Back to 3D Fabbing Reality

By luck I happened to surf through O’Reilly Radar early last week and catch a number of interesting posts (he had a good week). One in particular, “The Significance of Threadless” (Link), needed more attention than I could give it at the moment and so I decided to return to it (I’ve been watching Threadless for a while and have previously posted about it – reLink). In the meantime I noticed that the Mass Customization blog also noticed it and responded (Link); and also points to another couple of relevant posts.

So having now gone back and reread both entries, here’s my rather long response posted on O’Reilly (with a couple of minor grammatical corrections):

While I find what Threadless has done interesting, it’s a long haul from 2D graphics to articulating 3D forms. And while my own blog is very much about the collision between real and virtual product design and development (due in large part to RM), I’m not so sure there aren’t some potentially difficult speedbumps along the way. Here are a few to consider:

1) When people vote for designs on Threadless they have a very good set of expectations for what the final product is, whereas an image of a 3D form tells a person only a relatively little bit about the design. A graphic for a t-shirt is effectively replicated on one’s monitor. While I expect we’ll eventually have display and tactile systems which allow average users to evaluate intangible three-dimensional forms, that may take a while yet. As an example, someone might ask: does that rubberized part feel good or does it feel clammy and disgusting? There are many things that I, as a product designer, consider that most consumers don’t consider… and that’s the goal: for them to not notice.

2) Threadless designers don’t concern themselves with material, yet even in established manufacturing processes material decisions can be complex; there are quite a few different major kinds of plastic for example (LDPE, PP, SAN, ABS, etc), and a great many blends of each of those… and for each blend there are differently engineered characteristics. Rapid fabrication processes are still developing materials and have a ways to go yet.

3) No one thinks about product liability with a t-shirt graphic, yet ask toy designers about that topic. Ask step stool manufacturers about it. Ask manufacturers of objects that interact with things we ingest about the certification process (and the cost). This could be a big issue.

4) Degree of difficulty in creating real objects versus a 2D graphic may short circuit a Threadless-style plan. Let’s face it, most anyone can – with little effort – create quite a number of products already: silkscreened clothing, greeting cards, jewelry, Christmas ornaments, aso. Yet most people don’t create things. In fact there’s this “awww, look” response at gift-giving gatherings when people go through the trouble to create something (and sometimes – perhaps quite often – the effort is unappreciated). How many people don’t make their own holiday cards because either they lack the time, the skill, or the self-confidence? Many, I’d venture. And now we’re expecting them to become product engineers and sculptors? I have my doubts. Having watched the videogame mod community take a severe hit with the release of increasingly sophisticated games containing complex 3D models, I see no reason to believe a “crowd” will be rushing to design their own 3D products any time soon. We live in a convenience culture, and at a certain point this activity becomes very inconvenient.

5) Warranty. When someone designs a simple shelving system that, while sitting in someone’s Arizona garage in the middle of summer, warps and sags, the consumer is going to be unhappy. What recourse do they have? Depending on conditions of sale, they may not have much. This of course moves into issues of Reputation. Only right now we don’t have a standardized system, and we don’t seem to be having much luck creating a system that can’t be gamed.

There are probably more, but that points out a few at least.

Now, on Napster Fabbing and in regards to Susan‘s comment {can’t link directly to it, but she raises the same “virtual as precursor to real” issue I raised in discussing CopyBot – reLink}, the issue of 3D data theft has been on my mind for quite some time (since almost immediately after the appearance of the mpeg layer 3 format). It’s also the reason I did the videostream rip last year (that inspired the development of OGLE); it was a warning to other product designers. This is a real problem not just because of the reality of what it represents, but in the perception. Designers will be (and some of us have been) looking for business plans that protect our time and effort given that we can no longer reasonably expect IP laws and the legal system to help us. So far the options I’ve found aren’t particularly appealing to me.


Will they merely be copied from traditional manufacturing and brands, or will there be a new economy in which users compete in creative abandon?

This one is easy to answer based both on observation and on the above points: people will copy. It’s easier and it’s what they already do. Just spend some time in the 3D community and see what they’re modeling. Plenty of unique character designs, but very little product originality.