Throughout the history of mankind, there have been several channels of innovation emerge that have contributed to developing the products we use today. Some innovation channels are rooted in commercial intent, such as entrepreneurs, paid consultants or R&D segments of large corporations. These channels have existed throughout the centuries and continue to fuel innovative ideas. However, there has been one channel of innovation that has always led the pack in product development--the end user.
End-user innovation consists of hobbyists, tinkerers, pro users and people that are simply passionate about whatever it is they are doing on a daily basis. These are people that want to make their experience better and more efficient. The end user tinkerer armed with passion for their craft has always been the most productive channel of innovation.
Today, these tinkerers have the ability to develop their ideas in a distributed fashion on their own, rather than relying on traditionally centralized channels like professional prototyping organizations that have traditionally priced out these developments. Who knows how many great end-user innovations have not been developed due to the fact that this process has been traditionally so expensive! Desktop 3-D printers have now brought these costs down to earth and allow these tinkerers to develop their own unique products right at home.
Empowering end user innovation with 3-D printing will fuel an innovative revolution that the world has never seen before. The question that I hope you are asking yourself now is--So how do I get started? Here are a few things that you need to know about getting started with product development and 3-D printing
1. The up-front investment is significant, but running costs are low. Consumer-grade desktop 3-D printers range from $500 to about $3,500. Once this investment is made, then the plastic material is relatively cheap. This material is purchased in rolls that are about $30 per roll. Each roll can print 25-30 solid iPhone-sized objects. Printing 'low-infill' can make your printing more efficient, which means that the objects printed are hollow or contain a honeycomb-like structure that maintains structural integrity while saving on material costs.
2. 3-D modeling skills are a must. The printer and the plastic are only half the battle. For true developmental freedom, the end user must learn to use a 3-D modeling program. There are free software options like Google Sketchup, Blender and others. The learning curve is steep, but the freedom of having the ability to build your own parts is indescribable.
The surprising fact is that most people printing objects at home do not know how to use a 3-D modeling program. Websites like Thingiverse contain thousands of free models that you can download and print at home for free. However, these websites are very limited and will not help innovators that want to develop their own custom products.
3. 3-D printers are not consumer-friendly yet. No matter what 3-D printer you choose, there will be a good amount of tinkering necessary to be able to develop accurate, fast prints. However, this is not rocket science. If you are able to change a bike chain, then you will have the technical ability necessary to tune a 3-D printer and develop beautiful, accurate parts.
4. 3-D printers are only the tool. Having a 3-D printer at home will not make you an innovator overnight. These devices are simply tools that will lower the barrier to entry for someone with an innovative product idea. So get started with your own 3-D printer you have a great idea, need to tinker with your hobbies or just want to learn how to build things on your own. The next great product innovation might just come from your desktop!