Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Future of Design

Today's guest blog is by Scott Harmon, Z Corporation VP of Business Development.

In the old days, design and manufacturing were essentially the same. The cobbler, the blacksmith, and the potter all designed and manufactured their wares, generally at the same time. Almost everything was custom created, usually with the designer / manufacturer and the customer in close communication.

With the rise of mass manufacturing, design and engineering separated from manufacturing. This makes sense. Labor and materials were no longer the dominant cost of a good. The major cost shifted to the creation of the manufacturing line and the assorted tooling. In this era, the skills required were different enough, and the risk high enough, that design and engineering tasks specialized away from manufacturing and production. Designers and engineers figured out what would be made. Manufacturers made it. Customers bought it. Simple.

Or not so simple. Obviously this can cause a significant potential problem. Products designed without involving manufacturing and customers run into significant problems. Either they can’t be manufactured for a reasonable cost, or customers don’t want them at any cost. These problems gave rise to ‘Design for Manufacturing,’ ‘User Centered Design,’ and ‘Use Centered Design.’ Fundamentally all of these schools of Design thinking are intended to resolve the problem created by the separation of the designer/engineer from the manufacturer and customer.

There has been a great deal of press lately about how consumer 3D printers are going to change all that. Now consumers will design and manufacture their own goods. To be honest, I doubt it. The vast majority of people don’t have the desire, expertise, tools or the time to do this, and a cheap 3D printer won’t change that.

What could change that is an emerging School of Design called ‘Design for Redesign.’ Consumers don’t want to design their own products from scratch, but they do seem to like customized products. Designers are emerging who create products that allow consumers to redesign those products, without CAD and without investing an extraordinary amount of time. Shoes are being designed for redesign ( Shirts are being designed for redesign ( Cars are even being designed for redesign ( When combined with 3D printing, this design philosophy will open up whole new entrepreneurial opportunities.

This emerging class of designers will reap enormous benefits. Their designs will exist in online marketplaces, where consumers will identify products and designers they like, and then redesign them to meet their needs, all in a browser. Designers will receive royalties when those designs are 3D printed. Feedback will be instantaneous. The designer will be directly linked to the consumer. No more design reviews. No more stages and gates. No more tooling. No more listening to a consultant go on about what your customer needs. Designer, Consumer, Product…Simple.

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