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Most People Cannot Design

October 14, 2007

Filed under: additive manufacturing,future,manufacturing — Terry Wohlers @ 08:20

Historically, additive fabrication (AF) has been used for applications such as modeling, prototyping, and making patterns for silicone rubber molds. In recent years, a growing number of companies have used it for custom and replacement part manufacturing, short-run production, and even series production. Research by Wohlers Associates shows that “rapid manufacturing” using AF has grown from 3.9% in 2003 to 11.7% in 2007.

As this trend continues, we can expect to see a much wider range of audiences embrace AF for the manufacture of almost everything imaginable. This activity will be supported by AF systems that dip down to $5,000 in price. When this occurs next year, these compact manufacturing machines will show up in unexpected places. Individuals operating from a spare room in their homes will manufacture one-off parts and finished products for a broad spectrum of customers.

Growing interest in AF could lead to anyone designing anything and then having it manufactured in an affordable way for the first time. Of course, there will be limitations in size, dimensional accuracy, and material options, especially with the inexpensive systems. The biggest limitation of all will be the abilities of the people doing the design. Most consumers do not have the basic knowledge and skills to create an interesting or useful product. What’s more, the average consumer has little interest in creating new designs, let alone the desire to learn how to use design software.

Even so, entrepreneurs will capitalize on a wealth of opportunities presented by low-cost AF. As they better understand the design deficiencies among the population, they will develop approaches to personalized design and manufacturing with specific limits built into the process. Nike’s provides a glimpse of how this might be possible. This beautifully created website permits you to create a custom pair of shoes quickly and affordably. Within a few minutes, you can personalize shoes using a range of interesting colors and you can add a school mascot and two-digit initials to the shoes.

In the future, many websites will appear that offer libraries of objects. An individual might select a vintage car, for example, from a library of automobiles. This person will be given the opportunity to select the style of wheels, headlights, front grill, hood ornament, and color, and indicate whether it is a convertible or hardtop. The site will allow you to make other design changes, such as altering the curve of a fender, but within preset limits. Making these kinds of changes would make the model car truly custom. A few clicks later, your collectable will be in the queue for production and shipment.

Indeed, AF will be used to produce custom products by a wide range of consumers. As the price of these “personal factories” drop, the idea will expand into new businesses that may be difficult to fathom. Most consumers cannot design, so tools will become available to assist them with the process of creating one-of-a-kind products.

Note: The international conference titled The Custom Manufacturing MegaTrend: Where China and the West Fit In will be held on December 7 at EuroMold 2007 in Frankfurt, Germany.