bits into atoms

Jun 24, 2009 | Tech News

Here at 8ninths we are seeing a trend towards increased commercialization of rapid prototyping (aka 3D printing) technology and think it warrants a deeper look into the phenomenon, as well as the consumer services being offered.

Eroded Landscape #2, by Mark J Stock, available on


Rapid Prototyping is nothing more than taking a 3D CAD file, drafted up on modeling software such as Google Sketchup, Rhinos3D, etc., and turning them into real tangible objects that one can hold in your hands. Just as “Desktop Publishing” revolutionized how thoughts turned into printed material, the promise of rapid prototyping is that we can just as easily turn thoughts and ideas into real stuff.

Rapid Prototyping rides on two trends: First is one  we’ve mentioned before, the DIY movement. As we increasingly become abstracted away from the physical labor of production, folks are finding satisfaction to work with their hands again, and are taking to sewing, knitting, woodworking, and plain ol’ making stuff like never before. The second trend is the proliferation of 3D software, such as Google Sketchup, which is free or easily obtained, and is much more user friendly than ever. The combination of these two trends have caused more users to design 3D objects on their PCs.

While it’s nice to be able to drag your mouse and right click your way to a design on screen, and zoom and view them from any angles, for most scenarios the ultimate goal is to produce the object in a tangible form. And it wasn’t always easy to do that. Rapid Prototyping completely changed the economics proposition. Now, you can design something for just yourself, and then send it off to a web site such as Shapeways, and have them made a single copy for just yourself. They use laser cutters, or 3D printers (think inkjet printer except it’s ink that solidifies), or any number of techniques to turn them into real atoms.


Ringpoem 1


Shapeways, for example, is leading the way with 3D one-of-a-kind objects that you can design, such as the Ringpoems that you can build with YOUR poem (or rip off Wordsworth if you like). But others are making pendant lamps, robot parts, braille labels, wine racks, and many other creative, wacky things.

The ability to produce objects in one-off versions through rapid-prototpying, as well as the ease of the software design tools, have also transformed industrial designs in general. Because of the ease of production, many designers have sprung up to offer niche and unique designs that were just previously too limited in its appeal. What the rapid prototyping tools have done is to unleash the Long Tail of Design, one that many people, from trained i.d. professionals to teenage hackers, can participate in. Where Long Tails spring up, open source is usually not far behind, and thus web sites such as Thingiverse have sprung up to provide a place where folks can make their own designs freely available which you can pay Shapeways to produce.

This is a very exciting time for non-industrial, one-off productions of STUFF. Customization and individualization is a mega-trend that is happening in real time, and is a direct reaction to the mass production of goods. How rapid prototyping technology will shape our culture is a largely under-stuided subject that’s well worth continuing to watch.

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