Business 2.0, Design, Sustainability

3D printers and mass customisation

I had the opportunity to catch Lisa Harouni: A primer on 3D printing on TED recently. It’s a terrific introduction to what 3D printing is and why it’s important, especially for the manufacturing sector.

In preparing for the Stepping up workshop one of the themes that emerged in our thinking was “mass customisation” (including its relationship to “authenticity” which also manifests in social media). Mass customisation refers to the ability of customers to selectively design the products they purchase. Lisa highlights how this can then be extended to allow customers to produce the products at home as well.

Products can be quite complex, as the AirBike demonstrates. And 3D printers are rapidly decreasing in cost, with basic DIY models like the MakiBox coming it at USD$350. That provides some indication of what Harouni is referring to when she says their affordable and crossing over.

In her TED talk, Lisa also explores how just product data can be shipped, instead of physical product, to deliver a product to a customer. She also outlines how distributed manufacturing might work, where a customer defines their requirements and the data is shipped to a local manufacturer for production and delivery (with the potential of significantly lowering carbon footprint).

This type of distributed model brings to mind RiverSimple, which is a new car concept based on the principles of the hyper car, introduced by the Rocky Mountains Institute and outlined in more depth in Natural Capitalism.

Part of RiverSimple’s vision is to distribute manufacturing to local hubs, rather than centralising manufacturing in one country, or distributing manufacturing across a global supply chain. (As an aside, I see this approach as having both parallels and coming into conflict with Porter and Kramer’s “industry cluster” principle for creating shared value. Perhaps for another post…)

I’m interested in seeing how technologies like 3D printing develop, enabling these kinds of decentralised manufacturing models and enabling companies like RiverSimple to fulfil their vision. It’s worth noting that 3D