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3D Printing: Consumers as Co-Creators

September 5, 2013

Brands and consumers have come close together; they are talking to each other in social media and having conversations, some brands are asking consumers to make content for them and brands, have for some time, introduced basic elements of personalization into the mix- think NikeID.

However, the idea of consumer as co-creator or collaborator in the design and personalization of products has yet to be fully realized. There’s a barrier that currently exists that’s preventing true collaboration from taking place, yet consumers are only too happy to hack and play with stuff on their own.

Many of the barriers to true collaboration are legal and logistics; there are issues over intellectual property and it’s not so easy to manufacture one-of-a-kind items, Henry Ford’s mantra of “any color as look as its black”, is still the dominant manufacturing point of view.

It’s possible that 3D printing could change of all of this and because of the barriers highlighted above, the collaboration opportunity is going to come from new ventures and start-ups that are going to make it integral to their company DNA. Their mission will be to let consumers play, co-design and collaborate and their role will be to help them get into it.Most consumers aren’t designers, so the trick is going to be able to give them enough freedom to personalize, but not too much so they end up creating things that don’t look great.

One interesting example of this approach comes from a company called Nervous System, who are manufacturing vases, jewelry using 3D printers.

They designed a piece of software, Cell Cycle, that runs on WebGL which allows users to optimize designs based on the company’s design templates.

Cell Cycle webGL design app – a dynamic physible from Nervous System on Vimeo.

It’s obviously early days for this type of fabrication and one of the big problems is the limited range of material available to be able to affordably print, but that could change.

What will be interesting to see is how fast these new companies can offer something that’s truly exciting to consumers and what impact that might have on the slower incumbents.