at the end, the work will be about your design point of view and YOUR humanity, and not about robotic beings ruling the world.
The two can be used in conjunction, as well- there are so many processes and effects that can happen after a piece is printed- polishing, casting, painting, dying, stone-setting, sewing.
4.I’m tired of looking at a sea of naked ladies and useless garbage- please help.
A simple truth of life is that people will always make dumb s***. 3D printing happens to be one of the areas in which it’s very easy to show off your dumb s***, and there’s a distressing objectification of female bodies in 3D printing marketplaces- and you simply don’t see the same happening with male bodies. It sucks and I hate it.
Now, there are a LOT of people doing VERY cool things with 3D printing. I’m simply asking you to become one of them and flood the market with beautiful, well-designed things and help flush out the stupid stuff.
Any doubts? Questions? Comment or send me a message. I’ve got 99 reasons and I can tell you all of them.