Machine Design
Tech Futurist, Bram De Zwart, Looks at the Fate of 3D Printing

Tech Futurist, Bram De Zwart, Looks at the Fate of 3D Printing

Bram De Zwart, founder of 3Dhubs.com talks about the future and his views of 3D printing. 

What is your background?

I have a background in Strategic Product design, having studied at Delft University of Technology. I wrote a thesis on the promise of 3D printing and new business opportunities. I then joined 3D Systems as a product manager working on Freshfiber and Freedom of Creation consumer brands.

What led to you starting up 3D Hubs?

While working at 3D systems, Brian Garret (co-founder of 3D Hubs) and I discovered that most 3D printer owners only use their printers on occasion and that 95% of the time the printer just sits around. We saw an opportunity to bring manufacturing much closer to the end-user, which is the real promise of 3D printing. We really wanted more people to get easy access to this world-changing technology.

We started talking to some printer owners to find out if they would be open to print for others, and got an overwhelming response; our idea of 3D Hubs was born. Six months later, in April 2013, we quit our jobs and launched 3D Hubs. Now, two years later, we have a network of over 14,000 3D printing locations in 147 countries. 3D Hubs is the world’s largest and fastest-growing network of 3D printers, giving over 1 billion people access to a 3D printer within a 10-mile radius of their home.

What are some of the key components that can be expected to shift if people move to a 3D print consumer market?

We’re making big steps toward making 3D printing more accessible to consumers, but I do think that when we get there the 3D print consumer market will have a huge impact on how products are made (this is already happening) and consumed. That will impact a lot of big companies now using traditional manufacturing for their products.

The 3D printing technologies have a lot to offer to produce on-demand products and allow easy customization.

Could this impact manufacturing and prototyping companies?

Certainly, this opens new opportunities for manufacturing and prototyping companies. Additive manufacturing isn’t new, what’s new is that individuals are getting access to those techniques with desktop 3D printers. Community-run micro operations could substitute today’s factories. Products could be made on demand and closer to their point of purchase, with both individuals and companies driving their design and innovation. Everyone can become a designer and manufacturer.

How big of an effect could 3D printing have on brick-and-mortar stores?

Digital manufacturing technologies (such as 3D printing) are rapidly changing the way we design, manufacture, and distribute end-consumer products. I believe consumer will expect faster production times, higher availability, and customization of products. That means stores will need to anticipate changing consumer needs.

Are there any concerns or features of a 3D printed market, such as copyright infringement?

The rise and adoption of new technologies raises new concerns. Copyright infringement is one of them. I believe we have to address these issues so that the concepts of intellectual property and copyright infringement stay clear to everyone. Regulations need to adapt new dynamics of the digital age and keep pace with the new developments of the technologies.

Could an on-demand society lead to more waste?

I’m a true believer in a service-based economy in which we don’t have to own “things,” but we just need access to solutions. People want access, not ownership. It would solve a lot of inefficiencies and eliminate waste in this world.

Let me sketch why a collaborative network of 3D printers could be the future: community-run micro operations could replace today’s factories. Products could be made on demand and closer to their point of purchase, with both individuals and companies driving their design and innovation. Once used en masse, we would cut down transport pollution and long shipping times of the current centralized production processes. Suddenly, making and distributing stuff would not only be cheaper and better for the environment, but great for local economies as well.

By going from idea to product so quickly, do you feel there might be a quality concern on the products made this way?

In a product-design workflow, iteration is key to a successful creation. By going from idea to product faster than with previous methods, 3D printing allows faster iterations. I truly believe that an increased number of iterations leads to better products in the end. It shortens the innovation cycle and allows us to beta-test faster. We’re moving away from linear production, but continuous improvement of products, which will hugely increase quality. Our partnership with Fairphone, printing smartphone cases on-demand and locally, demonstrates that there’s a demand for ready-to-use 3D printed products. Most of those cases are printed out of PLA, a biodegradable plastic, on desktop printers. Results and customer satisfaction were over our expectations, so it is encouraging for the future.

How can an at-home printer compete with a larger 3D printing service?

We are developing more tools that allow our Hubs to run their own operations more smoothly and be more useful to our customers. This way, we allow at-home printers to leverage our brand and tools to complement centralized 3D printing services. We’re trying to match the right printer to the right person depending on the printing task. In other words, at-home printers are complementing professional machines.

Where do you see the future of 3D printing going, and what are your hopes for the future of the industry?

I want my mother to 3D print! Right now it’s mainly used by early adopters and designers, but I want everyone to start using 3D printing and contribute to efficient manufacturing. 3D printing promotes local, community-based creation. And for on-demand production, it’s very fast. It takes just a few hours to make something through our platform.

Print speeds are getting faster with every new generation of printers. There’s also a lot going on in the R&D of new materials. Ingenious new materials will pave the future of the industry toward more efficiency and better usability.

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