When I give presentations I often talk about “the Singer problem.” A
lot of people are hyping desktop manufacturing, mass customization and
mass personalization. They talk of a world where we will each have
desktop machines capable of customizing or making almost anything.
These machines will be compact, inexpensive and easy to use. The inputs
for them will be cheap and widely available. Designs will be traded,
sold and distributed to everyone.
We will all use our
creativity to them move away from a world where everything is mass
produced and mass marketed to one where we make products based on
functionality. People will be able to sell or be self-sufficient and
these devices will have massive implications for society. This is the
“big idea” around a lot of the desktop 3D printer hype.
Well..theres a gaping hole in this future and that is The Singer problem.
have all been able to do pretty much everything described above for the
last 150 years. All one has to do is buy a Singer sewing machine. You
can pick one up for $100. The inputs: cloth and thread are widely
available in a wide selection for low prices. You can buy or get
designs or patterns as they are called worldwide. The machine is
relatively easy to operate. You can customize many of the things you
own. And as far as clothing goes you could even make everything
So why is it that I only know five people who
actively use sewing machines? Why is it that even they buy most of
their clothing off the rack? It has to do with several things:
1. brands do manage to elicit meaning from us
2. sewing is “for girls” and not cool
3. sometimes people just want to be followers, even though they say they want to be unique
4. most people generally can not be bothered
5. most people think they can’t do things, so they don’t try
The perception is that it is ‘cheaper’ to buy clothing than to make it
because of the perceived large investment in time and ‘bother.’
7. We would all like to make beautiful things but risk having to put in a lot of effort before we can do that.
8. We would all like to make beautiful things but risk spending a lot of time and then ending up with an ugly thing. Or worse yet, a thing that others find ugly
Apart from 2 all these questions apply to desktop 3D printing also. In the case of two however just substitute girls for nerds and you will encounter another future roadblock.
Brands and mass produced items solve all these issues. The perceived cost is less, it is much easier, it is per definition popular(and beautiful etc.) because it is in shops(and because they tell you it is), you only run the risk of making a bad purchase not creating something ‘bad’ etc.
The true cost of desktop manufacturing is not the printer or the inputs. It will not take off at some magical point like DVD players did, as easy as DVD players did. DVD players went from $2000 to $20 because people perceived having them as valuable and everyone could do things with them. DVD players took off because they fit into traditional patters of media use and made these easier and better. DVD players took off because they augmented existing infrastructure. DVD players took off because there were a lot of movies to watch on them. Demand drives supply.
The ease of use, utility and price of things made by desktop 3D printers will have to exceed that of mass produced goods before this revolution is to happen. 3D design will have to be simple and designs plentiful. Only then could some semblance of this global revolution occur.
But wait..I work for Shapeways, shouldn’t I be cheering this revolution on? Yes, and I do. Indeed Shapeways could have been a 3D printer offered for sale. Instead Shapeways is a community that gives people access to a lot of different machines and production processes.
Why are we the latter? Because when even better production processes emerge they will be expensive and the equipment will be expensive and we will still be able to offer the process directly to our community. You will make lots of stuff and we will be able to lower prices. Rinse, repeat. Meanwhile our Creator tools, and all our community members will make lots of different designs. These designs will be inspiring and useful and they will draw in more people. That is how we will do our bit to make the mass customization revolution happen.
The magical moment for 3D printing will not be that someone makes a $5000 desktop 3D printer. The tipping point will be one of these three:
1. when someone develops a 3D modeling application that anyone can use and many can master(and that produces good printable files).
2. when someone develops a post consumer recycled 3D printing material
3. when printing metal and circuits becomes cheap