Impact of 3D printing on product design

Three weeks ago, I wrote about how 3D printing as a manufacturing technology can impact supply chain. This week I am writing about the impact on product design and then — especially — on the design process as part of the overall manufacturing process. I expect here the biggest impact will manifest itself. 3D printing has also impact on the design of products itself. But that is a topic for another time.

So let’s talk about product design process. For mass-produced goods, the design step is extremely critical. It involves many disciplines from designing the product to sourcing components and finding production partners. The product is thoroughly tested, because it is expensive to make mistakes due to the large production batches. The result is that the product design process is long.

A high level mass-production manufacturing process can be broken into the following steps:

  1. design product
  2. prototype product
  3. test product
  4. manufacture product
  5. distribute product
  6. sell product

What kind of impact can 3D printing have on this process? The strength of 3D printing is the ability for small series or one-off production runs. The effect is that it shortens the lead time of a product and reduces the manufacturing risk due to smaller batches and just-in-time production. These effects have an impact on the design process. It can be leaner and can iterate faster through improved product versions than is usual today. New improved product designs can be taken into production immediately, and the changes are instantly available to customers.

To sum it up the impact of 3D printing on product design process is:

  • Ultra short lead times
  • One-off or small series production
  • Instant design changes are incorporated into the manufacturing process
  • Limited exposure when product fails

These benefits will have an effect on the design process. They will enable new, innovative product design processes. I like to group them as follows:

  • Lean Product Design
  • Continuous or Iterative Design
  • Collaborative Design
  • Distributed Design

Lean Product Design
This is basically an adaptation of the design process for mass-produced products but then employing the benefits of 3D printing. The major difference is the ability to improve the product during its normal life-cycle.

  • design product
  • manufacture product
  • distribute product
  • sell product
  • improve product

Continuous or Iterative Design
A step up from Lean Product Design is Continuous Design. Here, a product design is continuously updated or adapted to match changes in trends, environment or new use cases for the product. A good example is a phone case which is adapted for new models coming out on the market. These adaptations are outside the normal product life cycle.

  • design product
  • manufacture product
  • distribute product
  • sell product
  • market changes / feedback

Collaborative Design
Due to the short lead times and small production runs, designers and customers can start collaborating on product design. Although this is a high touch and expensive design process, for certain product categories it can make sense. A good example is personalized jewelry. Sometimes, this is called Co-Creation.
There are several options how the collaborative design process can be executed:

  • Designer designs, customer gives feedback / input
  • Designer designs, customer modifies / improves themselves
  • Customer designs, designer improves / finishes

Distributed Design
The digitization and homogenization of the production process allows for sharing of product designs or parts of a design. In turn, these shared designs can be used as a basis for a new product design. I call this distributed design.

  • Select Designs
  • Design Product
  • Share Design

The impact of 3D printing on product design processes is potentially significant. It allows for quick iterations of designs and enables sharing or reuse of product designs. Designers can cooperate more closely with customers on the product design and can quickly react on changes in the market or environment. While 3D printing matures, I expect that design processes will adapt and change in significant ways. I am curious to see how it will actually affect the products itself. Will these change significantly? What is the impact on trends? Is the perception of consumers on how things are made and work going to change?

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