It’s the year 2013, we survived the Mayan apocalypse, and if you’re keeping count, we’re supposed to have hover-boards and flying-cars in 2 years – at least according to Back to the Future Part II. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but I don’t think that one is going to happen soon. But I have better news; we’re developing something far more exciting and unimaginably limitless — a replicator straight out of Star Trek! I’m talking about 3D printers: devices and services which allow you to design and build your own products, craft experiences catered specifically to meet your design needs, and make your ideas directly from your home without ever having to stock parts. The third industrial revolution is here and it’s something to get really excited about.
Have you ever wondered how that fancy smart phone in your hand was produced? The one with tolerances measured in microns, mono-crystalline diamond-cut edges, and sleek metallic finish? What did it take to develop it? One million dollars? One-hundred million dollars? How do these products come about and who is the team behind them? I think about these things all the time! It’s my job and passion to do so. I’m a Product Designer, and with the help of a talented team of engineers and designers, we design and develop the products that you use.
When I introduce myself to strangers, there is always an initial awe about my profession “Oh, I didn’t know that was a thing” followed by what I call the “confession” as if I were some therapist, a complete stranger will divulge to me, their most closely guarded secret – the key to success, an idea for a product so grand that it will change the world. It has been cooking in their head for ages, looking for a way into your hands. Sometimes the ideas are solutions to common frustrations, other times they are additions to other products (think iPhone cases with built in wallets). What they are doesn’t really matter, the point is everyone has at some point experienced a frustration with a product and devised a clever solution to it, but not many people know what to do with that solution. If they do know, they are intimidated by the steep investment required to get it off the ground and into your hands.
It used to be, not too long ago, that if you had an idea for a new product, the only way to develop it required the following: Money, lots of it… a solid and thought out business strategy, carefully crafted to eliminate risk and attract investors, a team of researchers to explore market opportunities, industrial designers and engineers to design and tool your parts, a factory in which to manufacture your product, a warehouse to stock your order from the factory, more money, and finally loads of time in which your competition could overtake you. Product development was a risky business for an individual.
Today things are different – this movement is about empowering you. As we navigate through this third industrial revolution, you will start to see more and more opportunities to take the lead and develop your idea virtually risk free. Walk into a UPS store in San Diego, California (and soon everywhere) and you will notice a 3D printer or Chicago’s The 3D Print Experience where they will teach you how to use the software and print your idea. There are also a ton of websites dedicated to the market, such as inventables.com, where you can purchase everything needed for your at-home factory, or shapeways.com, which lets you upload a database and sell 3D prints of your work. No need to worry about stocking or minimum orders; these products get made on demand and ship directly from the source.
I’ll admit, 3D printing is in its very infancy, limited in materials, size and complexity. For example, you might be able to print a phone, but of course it would be an unusable model. This is because the printers cannot assemble electronic components. At the moment, I use one of the services listed above to make simple products like jewelry and small plastic toys. But where some see limits, others see potential. “What use is a newborn baby?” retorts Benjamin Franklin in response to the question “what possible use are balloons?” This technology will mature fast and in unexpected ways – 3D printed batteries? Circuit boards? Sure, why not. Did you know that we have successfully 3D printed Living Aortic Heart Valves? In ten years we expect to print a whole living beating human heart – let that one sink in and it’s easy to get excited about the future – 20 years from now, the experience of anticipation one must get from queuing up outside of an apple store for an iPhone midnight launch will be replaced by one of excitement as you watch your iPhone slowly emerge and take form in a pool of black liquid inside the belly of your replicator.
If your idea requires more resolution than a current 3D printer can offer, then take it to kickstarter.com, a launching pad for ideas backed by crowd-funding – entice the crowd, and you get funded. A great example is Scott Wilsons Tik Tok – Scott saw the opportunity to transform apples iPod nano into a watch by building a case and straps for it. His goal was to raise $15,000 to cover the cost of tooling. By the end of the campaign, Scott had Kickstarter’s most successful product to date – bringing in close to one million dollars from 13,500 backers. This is even more astonishing when you learn that 76% of those backers bought apples iPod nano just for the wristband. It’s a rare example of an accessory generating sales of the core product. Today you can find the Tik Tok at apple stores across the world.
I’ll tell you what I tell everyone who proposes an idea to me – product development is no longer limited to those with experience and capital. Today you can have a product in a global market in literally less than a day. You have all the tools necessary to bring your ideas to life – You’re the designer now, and there has never been a better time to be a designer. If your project leans more on paving new ground with complex electromechanical systems, think, blood hematocrit meters or DNA analyzers, then I encourage you to engage with Key Tech. We excel at product development, especially when dealing with innovative technologies.