What Does Facebook Want with a 3D Printing Hardware Company?
Michael Molitch-Hou posted on September 28, 2016 |
Facebook has purchased Nascent Objects, a startup that 3D prints modular electronics.
Last week, the world’s largest social media company bought a small startup with a unique offering: 3D-printed, modular electronics. So, why’d Facebook go and acquire Nascent Objects? 

Nascent Objects started out supplying rapid prototyping services for companies wishing to test their hardware products before going into mass production. By January 2016, the firm changed its business model slightly by actually demonstrating what they were capable of, releasing a series of modular electronics made with these same rapid prototyping capabilities.

Nascent Objects’ modular electronic devices, with components 3D printed using EnvisionTEC’s 3SP 3D printing technology. (Image courtesy of Nascent Objects.)
Nascent Objects’ modular electronic devices, with components 3D printed using EnvisionTEC’s 3SP 3D printing technology. (Image courtesy of Nascent Objects.)

On Indiegogo, Nascent Objects showed off three devices, a water consumption monitor, a security camera and a Wi-Fi speaker. All three featured 3D-printed shells with built-in conductive traces, as well as components that could be removed and swapped out in order to build one of the other products. Grab the main computer module and powerpack from the security camera, move it over to the speaker and it’s possible to start blasting music on the go.

The modularity of these devices hinted at a future in which one’s hardware products might never become obsolete, because rather than throw out entire objects, one could simply upgrade a module and use the old one with something else.

At the same time, Nascent Objects aimed to target startups and designers that lacked the resources to prototype such complex projects. Using these items as inspiration, small businesses could work with Nascent Objects to produce their designs before going to mass manufacturing.  At the same time, Nascent Objects had developed a unique software platform for designing modular components.

Despite the failure of the Facebook phone, the social media corporation has become successful in the hardware space with the acquisition of Oculus. With the purchase of Nascent Objects, Facebook has the ability to produce new hardware on demand. But why? 

I reached out to the company to ask, but was told that Facebook could not comment any further on the situation. Regina Dugan, vice president of Engineering at Facebook’s research lab Building 8, however, seemed aware of the potential when she posted on Facebook, “Imagine designing, building and delivering a hardware product in just weeks instead of months, or even years. Nascent Objects, a 2016 FastCo Design ‘Innovation by Design’ finalist, has brought this closer to reality with their modular electronics platform. And they’re joining Facebook to work with us in Building 8. Together, we hope to create hardware at a speed that’s more like software.” Baback Elmieh, CEO of Nascent Objects, also wrote in a post on the acquisition, “We’re excited to build products that can open the world to everyone and create on a scale what we couldn’t have imagined before. People have become used to the idea that, with software, you can have whatever you want, whenever you want it. We want to make this happen with hardware—and we think Facebook is the best place to make this a reality.”

As a 3D printing enthusiast, I, of course, think this is a huge step forward for the social media giant. Facebook has already begun work to be a leader in the mixed- reality space. In addition to Oculus, Facebook’s activity with Snapchat (now called Snap, upon the release of these weird new glasses) has proven that the company knows how to make augmented reality very social. Facebook was also the first social media site to allow the embedding of 3D models via Sketchfab.

Nascent Objects nearly completes the mixed-reality circle for Facebook, giving the company assets in augmented reality, virtual reality and 3D printing. Add 3D scanning to the mix and Facebook will have all of the tools necessary to capture objects from our material world, bring them into the virtual world to manipulate them digitally, and 3D print them back into the physical dimension again.

Regardless of how Facebook intends to leverage the capabilities of its new acquisition, it’s an exciting move for the company and one that brings the social media giant right into the 3D printing space. In other words, this may not be the last post that I write about Facebook, as the technology makes its way from rapid prototyping tool to mainstream manufacturing technology.

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