Sharing & Collaborating: Let’s Take a Page from the Maker Playbook
Rachel Park posted on July 19, 2012 |

I would like to thank Todd for inviting me to contribute as a guest blogger on ENGINEERING.com. For any of you that may not know who I am but want some insight into my credentials, they can be found here.

Joining hands - collaborationI am a passionate advocate of 3D printing, and have a tendency to get excitable, but always within context and only in real terms.

3D printing is such a hot topic at the moment — mainstream media news platforms picked up on the technology and its potential and rather carelessly report on how it is about to change the world forever! I’ve spent much of my time over recent days and weeks challenging this sort of mainstream reporting, particularly in terms of 3D printing for consumers. I am not going to go into the whys and wherefores here, but suffice it to say there are parallels to the hype around rapid prototyping (RP) 10-15 years ago, which many of you probably remember, too.

At that time, RP made an impact, up to a point, and as it has evolved (capabilities, applications and terminology), it has continued to do so at an increasing rate. Did you engage early on? Or was it too expensive and too limited for your applications or just not what you needed?

Whether you engaged then or not, maybe you have tracked the progress of the technology through its evolution to its current position as a more inclusive, accessible industrial tool for product development. If so, you probably have seen some of the latest headlines about 3D printing referring to the 2nd Industrial Revolution (it’s been done to death in a number of quarters).

For the record, I don’t believe 3D printing is bringing a revolution — industrial or otherwise — rather it is providing more and more designers and engineers with an effective tool that offers an invaluable alternative for prototyping, and sometimes production applications, over traditional processes.

As I mentioned, more recently my work has taken me into the world of 3D printing for the maker and the consumer. The 3D printers available to this genre are limited, to say the least, but they show potential, and new developments are taking place very quickly. It’s exciting, even if my role often involves applying the brakes and a healthy does of reality to over-inflated expectations. It’s still breathtaking and rewarding to see so much happening in a sector I’ve grown up in and love being a part of, even if it is on the outskirts.

The entry-level 3D printers (there are around 45 of them now, would you believe) have a long way to go before they converge with the industrial-grade 3D printers for prototyping and molding applications — I’m thinking Objet’s Eden and Desktop machines; Stratasys’ Dimension, uPrint and now Mojo; 3D System’s ProJet series and Z Corp tech; and envisionTEC’s Perfactory systems. However, I do believe that there are some aspects from which industry can learn from the primary target market of the entry-level systems — the maker community. The fact that it is a community, with a sharing, open-source infrastructure, is one of the greatest and most prolific sources of valuable information for new entry-level users and consumers of 3D printing.

Now before you all hyperventilate, or crack a rib laughing at me, hear me out. I am not completely naïve.

Business is business, and corporate IP and competitive advantage are vital facets of success.  I understand that…completely. No company is ever going to reveal a new product or how they developed it ahead of an information embargo, if at all.

But — yes, a big but actually — where is the harm in contemporary industrial organizations sharing and benefiting from knowledge transfer, specifically in terms of 3D printing and where, when and how it can be applied within product development and manufacturing processes? Sharing this kind of information openly, with all of the pitfalls and the successes this entails, will not only engage potential new industrial users with the possibilities and foster innovation in applications, it will also engender vendors and suppliers to become more involved and foster process and material developments at a faster rate.

This is not just ideological; there is a small community that already exists — it has grown out of the close-knit RP community that was established in the late 80’s. Some call it the old boys network, others call them dinosaurs, and they have a point, but it has grown, albeit modestly, as 3D printing has become more widespread. And this is what I am getting at”: We need to grow the industrial community of 3D printing users and applications more vigorously and in a more open environment.

Some of the established events, which originated as RP events back in the day, are doing a great job: AMUG, TCTLive, The Worldwide Conference on AM and RAPID all bring users, vendors and newbies together. But at nothing like the scale of the numbers, or excitement, that the maker community boasts. It doesn’t all have to be face to face either — there are forums, and dare I say it, social media networks that allow for fast, engaging and useful information flows.

If you’re using 3D printing, why are you doing it, and how are you doing it? If you’re not, what do you need to be persuaded that it has the potential to add value to your workflow? Much of my working life has been dedicated to developing opportunities for companies to share information like this — whether in print or in person at conferences — and it is not an easy thing to do. Sometimes the above arguments work, most times they don’t. As 3D printing continues to develop and grow in its technology base and the applications it can fulfill, there is a real opportunity to address this here and now.

What do you think? Are you willing to get more open; share more with your contemporaries? It’s not just one-way you know — it’s all about give and take.

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