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Economies of Mass Customization, 3D Printing, and the End of the Industrial Era


There is a sense within the design community that designers ought to go beyond their formal training. IDEO’s CEO Tim Brown recently commented, “I wonder how much might be gained if designers had a deeper understanding of the science behind synthetic biology” in his blog post, design renews its relationship with science, which primed themes and topics discussed in this blog post.

I wonder how much might be gained if designers had a deeper understanding of the science behind synthetic biology and genomics? Or nanotechnology? Or robotics? Could designers help scientists better see the implications and opportunities of the technologies they are creating? Might better educated and aware designers be in a position to challenge the assumptions of the science or reinterpret them in innovative ways? Might they do a better job of fitting the new science into our lives so that we can gain more benefit?

The Economist recently published an article on two personalities I had been closely following in academia. They are MIT’s Ph.D. students, Dr. Neri Oxman and Dr. Peter Schmitt, who have been working on groundbreaking technologies that will change the world forever. They have invented a way to literally “print to manufacture” any product you can imagine! The only difference between “print to manufacture” and printing a word document are the materials in the printer. Imagine that Longines watch that you have always wanted to buy. Now imagine going to the Longines website, clicking the “customize” button and choosing all the right colors and materials to really make it yours. After spending an hour or two of your Sunday afternoon customizing this watch, you decide to buy it. Imagine, hitting a print button and having a real watch “printed” right in front of your eyes. This is not science fiction! It is reality.

3D printing technology has been around for quite some time. Engineers and designers have been using 3D printers to make prototypes quickly and cheaply for various industries and products. However, more recently, 3D printers have become capable and able to work with a broader range of materials, including “production grade plastics and metals.” It is specifically this technological progress that has made it possible for 3D printing to transform manufacturing. No longer will manufacturing be doomed with overhead costs such as expensive retooling of factories, large inventories and backorders, and an extensive staff to keep the machines running. 3D Printers produce ready-made objects that require less assembly and can integrate several materials in the printing process[1].

Dr. Neri Oxman is an assistant professor at MIT’s famed Media Arts and Sciences Lab. She is an industrial designer, architect, doctor of medicine, and material engineer. She is printing gloves with variable material compositions that integrate “nylon, stainless steel and titanium” to cure carpal tunnel. Her
background in medicine and architecture allows her to work in an interdisciplinary manner and solve problems across disciplines. This year she hopes to print buildings that will employ variable composition materials so buildings can “breathe, heat and cool” themselves using environmental thermal energy. In her lecture, “On Designing Form,” she explains that nature is the “grand organizer of form” and that multifunctionality is inherent in its design. Nature can produce silk that is “five times stronger than steel,” use water cycles to maintain global temperature, and employ fluids in our ear’s posterior canal to keep us upright. Her work is really captivating and she is really an enlightened thinker. She is the epitome of a renaissance woman.[2]

Evidence of this technology is quickly spreading. European aircraft maker, Airbus, is using 3D printing to replace a lot of the metallic components with lightweight carbon-fiber composites. This will not only reduce weight but also the carbon footprint of each aircraft. As discussed in class, world energy consumption of fossil fuels is at an all time high. As much of the world’s population is uplifted from poverty, the world energy crisis is sure to be the major challenge of our century. Additive manufacturing processes that employ 3D printing not only reduce end user energy consumption but also lower energy used by factories in the classical manufacturing process. Compared with a machined part, “the printed one is some 60% lighter but still as sturdy.” The US consumes 21 billion gallons (80 billion liters)[3] of jet fuel each year. Each gallon weighs 3.1 kilograms, so the US consumes 65,100,000,000 kilograms or 713,412,012,041,400 kilocalories (Calories) of jet fuel annually. By reducing energy consumption in the manufacturing process and making lighter products, that number would be reduced by up to 60%. That is progress for an energy efficient future. Now imagine applying this manufacturing technology to architecture, automobiles, and our homes. That is a lot of saved energy. And there is no catch. This technology reduces costs for manufacturers; it is scalable, covers multiple industries and offers customers customized products that are cheaper than mass-produced ones. Wow. Think about that for a minute. This is the introduction of mass customization as a sustainable economy. This is the end of the industrial era[4].

Evidence of mass customization is already beginning to surface in the marketplace. In the example I mentioned above, jewelers, watchmakers, and other gadget companies operate in an economy of “mass customization.” However, German supplier EOS, is taking this concept one step further. They are making dental crowns custom tailored for each individual patient. Another “hobby” for this company is to produce custom parts for violins using “high-performance industrial polymer[s]” so that each violin is unique for each musician. Now that would be something![5]

“Jet Fuel” Wikipedia. Web. 13 Feb. 2011. <>.

“Neri Oxman: On Designing Form on Vimeo.” Vimeo, Video Sharing For You. Web. 13 Feb. 2011. <>.

“The Printed World.” The Economist. 12 Feb. 2011. Web. <>.

[1] The Economist, The Printed World

[2] Neri Oxman: On Designing Form on Vimeo

[3] Wikipedia, Jet Fuel

[4] The Economist, The Printed World

[5] The Economist, The Printed World

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