The digital revolution was driven by 3 underlying factors:
- Freedom of form
- Speed of iterations
- Constant costs
A website can take almost any form without significantly increasing the cost, it can be edited and modified quickly and frequently without impacting the bottom line and whether seen by 5 or 500 people a day its costs are relatively constant.
The same goes for physical objects made using 3D printing: the shape of the object has much less impact on the cost of manufacture than with other techniques, any changes made to the design can be immediately passed on without retooling and the cost of production per item is relatively constant, allowing smaller and more agile production cycles.
Ten years ago, when I was still in university and figuring out what I wanted to do in life, my current job didn't exist yet. That's because I'm a User Experience Designer, in charge of the User Experience for an online 3D printing service, which means that I'm lucky enough to be part of the two revolutions of our age. On the one hand there is the digital revolution and on the other the revolution of 3D printing, otherwise known as additive manufacturing.
User Experience is a domain that doesn't really fall under the heading of marketing or sales because it is not primarily for the purpose of communicating the benefits or strengths of a product to the customer. It is also not its main purpose to overcome technical difficulties to meet specifications as found in pure engineering or development.
User Experience is a role that begins at the end of things, with the end user, with their needs, with their desires. It is a profession that takes these needs and desires as a starting point for defining the products and services that affect both the left brain and the right brain. Products and services that are both practical and fun, emotional and functional. It is a profession that exists largely thanks to the digital revolution, and especially three pillars of this revolution.
Three pillars of the digital revolution
Pillar 1: Freedom of form
The first among them is freedom of form. Pixels and electrons are quite malleable, I'm able (in a digital medium) to create what I want the way I want it.
OK, I'm able to do anything I could dream up, but that's not the goal and it's not the important thing to remember, because it's moreso what it triggers, what it allows you to do that you couldn't before which is important. With a digital product, for the first time, I am able to focus a hundred percent on the user, their needs, their wishes, their desires and their use-cases.
I don't need to focus a portion of my mind on technical constraints or a part of me who'll ask: "But Alex, how are you going to do it?!". So I'm liberated, it's not the fact that I can do anything I want, but instead what that means: it allows me to focus on the user.
Pillar 2: Speed of iterations
The second of these pillars is that of speed, with a digital product, the possibility exists of having an idea in the morning and the first prototype in the afternoon. If we look at this example of instantaneity, compare this to newspapers of old (or even today) that write stories today that won't be published until tomorrow. It's yesterday's news, tomorrow.
Compare this with social networks and media like that where it's possible to get the news instantly. It's possible to react immediately to news. But again it is not the speed itself which is important, it is not the fact that it is quick that we must keep in mind. It's what that triggers down the line and what it allows us to do differently.
Because instead of just doing things faster and faster and faster, it's that we can do some things earlier now compared to before. We can focus on doing several things simultaneously. We can even do more things in the time it took to do one thing before.
Instead of seeing product development or service development as a long process, a process where you have to know everything from the beginning, or you have to have a complete knowledge of the product at the end before you even start, you can play with the process a bit more.
I can iterate, I can create several variations of the same product and explore the space of possible solutions. I am able to render innovation (instead of being something that is a spark of a genius at the outset) a science. It's objective, it's scientific, it's statistical.
I'm able to measure each of these variations. If it's a screen with a blue button or a green button, a bigger picture or a slightly different text. And suddenly, for the first time with a digital product I am able to innovate in a repeatable way.
Pillar 3: Constant costs
The third element is that of cost as a funtion of quantity. What is interesting with products that are digital is that the price / quality ratio for a given quantity is relatively static. A website that is seen by thirty people or three million people, remains the same website compared to the cost of production. And again, it's not the idea of the price being fixed that is novel here, it's moreso the fact that it triggers a world where we are able to have two or three people in a room somewhere able to compete with the biggest companies in the world.
That's the digital revolution.
It is the sum of these three pillars that creates something greater than the sum of the parts. But I'm not here to just talk about digital products. Digital products are something we're more used to now.
3D Printing and the three pillars
I'm here to talk about 3D printing and products made with them. If we look at 3D printing, otherwise known as additive manufacturing, it is something that shares these three pillars that we've just seen.
Pillar 1: 3D Printing & freedom of form
Let's start with freedom of form. If we look at complexity, it was always the aspect, always, in the production of any product, which cost the most in resources, cost the most in time. Complexity was always the only element in the development process that scared everyone. And for the first time with additive manufacturing, this method of adding the material layer by layer, the complexity has become something that's almost free. So, just like with our pixels, I'm able to do whatever I want. I no longer have this little part of my mind, this little engineer part that says "No, but Alex ... how?" It's something that frees me, for the first time, even with physical products, to think first and a hundred percent of user needs.
Pillar 2: 3D Printing & speed of iterations
The second pillar is speed. With a product, it was always, as we have already seen, a process of looking at something that was long-term. You had to know exactly what you wanted to do well ahead of time. You had to know every right angle, every cylinder, every thing you wanted to do. But for the first time physical objects have become as malleable as digital ones. I'm able to have an idea or hypothesis in the morning, a 3D file for lunch and before heading home for the night, the physical object in my hands.
Again, the goal here is not simply to produce things faster, it's more about what it allows us to do. Exactly what we've learned over the last decade in software development, making processes that are agile, or doing things like AB Testing, is now possible with physical objects - AB testing between products.
Today, with physical products we can produce several, all of which are just a little different. I can deliver these to the end customer or end user and with them explore the space of possible products to meet their needs and wants and desires. For the first time it allows us to innovate with physical products in a way that is repeatable and statistical.
Pillar 3: 3D Printing & Constant costs
But it's the third element that is perhaps the most interesting of all. This idea of quantity and price, because it is often a point of criticism for 3D printing. "It's still a bit expensive for a single object, isn't it?" But if I had to ask you which is the least expensive process, what's the most economical way to produce a single object? For example, this remote control or one of these objects here, you will say "Hmm, probably 3D printing, if it's a single object".
There is still, with an object like this the tooling, the molds and all these elements which are extremely expensive. And that's why 3D printing has been the mainstay of prototyping for thirty years now. But a lot has changed since then, because it's no longer the case that it's just a single object today.
If I wanted to ask you what is the most economical way to develop, for example, a hundred objects ... and even if I say they are all the same, which is not necessary for 3D printing, but if I say that they are all the same and I wanted to develop a hundred objects, it's still more economical to stay with 3D printing. The conventional means of manufacturing is still too expensive for that many objects. What we find in fact is that it's only at around five hundred objects for the simplest geometries that classical manufacturing begins to become more interesting.
Five hundred is this magic number where it is possible to potentially think of moving to the classical means of production. But that's with the simplest geometries. If we have more complex geometry as we have seen with the first pillar or if there is a need to go very very quickly, as we have seen with the second pillar, this number can increase to several thousand. Of course if you are a company that is able to bet everything on a series of one hundred thousand units, there will always be injection molding.
This is a reality today
I am not saying that 3D printing will replace all our means of production. Just that that's not what interests me, that's the status quo, it's manufacturing for the past hundred years, we know it already. What interests me is this magical area, this area where the playground is equalized for everyone. Where it's possible, whether you're American, Chinese or French. If you are alone in your garage or an industrial powerhouse.
This is where we are all on the same playing ground. Where the only point of competition between all of us is the experience we are able to provide to our users. Exactly as we see in the digital world. And I think that's the revolution here.
It is these three pillars that already exist in the digital revolution, we see them exactly replicated in the world of additive manufacturing. And what I've told you here tonight is not empty promises of a near future. This is not a prediction of what will happen in five or ten years. It's happening today.
Every day, at Sculpteo, we print series of objects numbering a few hundred to a few thousand. For companies that are small, medium or big. They all understood one thing. That here in this area of a few hundred to a few thousand, what was once a weakness becomes a strnegth that can be leveraged.
If you are a small company, you're able to compete with the big guys. If you're big you're able to innovate and stay agile. And finally there is only one thing left, which is to encourage you. To encourage you to join me in this revolution ... these two revolutions. If you are a product designer, I encourage you to think first of the needs of your users, their desires, to mitigate against that little part of your mind that thinks "But I'm not sure how to", because that will come later. If you are an engineer, I encourage you to become an agile engineer.
Instead of thinking of all the elements first and innovating very little, make innovation a sort of exploration. A way to explore the space of possible solutions. And if you're a business executive, you too can see that it's possible to compete with industrial machines that are much bigger than you. And especially for everyone, myself included, I encourage you to stop accepting products that are conceived in such a way that you need to adapt to it, that you start to insist on products that are well suited to you.