Industrial designer, Mendel Heit, has used 3D printing throughout his entire career. A leader in the use of 3D printing to create truly unique products, his design ‘Gradient’ won the 2016 German Design Award Special Mention. His work often explores the opportunities of 3D printing for producing customizable products, and brings classic artisanal methods and new technologies together. Read the full interview to learn how design and 3D printing work together to allow businesses to keep pace in the age of digital manufacturing.
3D printing may be a modern manufacturing method, but its starting point is the same as any other: the design. So who do you ask when you want to understand the interplay of design and technology? We sat down with industrial designer Mendel Heit and talked customization, the benefits and challenges of 3D printing for businesses, and how both will influence product development.
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How do you expect 3D printing to affect the design industry?
The design industry has felt the effects of 3D printing for quite some time now. It began as early as the 70s or 80s. Of course, it was still very niche. When the MakerBot and RepRap machines hit the market and the open source movement grew, there were far more opportunities for young designers to explore 3D printing. It was this intensified examination that really made the possibilities clear.
I think 3D printing caused 3 significant changes for the design field generally:
- New technological learning curve: designers have to learn how to use these new tools, which can be difficult for more classical designers
- The use of form changed: shapes can now be more complex, more intricate.
- A more focused intervention: as designers, we have to learn what it means to use this new technology and implement it intelligently
For the design industry, 3D printing forces questions like: what can I produce that is only possible with 3D printing, or what is the ‘right’, most effective way to utilize the 3D printing’s particular capabilities.
Could you identify some industries that will be dramatically impacted by further developments of 3D printing technology?
Plenty already have been: automotive, aerospace, medicine, military applications.
But really, 3D printing is bound to change any industry in which products have to be adapted to their specific use. This is particularly true for products that need to be ergonomically customized to fit better to the body; glasses are a perfect example. And beyond ergonomic fit, 3D printing makes individualized products far more feasible, for example custom motifs and textures for car interiors.
I think this is quite relevant for all industries because this is a trend you can see across all kinds of industries: customers either want or need personalized products.
Why is offering customizable products important for businesses?
Not unlike the digitalization of content, so think MP3 and huge music inventories, 3D printing enables businesses to serve the long tail in their respective market. Because businesses have the ability to tailor their product to each user, they can serve any niche market.
And, I can see the relevance of the long tail for both the public sector and luxury goods:
When it comes to things like prosthetics, a device your insurance would pay for, they have a vested interest in making sure it fits you perfectly, so customization makes sense for them. Imagine you lose a leg as a kid, but you keep growing. Now, your prosthetic leg can be simply adapted and re-fitted, and even customized if you wish. Equally so, luxury segments want to serve their customers’ demands. So, if someone wants a car dashboard made of gold, with a really specific surface texture it’s theoretically doable.
When businesses are customizing their products, they can better reach all their target groups and they can work in a more targeted way.
What added value do customizable products generate for customers?
Like I already suggested, customers can get exactly what they want (or need). In a lot of cases, it is about giving customers the ability to express their own flare. Think of iPhones. Everyone wants the same base product, with all the capabilities, but so often people add a case, or a sticker, or whatever to make it “their” iPhone.
On a more theoretical level, customization also means a previously unheard of access to products. Now anyone can be part of the production process. In this way, customization represents a more participatory approach to product creation.
In your opinion, what is the most significant challenge businesses face in the introduction of customizable products?
They have to change their way of thinking.
They now have the possibility to create countless products, but they also have to carefully consider which make sense for customization. It is also essential that businesses understand that 3D printing does not eliminate product design and development. It does however change these processes. For example, when you want to offer several options for customizing a product, you will still have to test at least the main variations that could be produced.
For the fashion industry there is an additional challenge. Just because products are digital and customizable, does not mean that brands can stop thinking in seasons or editions. I think there is a risk of becoming complacent and not shaking products up regularly. This ties in to what I said before about the product development process. It can’t be neglected, and actually it can be an added value. For example, special editions are possible in a smaller scale.
How does your work contribute to the 3D printing revolution?
I try to incorporate 3D printing in projects as often as possible. For me, it is particularly interesting to combine artisanal techniques with digital production methods.
I also really like to use a generative approach, so creating products that are customizable or configurable. In these kinds of projects, it’s all about trying to find out what the added value of 3D printing in combination with conventional production methods is. In many cases, there’s an opportunity to make production processes more efficient and shorter.
As an example, I had one project, Tombola, that looked at combining 3D printing with glass blowing. The goal was to create a product suitable for serial production, but also allowing for the customization of each piece within the mold. So, I created a base model that had different modules that could be switched out by the customer. These models then served as the basis for the finished product. What is particularly exciting is seeing how 3D printing enables the production of serial products, which are also individualized, in a much more cost effective way.
To me, 3D printing will not replace traditional craftsmanship, it will integrate with or enhance it, and offer new technological optimization for specific use cases.