There was once a product…

If you are starting a business you know that DESIGN should be a priority for you. A good User Experience Design (UX) is important for you to deliver seamless value propositions for your customers. Good  User Interaction Design (UI) can also help your product to go beyond aesthetics and function as intended. By implementing Strategic Design (SD) we can also portray innovative solutions and future roadmaps for our organizations to follow. Design is the contact surface between your organization, the future and your market (or more design centered, USERS). As a result, when we start businesses with our users in mind, we build relevant value propositions that resemble a future promise embodied in coherent products.

The Firm and the Product are traditionally thought to work together as two separated entities.

But who are the users of the product? Research in Product Architecture suggests that the products we make also have users inside our organizations. As a result, they also shape the way the organizations are built through time. Researchers Lyra Colfer and Carliss Baldwin describe that the way we solve problems through the design of product components shapes the relationships between the people who are involved in its creation. In their research, they also describe how this configuration does not only shape the configuration of a company but can also extend to partners and industries. Their observations coincide with research that has been widely validated since the 90’s demonstrating that the way we design our products has a huge impact in the performance of our businesses. Therefore, when we design our product we are actually designing the future of our businesses too.

Asset 30@2x
The mirroring process between products and services by Colfer & Baldwin (2017)

But how does this happen? Colfer & Baldwin call this the mirroring process. They describe a process using a technical dependency matrix and an organizational ties matrix. We are going to describe the model in 4 main steps:

  1. Product design – When we design products we deal with complex problem solving. To deal with them more efficiently, we split the problem in little parts that we can solve individually. This little parts are the product components. Components can be related to the solution of one or more functions which relates them to other components. The researchers use an example with a product that has 3 components, A, B, and C. In the technical dependency matrix you can see that some components are interrelated as shown by the dashed boxes. A and B work together just like B & C.
  2. The projection of activities – Arranging the product in components means that the person or team in charge of developing component A (Sam) will negotiate its definition with component B (Anna). At the same time, Component B (Anna) will have communication with both A and C (Sam & Pete). While C (Pete will only negotiate with b (Anna).  As a consequence, when de business grows, the existing relationships will grow as well. The performance of the product will be evaluated according to the values that these teams negotiate. At the same time Sam and Pete will not develop channels and tools to collaborate.
  3. The projection of products – The developed team has created something that Clayton Christensen calls “the value network“. This is an underlying structure that describes what the product “is” and how it “should perform”. Through this value network, the organization designs products that are aligned to the possibilities of the organization, ideas, and performance that were shaped by the very first product configuration. This value network extends to all the business supliers and partners since they all interact with a part of the product.
  4. The mirroring trap – When the surrounding environment changes and the organization is forced to innovate, the teams are constrained by the first product configuration that shaped them in the first place. Colfer & Baldwin call this “the mirroring trap” and is one of the explanations for the death of businesses whose markets are being disrupted.
We can say that product and firm are closely related as two parts of one object rather than two entities themselves.

As we can see, through the design of our first value proposition (product or service) we are actually creating a roadmap for our business to follow. If we look around we can see this mirroring process everywhere. Mobile phones all look just like iPhones because its design has shaped not only its organization but the industry itself. Consoles look like PlayStations and Electric Cars look like Priuses. The problem is that we are all trained to force the same business template to all businesses just like all startups have the C – level executives. Considering this, we should start questioning if the way we start our businesses separated from product design is right. Can we create a unified process that considers the mirroring process from the beginning? Because as the title of this post says, there was once a product… that shaped an entire industry. 

3D Printing People Power: meet Warren&Laetitia

In his 2015 book “The Zero Marginal Cost Society” Jeremy Rifkin includes 3D printing in a list of technologies that have the potential of transforming the economy beyond the “Industry 4.0” revolution. This transformation aims to create a system of distributed value creation based on our ability to create sustaiunable networks that reduce marginal cost to a minimum. These networks can emerge from the synergy that clean energy, common economics, and 3D Printing have today and therefore, it is exciting to meet organizations, projects, and people who work in the verge of this transformation. One of these projects is the Distributed Design Academy. A project led by the Eurpean Distributed Design Platform that seeks to exchange knowledge around distributed manufacturing. In this 2020 edition, we were invited to join other 15 european projects through their Danish partners: Foreningen Maker and the Danish Design Center.

Through the Distributed Design Academy sessions we have been able to work with very interesting projects that also work with 3D printing. This is the case of Laetitia Bou Acar, partner at Warren & Laetitia. A french design studio based in Paris that explores design for additive manufacturing in a distributed scale. Together we collaborate in a project for the academy called “The Turtleclub”, a company that designs 3D printed devices to solve small functional needs at home with recycled plastic. This week we had a brief chat with Laetitia where we had a chance to ask how does it look to design for additive manufacturing in small scales, and how the materiality of recycled inputs nurtures design.

  • How did you got involved with the design and production of 3D printed products?

I started working with 3D printing quite by accident. When we started my design studio with a friend, Warren, we quickly realized that as young designers prototyping and producing things can get really expensive. Warren already had a 3D printer when we started to create projects together, we were just doing prototypes at first and then gradually it became our way of production.

  • What do you think is the main affordance that 3Dprinting gives you as a designer?

3D printing as a mode of production has various advantages, in particular it allows us to work with very little stock and to have our own machines. Today, we work with four printers which allows us to respond to our orders fairly quickly, especially as we think about our objects taking into account their manufacturing time to optimize our production as much as possible.

  • The 2.20 candleholder is very interesting because it seems to exploit the shape and transparency of your plastic, where do you start when designing products like these with 3D printing?
2.20 by Warren & Laetitia

It was when we started producing our objects with 3D printing that we realized that the combination of a colored element and a transparent element worked very well to show buyers the different parts of a fully 3D printed product. For the 2.20 candlesticks we find this principle with the transparent, decorative part on the outside and the colored, functional part on the inside.

  • Looking at the mimo vase, what kind of complementary relationships do you find between 3Dprinted plastic and other materials?
Mimo demi-vase by Warren&Laetitia

I find the idea of combining everyday objects that can be found at home, or that had to go in the trash with 3D printed objects to enhance them, interesting. With the mimo vase, we reuse supermarket food jars to create a vase. By adding the 3D printed piece, the look of the object changes from waste to decorative element.

  • What have you learnt during the turtle club project that could inform your design process?

Turtleclub concepts

During the turtle club project I learned that creating an idea doesn’t have to start with a shape. I found it very interesting to create this project around an idea, several desires without having a precise idea of the shape of the final object. This allowed us to be free on our intentions and at the same time allowed us to put constraints on our future object.

It is very exciting to see how this transformation from current manufacturing practices to new distributed and sustainable ones is playing around the world. Working with Laetitia has been very interesting. Please have a look at Warren & Laetitia’s shop and follow the Distributed Design Platform.

Camille, an algorithm to “compost” plastic with 3DPrinting

Haraway describes String Figures as stories that propose patterns for participants to inhabit. To a certain degree, 3DPrinting works in the same way. The most common 3DPrinting processes extrude a string of plastic and place it layer by layer with the help of a computer to build something. 3DPrinting uses this technique in such a way that we are able to create connections between two other things that might no be related at all. Moreover, if we allow ourselves to think a bit deeper, the plastic in 3DPrinting, which originates from oil, which in turn originated through layering of organic material,may also connect us to the history of our planet. Also deep, but in another direction, 3Dprinting connects us to the economic ways of the world. It is a mini factory that squeezes centuries of technological development in a little box for us to fabricate almost anything. With 3DPrinting we are able to modify our world in ways that other generations could not think of. And yet, incredibly, it is there, in our fablab/classroom/basement printing bunnies for us with strings of plastic that say so much about our world even if we do not pay attention to them.

In my opinion, framing the 3DPrinter as a string figure should not stop just in drawing a map of the intricate relationships that it brings together. Instead, it should empower its users to participate in the making of these strings. String figures propose patterns for participants to inhabit which consequently should make us ask ourselves: which pattertns should we propose? How can I engage with the collection of relationships availiable to me through my 3DPrinter? Is there a way to 3DPrint a bond that ties environment, economics, and our local experiences together?

This project is an attempt to do so. I is an experiment about making 3DPrinting products that turn themselves into explicit String Figures. Products that bind entrepreneurs with their locality and the environment. Camille is a collection of grasshopper algorithms that exploits complexity freedom in 3DPrinting to bind disposed objects with products of local entrepreneurs in order to produce chairs. The algorithms adapt to the interfaces in old furniture, different chair sizes, filament selection, and the available printing volume. The result is a flower shaped chair that connects econimics, local practices, and the environment in a functional and metaphoric way. It uses the 3DPrinter just like vermicomposting uses worms, it metaphorically composts waste material to produce new life.

Entrepreneuring multidimensionally

The project is the implementation of a PhD study focused on understanding how to exploit 3DPrinting in entrepreneurial ventures (Esparza, 2020). This study highlights the potential that additive manufacturing has in making entrepreneurial ventures more flexible and organic. From a technology management perspective, the study found that the flexibility in 3DPrinting allows the continuous incorporation of functional interfaces between components in the architecture of a product. This creates the possibility for the entrepreneur to experiment with different supply chain configurations without extra costs. This means that contrary to other methods for entrepreneuring, using 3DPrinting allows the incorporation of partners and objectives that otherwise would be eliminated because they are costly. Such is the case of sustainability and social enterprising goals that do not align to the economic goals but add up to production costs. Thence, it allows the entrepreneur to think of the market opportunity as something that can be created socially with local resources, rather than searched with the help of huge investments. With 3Dprinting, entrepreneurs can incorporate partnerships with economic, social, or environmental goals by just merging interfaces in 3Dmodelling.

However, the implementation of 3Dmodels and additive manufacturing relies on the ability of the entrepreneur to design with technical tools on top of the entrepreneurial skills that are necessary to make the venture successful. Conventionally, these processes are facilitated by a department of design engineering specialists. Therefore, the main objective of this experiment is to find a way for entrepreneurs to create connections between venture economics, social partnerships, and environmental goals. Accordingly, the Camille algorithms were designed to bypass this need for an organization by parameterizing the design process of a component in a specific case: a chair.

The grasshopper algorithm parametrices the interface between a tripod and a seat. It uses the flexibility of 3Dprinting to make a lattice structure from minimal surfaces that other manufacturing processes cannot fabricate. Such structure provides the algorithm with a better model for analysis and FDM printing. A minimal surface enables the creation of closed toolpaths without sharp angles and with better structural performance. At the same time, it models a two dimensional surface distributed in three dimensions that can be analysed as a structure under tension. The algorithm can use the mechanical data for each filament to detect which areas are at risk of breaking and need to be reinforced. According to the results of the analysis, the algorithm adds thickness to the rings that suffer of greater displacement. The structure adapts to different shapes of leg interfaces, their angle, and the printing volume available for the entrepreneur. The resulting model provides three fixing points for the legs that can also be used to attach the seat. With the assistance of the algorithm, the entrepreneurs concerns reduce to the selection of the printer and material, the legs, and the design of the seat.  

The Camille workflow is as follows:

  1. Source legs
  2. Trace legs perimeter (now manual, automatic in development)
  3. Select height
  4. Select printing volume
  5. Design seat 
  6. Let Camille work
  7. 3DPrint

Removing the technical concerns from the design process provides the entrepreneur with the flexibility to incorporate partnerships through the sourcing of legs and the design of the seat. It has been suggested that successful entrepreneurs use their products to build partnerships in suppliers and distributors that keep the venture afloat (Sarasvathy & Dew, 2005). Thus, the Camille algorithm is designed to be implemented in fablabs where craftsmen, designers, and entrepreneurs can build these partnerships. Camille provides a space for two or more actors to co-design a small supply chain (my subproduct + Camille + your subproduct = chair). It binds the two subproducts and distributes the commercial workload of finding retailers and customers. It does so with minimum investment considering that it can be used with equipment and materials already present in a fablab.

The binding of partnerships through Camille and the 3Dprinter does not stop at the entrepreneurship level. The adaptability of the algorithm allows upcycling of discarded material to be used as legs, or even as something else that exploits the same configuration to build something other than a chair. By optimizing FDM 3Dprinting available in fababs, Camille also permits the use of biodegradable or recycled filament as long as the mechanical data is available. Therefore, the algorithm proposes a pattern for different actors to engage in the production of something new. In such sense, it works as a string figure where human and non-human actors compost trash into new products. Therefore, the final shape of the product of Camille is proposed as a flower that emerges from “inorganic” material. The current implementation of Camille uses filt to create a stool. Yet, other materials such as laminated plastic and wood can be used. It is free for the entrepreneur to design and develop the shape of the flower that will emerge from her plastic compost.  

The main objective of this experiment is to make a tangible manifestation of ideas about economics and sustainability that today are everywhere but yet seem to be far away in the future. Nonetheless, in experimenting with these different economic, environmental, and social spheres, we see a world full of sources for experimentation. We see new possibilities for making partnerships with agents that are excluded from our system, human and non-human that can also contribute to the design of a new future.


Haraway, Donna J. Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Duke University Press, 2016.

Esparza, A. (2020). Entrepreneurship With Additive Manufacturing: Implications of Complexity Freedom in Product and Firm Ideation [Thesis, Auckland University of Technology]. https://openrepository.aut.ac.nz/handle/10292/13125

Sarasvathy, S. D., & Dew, N. (2005). New market creation through transformation. Journal of Evolutionary Economics, 15(5), 533–565. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00191-005-0264-x

Topographic optimization for 3DPrinting

Despite being the most cited benefit of 3DPrinting, the implementation of complexity freedom is not an easy or straight-forward process. Results from two studies that form part of the PhD research project that gave birth to this blog cannot support the hypothesis that complexity freedom is influential in the conceptualization of products for 3DPrinting. The objective of the studies was to observe whether if there were observable effects of complexity freedom in the ideation processes of entrepreneurs that planned to use 3DPrinting for fabricating their ideas. Neither of both studies found that entrepreneurs address functional complexity in the development of the product architecture. Thus, new product development (NPD) seems to be split in two stages: one of conceptual development, and a second one that adjusts the product architecture based on the generated concepts. Contrary to our expectations, this separation is not bridged with the use of 3DPrinting despite the capabilities of this technology to design and manufacture concurrently.

These results agree with the claims that describe NPD with 3DPrinting as a substitution fallacy where NPD only substitutes other manufacturing processes with 3DPrinting and does not develop architectures that correspond to 3DPrinting capabilities (Stern, 2015). As we have mentioned in other blog posts, this is called a partial approach to Design For Additive Manufacturing (DFAM). Complexity freedom has the potential to turn this partial approach into a global approach where NPD designs “with” and not “for” the 3DPrinter. In a global approach to DFAM designers determine the functional surfaces, the structural loads that each of them is submitted to, and merges the functional volumes without complexity restrictions. Merging the functional volumes in a global approach to DFAM can be done manually. However, an manual development to a global approach to DFAM does not guarantee an optimal architecture that completely exploits complexity freedom.

An alternative that makes a global approach to DFAM viable is the implementation of structural optimization algorithms. Structural optimization is a functional approach to the creation of structures centred in the economy of the designed architecture. The optimization process focuses on optimizing a target, which usually is structural mass or number of elements, without disrupting the constraints imposed to the system by the loads that operate through the structure. While structural optimization is a method that can also be implemented manually, the implementation of optimization modules of CAD software expands the scope of analysis and facilitates the creation of geometries that exploit the capabilities of 3DPrinting. Structural optimization engines are based in finite element analysis (FEA), a mathematical method used to solve complex models that can represent physics or structural problems. FEA splits the system in smaller “finite elements” that can be analysed individually. Combined with CAD models, the mathematical method is able to evaluate the performance of a 3D mesh by making a structural analysis of each of the elements in the mesh. Thus, it can provide valuable information about its structural performance. If on top of the FEA the system has a module that redesigns the structure and resubmits the result of the analysis to the FEA engine, the system is able to optimize the geometry under the given restrictions.

Michael Stern (2015) classifies structural optimization in three main categories: size optimization, shape optimization, and topographic optimization. Size optimization focuses on the elimination of elements under a within a reduction threshold without changing the shape of the model. Shape optimization works all the way around without eliminating material but instead optimizing the contour of the shape for a better performance. Topographic optimization is the most flexible of them because it departs from the definition of a starting design space that after an initial evaluation is redesigned and resubmitted. Continuous iterations remove material and modify the shape of the model resulting in an optimized topography. Results from this kind of analysis can be used to redesign architectures that are produced through traditional manufacturing methods. However, complexity freedom lets the 3D printer use these results as final models for fabrication.

For topographic optimization to work, the design space of the model contains all the information for the solver to work with. Within a global approach to DFAM, the definition of the design space is achieved by delimiting the functional surfaces, the loads that work with them, and the printing volume available in the machinery. Therefore, a topographic optimization machine can provide a solution for the correct implementation of a global approach to DFAM. Fortunately for us, more optimization modules are available everyday through new versions of CAD software. The following example used the module provided by Autodesk Inventor.

Mallet finger

Mallet finger injuries happen in sports where fingers are subject to extreme forces. (Photo: NCAA)

A mallet finger is a common finger injury in sports. It happens when the fingers are subject to extreme impacts or forces that snap the tendons that extend the finger and keep it in place. It is common to see these injuries in sports where athletes handle balls at high speeds such as baseball, basketball, or volleyball. During Easter 2017 I suffered a mallet finger injury while playing beach volleyball in Orewa Beach, New Zealand. Despite being not that painful, a mallet finger is delicate because the injured finger must be immobilized for the tendon to attach again to itself or the bone. If not immobilized on time, the injury is treated through a surgery that fixes the tendon back to the bone with the help of a screw. It has a recovery time of 6-8 weeks which makes everyday activities that use the hands, such as cooking, writing, or typing, uncomfortable to do. Yet, the most common solutions available are plastic one-size-fits-all cone shaped splints that must be fixed with tape.

This problem was addressed through the combination of a topographic optimization module and a Fused Deposition Modelling (FDM) 3DPrinter. Using a global design approach to DFAM the development of the splint started with the 3D model of definition of the functional surfaces that could support the finger in place. In the case of a mallet finger injury, the finger is fixed by pressing the fingertip upwards against the middle of the finger. Therefore, the finger was 3D modelled and both the fingertip and the top middle segment of the finger were isolated as contact surfaces. To constrain the system a force equivalent to the full force of a closing hand was placed against the fingertip surface while the middle top was defined as an anchor surface. The design volume was defined as a tube with the shape of the finger in the middle and a 5mm thickness.

a) Initial design space volume b)Topographically optimized model c) Redesigned model

The structural optimization solver gave a solution that removed material and optimized the shape of the splint. However, a global approach to DFAM must also consider the restrictions of the used material and 3DPrinting method. In this case the splint was fabricated using a PLA plastic in an FDM machine. This meant that the geometry had to be oriented to remove support material. The particular orientation that was more convenient to the fabrication process created the material layers in a direction that is aligned with the sheer stress of the structure. Therefore, a trade-off existed between the orientation (speed and material cost) of the solution and the structural performance of the model. To alleviate such contradiction the model was redesigned based on the structural optimization result but with greater thicknesses in the weakened parts. The redesign of the splint also allowed the incorporation of extra features such as edge rounds and holes that facilitated the splint usability.

Printing process and final solution.

Speculative design: 3Dprinting and the anthropocene

Most of the posts of this blog address different strategies to exploit complexity freedom, the capability of 3DPrinting to fabricate complex features in products without increasing the cost of production. This complexity freedom gives entrepreneurs the ability to merge the design and manufacturing processes and create new avenues for experimentation. However, there are more ways to interpret complexity freedom beyond functional allocation of product architectures. The implementation of 3DPrinting also shrinks the time needed to bring an idea to life and the number of people that need to be involved. Artists Moreshin Allahyari and Daniel Rourke look critically at this complexity freedom as a democratized fabrication method. Their project Additivism (a name that is a portmanteau of additive and activism) looks at the potential effects of complexity freedom in a greater scale. Additivism highlights the capability of 3DPrinting to transgress the configuration of matter in an ecological level (things we perceive at a human scale) without the restrictions imposed by social structures, capital, and discourse. The Additivists, compare the appearance of the 3DPrinter to the appearance of the photocopier in the 1960’s and 70’s where civil rights movements used this newly available technology to replicate literature that otherwise was inaccessible to minorities and vulnerable groups.

The Additivists were inspired by the Anarchist Cookbook written by William Powell. Just like the original cookbook, the Additivist Cookbook gathers “recipies” that explore this new potential to disobey and transform. The current project was developed as a recipe of the cookbook during an Additivism workshop in Auckland New Zealand in 2016.

Additivism considers the 3DPritning process as a metaphor of the capability of humans to alter our own environments and bodies. They remind us that at the core of 3DPrinting processes there is usually plastic that has been extracted from oil to be shaped in whatever novel solution we think is suitable. Even though 3DPrinting is situated in an Antropocenic context, the Additivists suggest that the complexity freedom available through the technology has the potential for the generation of new metaphors for our relationship with nature. Instead of consuming, the circularity of 3DPrinting can be analogous to composting the world, a metaphor that Donna Haraway calls the Chtulucene, and uses to invite us to come back from the deterministic ways of economic growth and progress. Through this environment composting, Additivism questions the boundaries of the artificial and the natural, and the accessibility that 3DPrinting creates for everyone to explore such boundaries.

The Tutlebag

3DPrinting can help composting the environment with and not for other species (Photo: WWF)

Composting in the Cthululcene epoch goes beyond preserving the idea of the natural. Donna Haraway recalls that during the Anthropocene, our myths embody our role as humans in the tools that heroes use to carve and shape. On the contrary, during the Cthulucene, composting should be embodied in objects that care and carry. Accordingly, composting is about companionship and transformation of all that surrounds us. With these thoughts in mind the current project developed the idea of developing artificial organs that help animals cope with the ongoing transformations of the environment. Considering that research estimates that a third of the turtles that die stranded in the coasts of New Zealand die due to the ingestion of plastic (Godoy, 2016), the final concept proposed a “turtlebag”, a 3DPrinted organ that digests plastic bags for the turtle.

The turtlebag is conceptualized as a suction mechanism that eats plastic bags before the turtle can eat them. The mechanism is composed by a suction head, a stomach, and a pair of flippers. It lays over the turtle shell just as a parasite animal would do. The stomach works like a vacuum bag that is triggered once the turtle stretches its neck to grab a plastic bag. In order to store energy, the stomach has a pair of rib-like structures that are bent down to release water in it when the turtle flaps its way through the water. Once the turtle stretches its neck, the in-valve stretches, and the ribs expand to their original position taking in the plastic bag that lies in front of the turtle. The plastic bag uses a small slot for suction that can swallow compressible bodies, such as plastic bags. On the contrary, a jellyfish would get stuck in the slot allowing the turtle to eat it slowly. Once the turtle starts swimming, the bag compresses again.

Mechanisms under the shell of the turtlebag
Suction mechanism (without shell)

The turtlebag is proposed to use multi-material 3DPrinting as the one already used in the fabrication of sports gear or training shoes. Through multi-material 3DPrinting flexible and solid materials can be used to create different material behaviours such as the ones needed by the shell, ribs, and valves. Functional complexity freedom would allow the fabrication of intricate mechanisms such as the valves and other mechanisms such as textures that could keep the plastic bags inside the stomach until recollection by human partners. Additionally, the capabilities of 3DPrinting can enable the fabrication of the mechanism in site by conservation programs and activists. The turtlebag was part of a selection of works from the Additivist Cookbook that was presented into subsequent exhibitions in the Onassis Cultural Centre in Athens, Greece and the MU art space in Eindhoven, Holland during 2017-2018.

Version of the turtlebag presented at the MU Art Space, Eindhoven, Holland

Entrepreneuring with 3DPrinted tooling

The creation of a firm is a phenomenon that blends characteristics of two other bigger phenomena: the creation of organizations, and technological change. An entrepreneurial venture is a new organization that introduces new products, means, processes, or economic activities to a marketplace. Accordingly, an entrepreneurial venture entails the introduction of novelty to at least the local marketplace. Researchers Ted Baker and Reed Nelson (2005) trace the origin of this novelty to a bricolage of resources. In bricolage entrepreneurs test the limit of the combinations available through the resources they have at hand until they can create a novel one. The results of the research project behind this blog propose that the recombination process of resources works in an iterative cycle where product and market opportunity are first proposed, evaluated, and then reinterpreted to be proposed again. In such recombination process, the entrepreneur looks for the reinterpretation of the technological means that are available and thus, she the starting point for the entrepreneurial ideation process is grounded in such resources.

Today, the inclusion of digital fabrication technologies such as 3DPrinting facilitates the bricolage of new business opportunities and reduces barriers of entry by providing additional complexity to product ideas. Particularly, the complexity freedom available through 3DPrinting breaks the economic dynamics that facilitate economies of scale. Traditional manufacturing methods must position themselves either as producers of highly complex products in low volume batches or low complexity products in high volume ones due to the high cost of complexity fabrication. Yet, entrepreneurial ventures with 3DPrinting can break that dichotomy and even introduce a third production dimension that addresses product customization (Conner et al., 2014). Entrepreneurial ventures can use four different strategies to introduce more functional complexity to the exploration of new business opportunities: rapid prototyping, rapid tooling, additive manufacturing, and home fabrication (Gibson, Rosen, & Stucker, 2010; Joyce, 2014; Rayna & Striukova, 2016).

The introduction of 3DPrinting expands the landscape for competition. (adapted from Conner et al.2014)

While some of these ideas have already been discussed in this blog, this post will focus on the exploration of new business opportunities through the fabrication of rapid tooling in traditional fabrication methods. In traditional manufacturing methods, complexity is bounded by the amount of operations that the manufacturing process needs to implement in the mould for the product features to be produced. For instance, the production of a mould used to cast a box would need the machining or processing of six faces. In the same fashion, the production of a mould to produce a polyhedron with more faces would need the same amount of processing steps. Therefore, the production of highly complex features such as organic shapes or intricate mechanisms increase the amount of processes and consequently, the cost of tooling for production. However, the production of tooling with 3DPrinting uses the same step to produce a curve or a straight line because it adds material instead of removing it. Therefore, the production cost of the mould for a cube or an airplane shaped figure is the same if they use the same material. The following case exemplifies the use of 3D printing for the fabrication of rapid tooling for the manufacturing of ceramics.

More features, require more machining processes

Hashtags and cups

Back in 2011 my professional practice focused on helping Mexican entrepreneurs with product design. During that period I struggled, as a young product designer, to explain the extent of the connections between product and entrepreneurial strategy. My main objective was to show that a coherent design strategy provides a guide to articulate selection criteria to include technological means that help in the construction of a business opportunity. After trying different approaches, I decided that the best option was to produce a product myself that could work as an example of such coherent structure. I selected to start a side business that exploited my family background given that my mother is a ceramist and my father has worked with metal casting for the auto industry.

There was a clear challenge in the incorporation of digital and ceramic design languages (photo left: universitytimes.ie right: gsgwatson There was a clear challenge in the incorporation of digital and ceramic design languages (photo left: universitytimes.ie right: flickr @gsgwatson )

Entrepreneuring with ceramics proved to be a great challenge since ceramic products are ubiquitous in human culture and therefore, have been commoditized. This means that the ceramic industry has very low barriers of entry and many competitors that profit from large volumes of unexpensive products. However, the plasticity of the material can also be used to produce highly complex shapes for niche markets usually exploited by artists and designer studios. Back in 2010’s, the ceramic market in Mexico sold an estimated 95 million pieces a year almost all tableware. 46% of national sales were produced locally while the rest was imports mainly form China. Within the local production, the main two tableware fabricants produced almost 80% of the total national production. The rest of it belonged to niche production of small artist, designer, and traditional handcraft workshops. In order to exemplify the articulation of technology through strategic design the project focused on the transformation of a commoditized product by reinterpreting it as an experiential one.

Customizing design created an open space for differentiation

The project focused on understanding the meaningfulness of objects in digital interactions. A group of users was selected to document a catalogue of objects they consider valuable in their lives, the reasons for them to do so, the ways they were acquired, and the places they were stored in. Based on a combination of individual interviews, user self-documentation, and a workshop, the project proposed the capture of meaningful moments that are portraited in social media in ceramic objects that could be gifted. A ceramic cup was chosen because cups are easily adopted as personal objects and easy to gift. Concepts for the new cups ranged between embedding physical objects in the cup, interacting with digital platforms, and changing the appearance of the cup as its lifecycle goes by. Yet, the chosen concept was the embodiment of popular hashtags found in social media in the shape of cups or mugs. The shape of the mug would connect the ceramic product to an ongoing experience that many other social media users inform through hashtagging.

By embedding a hashtag, the products could connect with online sharing of experiences

Implementing rapid tooling

The embodiment of hashtags in ceramic shapes entails tooling fabrication because ceramic moulding casts plaster moulds from matrixes. This two step process is traditionally made by hand which creates a speed and complexity limit to fabrication. Additionally, plaster moulds have a short lifecycle before they start losing form fidelity. Therefore, the creation of 3DPrinted matrixes incremented the speed of mould replication, the fidelity of the reproduced geometry, and the complexity attainable through the design process. Three hashtags were chosen to launch a small collection.

Original sketches

First prototypes:

Final products:


#piercing was designed as an office mug that stands out from the cabinet at the coffee room. The mug has a completely round handle that simulates an ear expansion. The use of 3DPrinted tooling enabled the creation of completely round rings with consistent dimensions regardless moulding change. In the same fashion, it allowed the incorporation of the ring’s seat with the optimization of moulding angles. #ninja was projected as a tea/expresso cup that was sliced by a ninja sword. The incorporation of rapid tooling facilitated the incorporation of the “slice” and a constant width cup handle. #lovemydog became a mug with a cozy feeling used for warm beverages, soups, or cereal. Rapid tooling provided the incorporation for cues to guide assembling and consistent dimensions for mould production. Overall, the use of rapid tooling provided an overall roundness and a “plastic” feel that preserved the design language drawn from digital platforms and the product sketches. The language was reinforced with the incorporation of graphics by local designers.

The incorporation of digital manufacturing technologies also helped in the prototyping and production of packaging for the ceramic products. A carboard frame was proposed based on the design language of applications and icons. The carboard frame held the mug safe for delivery in case they were sold by web-retailers while making them stand out between other ceramic products in design stores. The packaging was initially produced in laser-cut cardboard to later be produced with traditional roll cut and printing. The combination of 3DPrinting and laser-cut provided a platform for the delivery of products with a higher complexity such as the ones provided by design studios at a cost that corresponded to traditional manufactures. Such complexity-cost relationship was useful to position the products in high end local stores with prices that were more accessible. Thus, by using rapid tooling the project created a differentiated space within the tableware market. The cup collection was sold from 2012 to 2105. The @hashtagcups project was presented at national and international exhibitions of young design talent from 2103 to 2015.

3D printed economics for climate change

National Klimamarch demonstrations in Denmark May 25th 2019.

I first found out about global warming writing a high-school project in 2002. The Intergvernmental Panel for Climate Change made clear since 1992 that the consequences of climate change would be global. Yet, 27 years later, the creation of global countermeasures is still the greatest challenge we face. Governments discuss complex carbon taxes and industrial incentives that seem too abstract to solve the problems appearing in everyday life. In response, activism and civil societies demonstrate to urge governments to go beyond these measures and address the problem globally. Yet, in these demonstrations, it is difficult to find tangible proposals coming from the civil society. Nick Snircek and Alex Williams (2016) criticize today’s activism for being reactive instead of proactive. They argue that there is a need to start projects for our future instead of reacting aggressively against the current direction. Snircek and Williams suggest that appropriating technology is the way to go beyond our current frustration and move forward. Can we use technology for fighting climate change?

Take the power the technology back (Danish)

Proposing ideas for the future is complicated because it is unpredictable. However, the focus of this blog is to talk about what can we do with 3Dprinting to build such future. Thus, in this case we argue that 3D printing is one of those technologies that needs to be appropriated to push the fight against climate change forward. Future businesses should experiment 3D printing for fabrication if we want make a difference.

Like many complex systems in our world, the global economy is like an onion. Under the surface it has different layers that one must understand before trying to change it. One of these layers is made of a concept called “value chains”. A value chain is a collection of businesses that each specialize in specific processes. These businesses work in chain to produce almost everything we buy today. Value chains take advantage of “economies of scale”. When someone makes just one thing, they become very good at doing it in large scales. They make it cheaper too.

Through the value chain, every business adds one feature to the product and ships it to the next one. The last thirty-something years have seen a huge expansion of these value chains all over the world. Value chains make the economy efficient because many of these processes require a huge investment in order to become experts and make them cheaper. A global economy lets value chains connect with the most inexpensive suppliers all over the world.

But global value chains have a huge problem: they are global. And this means that complex products like a car, a cellphone, a fridge, a lamp, or a tv, are produced in bits. One bit in Bolivia, one bit in Mexico, one bit in Canada, one bit in Malaysia, another bit in China, and then sold in Germany. Global partnerships need global transport which is one of the major sources for greenhouse gases. The environmental cost of transporting these products all over the world is called an “ill-structured” cost and there is no data that accurately shows how expensive it is. Unfortunately, there is no current alternative to global value chains, because not everyone can invest to become experts in everything in every country.

We have discussed before that 3Dprinting has a capability called “complexity freedom”. Through complexity freedom, the production complex systems is possible without making huge investments. Douglas Thomas (2015) suggests that this capability should be used in the production of complete assemblies that substitute complete value chains with local production. In addition, this fabrication strategy can also contribute to the creation of a “circular economy” where resource utilization is reduced by recycling waste locally.

Star Trek Replicator

However, changing value chains for local 3Dprinting fabrication is not a silver bullet. Traditional manufacturing methods are excellent at lowering costs, which means that fabricating simple things is still more valuable through value chains. Using 3Dprinting also has a complexity threshold. This means that in order to use it effectively, the fabricated product must be complex enough to compete with the production of value chains. Therefore, 3Dprinting is not a silver bullet. Early visions of 3D printing portrayed it as something like the “Replicator” in Star Trek, a machine that could reconfigure molecules to replicate almost anything. However, the complexity threshold says that 3D printed products should be analysed in a systemic level to know if their complexity is worth using the technology. In addition we could add an environmental analysis of the value chain. Both analyses provide us with criteria to select whether if using 3Dprinting is the best option for us and the environment.

Using 3Dprinting for the substitution of complete value chains also contributes to the creation of a “circular economy”. A circular economy recycles is resources instead of producing goods towards disposal. In a circular economy resource and energy efficiency are the ultimate goals. 3D printing contributes to a circular economy with the local production of highly complex products, recycling and upcycling of material, and efficient energy usage. 3Dprinting is part of a new economic infrastructure for this circular economy powered by green energy and connected through the internet. Jeremy Riffkin calls this new economic paradigm “the zero marginal cost society” because it has the chance to transform our thinking towards an economy of the commons.

In 3Dprinting we have accesible tools to explore and engage opportunities for diminishing the effects of climate change beyond the carbon taxes and complicated restrictions of governments. We can make of 3Dprinitng a smart choice if we leverage the complexity and environmental impact of the products we use everyday. Moving from our current value chain oriented economy to a circular one is achievable but it won’t happen if we don’t engage.

Data objects?

The main theme of this blog is the relationship that product architectures (the way components relate to each other within a product) have with the way we build organizations, businesses, etc. We have argued in other posts, that this “product architecture” influences the way teams are assembled in the design and fabrication of the final product. Theories that support this claim say that our cognition divides problem-solving into boxes with the purpose of making processing easier. In that way, we create hierarchies of problems, or chunks, and work them out one by one. When we create small organizations, such as startups, we divide our teams initially according to product features or requirements. These requirements will be reflected in the component that each team element designs and will determine the relationships with other components. We make this initial problem division according to our perception of the problem itself, we look for salient features that group parts of what we perceive and try to solve it. New organizations take their initial architectures and discuss them with other stakeholders, prospective partners, collaborators, customers etc. Successful configurations are settled down in agreements that solidify relationships outside the organizations. For a long time, this process has developed industries, however up to this point, the process has been really slow and very difficult to notice. It is fair to assume that this was caused mainly by the speed of information systems. As an example, we can see the timeframe between the introduction of the first car architecture in 1769 and the first mass-produced car in 1913. Today digital technologies have accelerated the introduction of products to mass markets. Collaboration and financing platforms let entrepreneurs introduce products to markets in a couple of months with the help of DATA.

Data available to us these days does not concern only information about the product but everything measurable. With this data at hand, organizations can infer greater amounts of information from their stakeholders, especially their customers and leverage it in the creation of new products and services. This means that data is being used to inform the initial problem-solving classification we mentioned above. As a result, many intangible products, or services, are currently being adapted to our data these days. But what of tangible products? What is their relationship with data? It is obvious that data can be incorporated into the design requirements in product development. Yet, it is clear that the perception of data in problem-solving is a matter of expert interpretation and not accessible to all of us. But, what if we could make data tangible through the products we produce?

Researchers experiment with the physicalization of data to study how can we perceive it with all our senses and make a better sense of it. Compared against data visualization, physicalization uses the perceptual skills of the user. Physicalization invites the user to explore the body of data and learn through different channels that facilitate learning. Physical data facilitates engagement and makes data more accessible to the general public, including those who are differently abled. Data physicalization changes the way we incorporate data into product development, it allows us to embed information into the product rather than only influencing the initial requirements of the design process. From this point of view, data becomes a component of the product architecture. When we design a product to encode data in its form and function we can call it a data object. Since inside data objects, all the functional components have a relation with data, product designers can use existing references in the object itself to manifest data to the users. In this way, designers can embed information in the shape and scale of the product instead of just shaping it through product requirements.

In 2016-2017 I was very lucky to participate with Ricardo Sosa and a team of researchers in a project concerning data objects. Based on workshops implemented at the Auckland University of Technology’s COLAB, we wrote a research paper presented at the International Design conference 2018. In it, we explored the design of data objects and develop a set of four principles that could be used to articulate data with the function of objects. First, use data as a design material. Just as we mentioned above, data is not only a set of requirements but a component itself, that can be shaped in order to design a good and fit architecture. Second, design objects to be re-interpreted in context. Functions of objects work always in context, thus the design of a data-spoon must take advantage of the bowl and the kitchen to make data more understandable. Third, use signifiers to engage with cognition and emotion. Signifiers are features that designers insert in objects to stress an affordable function of the object. Signifiers are pretty common in everyday life, the “play” triangle in music players, the “push” sign on doors, and the USB port sign are all signifiers inserted to highlight some functions instead of others. By using signifiers in data objects we can highlight specific relationships in data. Finally, use criticality to empower users to challenge assumptions in data. Data is just a measurable snapshot of a phenomenon. The problem with data is that sometimes we behave as if it represented the totality of the phenomenon. When we measure something we usually make assumptions about the rest of what we are measuring. For example, when we measure someone’s weight, we assume that the distribution of weight in the body does not matter.  Data objects can be used to question these assumptions in data and help people view it more critically. In the rest of the post, I will share my result from the original data object workshops.


The data objects workshop was implemented in may 2016 in a studio paper of the Bachelor of creative technologies at AUT’s COLAB. the objective was to create an object based on data from the office of national statistics on New Zealand website. The chosen dataset was a “time use” survey. A survey that describes how do people in New Zealand use their time for example, how much time they spend in school, their jobs, or with family. From this dataset, I chose to work with a very interesting statistic: spent time with others outside family and friends. This statistic is related to two ideas in creativity and innovation. First, creativity depends on the diversity of the input we give to our minds. This means that having different experiences brings unexpected inputs to our minds and memories that can be used creatively later on. A way of getting this creative input is to collaborate with people from different backgrounds than ours. Second, social groups that are less diverse tend to be less open to new ideas and preserve the status quo in their structures. This inflexibility is very important because much of our wellbeing as a society depends on social mobility. We could join these two ideas and say that social groups who spend less time with people with different backgrounds have the risk of becoming less creative and become less open to new ideas. As a result, this inflexibility can create obstacles for the progress of their well-being. Therefore, the concept of the data object became: “It is important that communities stay flexible to build new solutions for the improvement of their well-being”.

The initial concept, as shown above, brought interesting collaboration metaphors. The first designs of the data object looked for the achievement of a common goal. Proposals ranged from building some kind of volume to directing a ball to a specific objective. In the end, the best metaphor became a version of a social network. The chosen object to build this social network became a doll because it can become a representation of the user in play. A doll can become flexible or inflexible, and a sum of dolls can show how flexible or inflexible a social network of a community is. As a metaphor for cooperation, dolls would join the network by holding hands. The components of the doll gave us the chance to map this flexibility on its extremities. The data from the survey was divided into neighbourhoods. Therefore, we could create a doll that represented the flexibility of each neighbourhood where our user comes from. The doll could be used in educational environments where the council works with social mobility and diversity in communities.

The doll and social network idea

As you may also know, the second most important topic in this blog is 3D printing. Thus, the implementation of the data object also shows an interesting way of using 3D printing for data objects. Making flexible products with regular PLA is possible under certain conditions. PLA plastic is normally delivered in spun up rolls of 1.75mm thick filament. when you receive the filament it is flexible enough to be pulled from the roll and feed the printer extruder while it is moving. This is usually made through a thin tube that changes position and shape continuously. This initial flexibility inspired us to think of making thin thread like geometries that together could give enough toughness and keep the body flexible. We experimented and designed several variations of these thin curves in different thicknesses and orientations. As mentioned here in another post, the orientation and size of the elements had to be adapted to the MakerBot printer we were using. The best prototype came from a 0.5mm thread that presented enough stiffness and flexibility to address our needs. Similarly, we prototyped the “hand” mechanisms that the system would use to connect doll with doll. We looked at tolerances and fittings and selected a slide in mechanism. Finally, the iterations also helped to define the doll language, FDM printers have a minimum resolution (typically 0.2mm) and specific features like detailed faces or textures cannot be printed clearly.

Using parametric design in grasshopper, we designed an algorithm that normalized the time allocation score between the two extremes of the dataset and turned it into a sine wave. Different scores had different wave amplitudes and wavelengths which gave them different flexibilities. After designing the wave, the algorithm placed the wave between the body and hand (or foot) of the doll making an extrusion with it. The body and hands were split in two in order to print all volumes with a horizontal orientation that would let the hands assemble and lock in a perpendicular way to the bending direction of the arms. Both parts can be printed and assembled with a locking system in the middle. The front of the body presents a happy face 🙂 and the back gives the user the flexibility grade with the name of the neighbourhood. 

Final Neighbour architecture 🙂
Neighbour + Neighbour = Social Network

The final Neighbour doll shows the data object principles in use. First, data is used as a design material, like we said above, it is a component (if not the most important) that interacts with the product architecture. Particularly, data interacts with the arms and legs of the doll to create flexible components and with the body to show information. Second, the Neighbour’s meaning is better understood in the context of the community. We can see and play with the doll alone, but only when we introduce a second doll to compare and build a social network we can see the metaphor completely. Third, signifiers are used to highlight the body of the Neighbour and the degree of flexibility. Hands, feet, face, and body were designed to push people to see a person that articulates a social network. Fourth and final, the Neighbour does not qualify flexibility as good or bad. The activity itself must draw the users attention to the pros and cons of flexible and inflexible people. While flexible people can introduce change in the direction of the network, inflexible people are good to make that direction continuous. 

This exercise was an example of how data can go beyond the definition of product design requirements and into the product architecture itself. Using data as a product component gives us the opportunity to create interesting interfaces within the rest of the architecture. Additionally, it facilitates data exploration by inviting the user to manipulate the object with every perception channel and make it more understandable. 

Results from Design for Additive Manufacturing

A month ago we wrote an entry that showed an exercise to incorporate greater complexity into 3D printed products. The article makes a short review of the role of complexity in product architecture and how it influences our manufacturing costs and the way we build businesses around a product. Then, we continued to explain how the main advantage of 3D printing is the available free complexity and how it can be harnessed through a concurrent design process. Through the process proposed by Remi Ponche and his team of researchers, we can incorporate the printer as a connector of functional components despite its complexity. We finally concluded with an example of the implemented process in a little workshop carried out in the Ballerup library located in Copenhagen Denmark. In this example, we implemented a “forced analogy” ideation method to connect concepts that were very difficult to relate. Following the process proposed by Dr Ponche et al. we used the available tools in the software and printer to create a product that exploited the advantages of 3D printing.

The process incorporated tools that are readily available for hobbyists and an FDM MakerBot 3D printer.

The final product was being printed by the time the post was published. Therefore, we wanted to show the final result to wrap up the complete process. This product, which we call “Cyggle” ( a mixture of danish words CYKLE & Gløgg) took 80 hours for printing and 750 gms of PLA platic, a bit too much, but a good start for a first product iteration.

The final “Cyggle” product.

According to the process, the Cyggle was produced to damp uncontrolled bicycle handlebar movements when we ride home drunk from a party. The volume was optimized to transfer the force of the handlebar to the frame through a “rib” volume that goes around (that is why it has a round shape). Additionally, we included a beer holder just in case party is not over.

From the back, we can see the cup holder and the clamp used to fix the product to the bike frame.

The 1.5 mm fins that make our structure flexible were printed without problems. As we can see in the images above, the printing orientation aligns with the direction of the force between the handlebar and the frame. Accordingly, a minimal amount of support material was needed. Over the final bicycle, the product fitted correctly.  The clamp mechanism should be redesigned since the current one does not allow us to remove the Cyggle after the first installation. The cup holder dimensions work perfectly but could use some support for “tall boy” cans and bottles.

The flexibility of the fins works just as simulated creating more resistance as they touch each other. Trials of fatigue could be held with this prototype but there is no visible sign of extreme exhaustion. Nevertheless, the contact surface can also be optimized to damp the shear forces when in contact with the handlebar.

Overall the process demonstrates that complexity in product architecture is achievable with 3D printing regardless the layering process. The fact that this example makes use of a regular MakerBot FDM printer proves that the most simple 3D printers present in local FABLABS are enough to bring up complex ideas that can give birth to innovative concepts and businesses.

Connecting complex components with Design for additive manufacturing: an example…

If you have already read some of the posts in this blog, you can tell that one of the main topics of this research project is the relationship between the product architecture and 3D printing. I refer here to product architecture as the product’s internal collection of components and relationships between them. Product architecture has been proven to affect the businesses ability to change, evolve, and create new products and services. One way it influences the development of businesses is through its level of complexity. Complexity is the property of systems that show us how intricate is a system inside. Complexity increases when one of two things happen, either the number of components inside the system raises or the number of relationships between the existing components also increases. This complexity of product architecture is reflected in product costs. While we usually relate costs to the volume of raw material used in fabrication, complexity adds costs by increasing the number of operations needed to transform the raw material. The more complex a product, the more operations we must perform in order to build it, and as a result, costs increase. This means that manufacturing a cube only requires enough operations to create six flat surfaces while creating an action figure, requires enough operations to sculpt more and more difficult surfaces. Complex architectures do not only have more features or faces to manufacture but also interfaces between those features and external components that need fabrication. As a result, products with more complex architectures are costly to produce, they need more processes, and specialized equipment and personnel. However, with the features that allow 3D printers to build objects in layers, this complexity cost is no longer relevant. 3D printing fabrication relies on computer controlled tools that selectively deposit or fix material regardless the feature complexity. As a result, product architectures with greater complexity have the same manufacturing cost in 3D printing processes as long as they have a similar volume. Therefore, manufacturing our products using 3D printing (or Additive Manufacturing) allows us to increase the number of components of our products (our product architecture) and the number of connections between them.

cube complexity
In this example is quite clear how the Polygon T-Rex has more surfaces which would require more manufacturing operations than the simplest cube to the right. Nevertheless, as long as they have the same volume, the costs in 3D printing will be the same. ( T- Rex from https://www.cgtrader.com/3d-models/animals/dinosaur/head-t-rex-dinosaur)

Contrary to other features such as custom or remote fabrication, there is a very good reason to focus on the creation of complex systems. Human cognition classifies information in boxes in order to cope with the environment around us. From the very beginning of human evolution, we started designating spaces, objects, agents, etc. This feature of our minds is commonly referred as Bounded Rationality and helps us make the world more predictable. Every time we see a dog, we already know what the “DOG” box contains, how it looks and behaves, and how can we interact with it. We do not have to spend time observing and experimenting with the dog until we get to know it all over again, we have all agreed on what the “DOG” box means. Likewise, when we create a new product, we create boxes for its product architecture. Systems, subsystems, components, and subcomponents are placed individually in boxes inside our minds. Those boxes include everything we know about them, and all the knowledge needed to fabricate them. Accordingly, complex product architectures include more and bigger boxes which means more knowledge invested in the product. Every business depends on differentiation from other businesses for success, therefore, having more knowledge than the others implies more differentiation and better sales. The fact that 3D printers allow us to create more complex product architectures without increasing our investment is an opportunity to create better differentiated and innovative products with more knowledge inside them.

The features available in 3D printing allow the creation of complex product architectures just like this robot created at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory(CSAIL) in 2016.

Nevertheless, as the use of 3D printing as a manufacturing process becomes popular, it is evident that most of the products created using this process are not new and complex but products that have been designed for other processes and are now produced with 3D printers. Some researchers suggest that the main challenge of 3D printing implementation is the way our understanding of how design and fabrication work together. In a very interesting research paper, Dr Remi Ponche and a team of researchers show that the traditional way design and manufacturing work together is essentially decoupled. In other words; we are used to design first, and develop the manufacturing process later. As designers we are accustomed to create a geometry, considering an idea of what can be fabricated, and later select a manufacturing process. We adapt the design details locally, in order to make it feasible under the given budget. This way of designing makes sense if we use traditional (subtractive) fabrication methods because adding more complexity increases costs. Altogether, traditional design looks for lower manufacturing costs.  Thus, when we see products that do not exploit the features of 3D printing, we can say that the design process used to create them does not consider the lack of “complexity cost” that is available through 3D printing. Designing products in a traditional way only narrows the available complexity and as a result the available differentiation in a product architecture.

Dr Ponche and his team suggest a global approach to design for additive manufacturing, where we can design using the 3D printing process as a tool to create complex architectures. Contrary to the traditional approach, the global perspective exploits the complexity freedom in the 3D printing process by defining the final geometry of the product from the manufacturing process and the final product functions. They propose a design process that can be used in different 3D printers regardless the technology they use to bind layer by layer.

Before starting we must be sure of our requirements just as in every design process. We must be sure of the problem that we are trying to solve. What is our product’s final purpose? Does it have mechanical requirements? Where and when is it going to be used?

  1. Once considering the design requirements, Ponche et al. suggest a geometrical analysis considering the dimensions of the printable volume and the volume needed to solve our product. Note that printers these days have small printable volumes around 20x20x20 cm. This does not mean that we are limited to build small components, on the contrary, it only tells us that in order to create bigger products we must build them through the fabrication of small modules or use existing materials that help us expand the dimensions of our solution (the use of poles is a very good example, poles give us volumes that we can use as a skeleton to place printed modules around)  
  2. In the second step, we determine the shape of “functional volumes”. These volumes are the components that perform a function in our product. They may carry, touch, grab or attach to something. Usually, we know the shape of those volumes because we know the final function, it might be a sharp edge for a knife or a handle for a tool. Sometimes we must calculate the structural requirements for them to work, in such cases, we must study structural analysis tools such as the ones described in these engineering courses.
  3. The final step is the determination of the linking volumes or connections between all the functional surfaces inside the volume. We must consider the way our printer binds layer by layer to align the main connections to that direction and favour structural integrity ( Sometimes structural anaylises are needed, today there are tools in CAD sofware that can help you do this easily just as the ones used in the example). We must also consider the way our printer lays support material if needed and how it must be removed. The team of researchers proposes the following order to generate such connecting volumes:
    1. Select the main functional surface and design the main connection(s) in alignment to the direction of the layers and the creation of supporting material.
    2. Merge this connection with the functional volume.
    3. Design the rest of the connections among the other functional surfaces (clams, shafts, legs, etc.
    4. If everything joins in one volume, then PRINT.

A new global approach to design for additive manufacturing R. Ponche, J.Y. Hascoet, O. Kerbrat & P. Mognol Virtual and Physical Prototyping Vol. 7, Iss. 2, 2012

As we can see, it is important to know our 3D printer and available material very well before designing. We should also mention that implementing the process for the first time is not easy. How can we design something without having an idea of the final result? In order to better understand the process, we will continue with an example.

The case of the bicycle and the Danish Christmas


Last year I was very lucky to spend Christmas in Copenhagen. Despite being a small country between Central Europe and Scandinavia, Denmark is an amazingly serious one when you realize their commitment to technological development and implementation. They are one of the leading countries in smartphone diffusion and implementation of moneyless payments (leading Scandinavia and implementing smartphone transactions). Concerning 3D printing, there is a great number of projects and initiatives interested in the implementation of digital manufacturing such as the future fabrication program in the Danish Design Center. Among them, Danish libraries are taking the lead in the introduction of 3D printing through the creation of a nationwide network of FABLABs. I was happy to present the content of this post to the awesome team that collaborates in the Ballerup Makerspace. The Makerspace is a well-equipped workshop underneath the Ballerup library a couple of meters from the train station. It is well equipped with laser cutting, CNC milling machines, and 5 Ultimaker 3D printers completely accessible to the public. It is coordinated by Karen Lykke and a team of 4 people who introduce and orient the public in the use of the Makerspace technology. Here, we made a little exercise that exemplifies the design methodology described above.

Retaking the potential infinite connections that we can design inside the volume of a 3D printer, it is worth trying to mix very strange stuff and prove the global design approach mentioned by Ponche and his team. With this objective in mind, I introduced an ideation method that is traditionally used to create far analogies that inspire teams to create disruptive solutions. This method is commonly known as Forced Fit, Forced Analogies, or Forced Relationships. It works by drawing a concept from a random pool, it can be an image or a word, and use it to inspire weird solutions to our problem. The greater the distance between the random concept and our current problem, the greater opportunities appear for the generation of disruptive solutions. The creative method works by inspiring people to attribute qualities to the problem that they could not think before. Nevertheless, taking in mind that we can connect anything within the limits of our 3D printer, we can dare to combine the different concepts that arise from the Forced Fit method regardless the distance or weirdness of the concepts. For the purpose of this exercise, I decided to introduce two very Danish and very different concepts; bicycles, and æbleskiver, a delicious small pancake-like ball traditionally prepared for Christmas.

Through brainstorming, we found an opportunity to design an object for drunk-cycling. The design requirements for this object are implicit in the concept itself.

Step 0: Defining the requirements

Using the Forced Fit technique we explored weird pairs of concepts around the bicycle and æbleskiver, we chose concepts in random couples as a starting point for our objects. The example presented here comes from the match between “commuting home” and “gløgg” (a Danish version of mulled wine). As we mentioned before, we imagined an object that could help us drunk-cycling without creating the form itself. The concept of the “Cyggle” as we wrote in a post it, was something that could assist you steering your bike handle safely, therefore the requirements needed were:

  • Have contact with the handle surface to block and slow down its movement (How strong should it be?)
  • Fix the object to the bike frame to create an anchor
  • Hold a beer to continue partying

Step 1: Geometrical analysis

The given requirements gave us an idea of the surfaces that the object will interact with. we know now that we want to block the handle movement, and that the Ultimaker Printer has a printable volume around 20 x 20 x 20 cm. Thus, we compared both volumes and realized that there are 3 functional surfaces that must fit in the printer:

  • The handle brake
  • The frame clamp
  • And the cup-holder

Step 2: Functional volumes

Using the information from our requirements and the available volume, we can define the shapes of our surfaces and volumes if needed. For the initial workshop, we used a combination of paper prototyping and Tinkercad to visualize the fit of the functional surfaces and the printable volume. Next, we proceded to detail the surfaces and volumes that were going to function around the object. For example:

  • Looked for standard 355 ml. beer cans and sized the cupholder to fit it loosely (we want to grab our can and place it back easily!)
  • Measured the size of the handle and frame of an existing bike to scale things properly.
  • Included new features, like teeth in the frame anchor to fix it better.
  • Downloaded a bike model from Thingiverse and fitted everything on.

Step 3: Linking volumes

From Top-Down – Left-Right: Initial functional surfaces, Functional volumes, Software Optimization, and Optimized form.

As we have already said, we can follow functional volume priorities to design our linking volumes according to our printer layering. However, to make an example of the tools that we can access today, we used Autocad Inventor which in its 2018 version brings a topographic optimization tool that helps us suggest the best linkages for our bodies. Hence, we inserted our functional and printable volumes in the software environment to get a glimpse of the optimized geometry. It is important to mention that this kind of software needs a very detailed version of the requirements, forces, fixed points, materials, volume etc. Form all these requirements, we variated the shape of the printable volume (always fitting into the possible solutions) to play with the computer results. The results created a rib that crossed the volume from the tip of the contact point of the handle to the bottom of the frame clamp. This rib transfers all the force of the movement from one edge to another and therefore should become our main linkage. The cupholder is not as important since it does not experience structural stress. Using this information, we created an optimized form over the software suggestions that would satisfy the structural criteria and have a proper look of a biking product.

From Top-Down – Left-Right: Initial fin ideas, Fins working sketch, Final fin geometry,  and Curvature analysis that shows how the fins are perpendicular to the main linking volume.

Yet, as you may have noticed, we have a product that lacks the flexibility to turn gradually. It blocks the movement to the extent of the calculated force in the software. In order to make it flexible, we decided to use another feature that makes use of the complexity freedom in 3d printing; thin structures. We divided the rest of the volume into 1.5 mm fins with 1.5 mm spaces between them. These thin structures have been proven to be flexible enough to make simple spring-like structures with common 3D printing plastics like ABS or PET. By dividing this volume, we are facilitating the movement of the handle. Every time the handle pushes, the fins star bending and collapse against the next one. The more you push, the more fins touch, and the more resistance they present. The fins touch each other to the point where all fins are connected and you cannot push anymore. We have aligned the fins to the layering direction of our printer, in this way we guarantee the structural integrity of the linking volume and the lack of supporting material. In this way when printing, the extruder will never interrupt the creation of the layer giving it more strength.

A simulation that shows how the fins compress and make resistance(I apologize for the moving camera).

As you can see, the final result was not designed before the manufacturing process, in a separated step with assumptions of possible shapes. Instead, the object was created at the same time it was created in the printer environment. This achieved two main objectives; first the connection of two very odd concepts in a real object that could be printed in a Fablab. Second, the inclusion of a greater complexity manifested in more features that include, the cupholder, the frame grip, and the flexible fins. The main point of this post is to demonstrate that even the smallest and most common 3D printer can be used to generate complex proposals. We proof through this example that the 3D printer is a great tool for the exercise of our creative freedom, and a great excuse to experiment and execute innovative ideas. If you have access to a 3D printer, I would like to invite you to try this methodology and experiment.

Final “cyggle” version

The final “cyggle” version is being printed right now. Once it is ready, an update will be posted with pictures.

I would like to thank the Ballerup Bibliotek Makerspace staff and Karen Lykke for all the time and space provided. 



Freedom to fabricate … but what?

Today is rare to find someone who does not know what a 3D printer is. The popularity of this technology boomed in 2009 when the first FDM patents expired. Despite being a technology almost 30 years old, it remained a process for industrial prototyping until the expiration of the patents allowed open-sourced manufacturers to create the first desktop 3D printers. Thanks to this release the price of 3D printers fell 55% with desktop printers available for $1,000.00 USD. Such a drastic decrease pumped expectations of journalists and makers who even compared the desktop printer with the Replicator in Star Trek series. In the Sci-Fi series, the Replicator is a machine that rearranges molecular structure in order to synthesize food or other necessary objects for space exploration. Similarly, initial claims suggested that in the future 3D printing would allow everyone to print everything they wanted everywhere they wanted just by pushing a button. Despite not being able to do this yet, much of the popularity of the 3D printer comes from its availability, or what some journalists consider its ability to “democratize manufacturing”.

However, the introduction of 3D printing has gained more traction in industrial instead of desktop applications. Unfortunately, while the growth of the 3D printing industry in 2015 reached $5.1 Billion USD, desktop printers only accounted for an approximate of 25% of the total value of the industry with 278,000 sold units. This means that the real impact of 3D printing can be found in corporations and businesses that currently experiment new applications of prototypes and finished products. For example, according to PWC in 2014, 67% of manufacturers already used 3D printing (2014). Nevertheless, it is important to stress that from those companies that already use printers, just 2.6% use them to fabricate products that cannot be made through traditional methods. Which means that almost all of them are trying to find a way to use it or are just prototyping products that later will be fabricated by other means. Accordingly Michael Stern, from the department of mechanical engineering at MIT, suggests that what we see underlying this apparent boom in the diffusion of 3D printing is a direct substitution fallacy (2015). This means that despite 3D printing can be used to create almost anything just like the Replicator, we are just using it to substitute current manufacturing processes instead of creating something really new.

This raises a huge problem because we already know that additive manufacturing processes (the name of 3D printing in fabrication) cannot substitute traditional manufacturing methods in terms of scale. Comparative analyses have been made by many researchers that confirm that 3D printing is a manufacturing process that must be used to create small and complex batches of products. Economies of scale are a benefit of specializing businesses in just one activity. Making a mold for the production of millions of fidget spinners will always be more effective than 3D printing them. And as we know,  manufacturing a mold requires a huge investment. Unfortunately, when we talk about the “democratization of technology” what we really want is the ability to create freely. However, what we seem to be doing is just doing the same stuff in a very unproductive way which might not help the growth of desktop 3D printing.


Maybe 3D printing is not as liberating as we thought (Beast Token Fail by http://zheng3.com)


Does that mean that the claims of 3D printing potential were all wrong? It is important to say that we have to be always extremely critical with technological hypes suggested by media. The introduction of technology and innovation is always an uncertain matter. Accordingly, predictions and forecasts are more similar to promises that to prophecies. Yet, the properties of the 3D printing process that gave birth to those claims are still true. Therefore I argue that we need to have a better understanding of the affordances that we can access through 3D printing, in order to make a clear image of this democratization of technology and be free to fabricate.

What is really new about 3D printing?

As you might have read somewhere else, 3D printing is a process that allows the creation of freeform bodies. It does so by adding layers of material instead of subtracting it from a big raw piece. This allows it to build precise volumes by placing material where other processes are not able to do the same. Almost all 3D printers use only the material necessary to build the assigned product (some use support material that can be minimized according to the design). This means, that as long as printed products have the same mass, they will have the same cost. This is called “complexity freedom” and is the source of all those extraordinary Replicator claims. Let’s examine what it means.

Complexity is the property of systems that are assembled of many components which have relationships between themselves. The more components and relationships in a system, the more complex the system is. From that perspective, a spoon is not as complex as a pair of scissors. A spoon might have 3-5 components with 2-3 interfaces, whereas a pair of scissors can have 7-10 parts with 5 interfaces which makes it more complex than the spoon. Complexity can also be understood in two categories; functional complexity and manufacturing complexity. Functional complexity is the one that is related to the way the system fulfills its purpose. To fulfill more complex purposes, systems regularly need more components. For instance, the functional complexity of the spoon requires at least one part for food and another for handling. Differently, manufacturing complexity is the one related to the fabrication process. Manufacturing processes and materials have restrictions, which means that  For example, fabricating a wooden spoon allows us to keep the architecture simple, whereas fabricating it with injection molding will force us to include more elements such as ribs and frames that helps the structure of the spoon. In traditional manufacturing, increasing functional complexity usually also increases manufacturing complexity and as a result, fabrication cost. For the same reason, that who owns the more complex part of a product usually gets more revenue from sales. When we say that 3D printing gives us “complexity freedom” is because they break this relationship between functional and manufacturing complexity. This means that when we use a 3D printer, our products can involve a greater number of functional components without increasing the manufacturing cost! Consequently, the cost of production is the same for a cube or for a working clock as long as they have the same mass.

The problem here is that we have always designed our products thinking of a manufacturing process and the restrictions it creates for product complexity. The design process has always been considered a negotiation between the objectives that you have to accomplish with your design, and the possibilities that your resources can afford. There is even a term called Design For Manufacturing and Assembly (DFMA) surged in the 1980’s and 1990’s which looks for the integration of manufacturing knowledge in the design process. So, what shall we do when the process itself has no restrictions? Remi Ponche and his colleagues at the Institut de Recherche en Communications et Cybernetique de Nantes in France suggest that we need to change the way we think of the relationships between our processes and our product. In traditional DFMA we have knowledge of geometries that are possible through the different processes. This pre-defines our available results letting the 3D printer just add a little more value to the design that we have already finished before using the printer. The researchers call this a partial approach because it does not consider the printer completely. What they propose as a global approach is designing with the printer itself. They suggest a process where the volume of the product is developed step by step according to its functional requirements and its position inside the 3D printing volume. Going back to the complexity talk, a process like this helps us exploit the available “complexity freedom”. Allowing us to use the printing volume as an interface that joins all the components that we can insert into it. Therefore, when we claim that the printer can help us create whatever we want, we must correct to say that 3D printing allows us to create complex objects that combine multifunctional components. 

Vive la impression 3D!

Back to the argument for the democratization of technology, we can now say that having a 3D printer at home can give us a tool for the creation of complex combinatory products. But, why would we like to do complex products instead of printing awesome avenger rings? Well, there is a very good reason in what Nobel Prize winner Friedrich Hayek called, the creative powers of a free society. For Hayek, it is very important to accept that despite knowing a lot of things through science, the most important thing we must accept is that as individuals we are pretty ignorant. The world we live in is incredibly complex and it is impossible for everyone to know it all, regardless our academic education. Driving a car is a very good example. For you to drive a car you only need to understand the car controls and the traffic rules. Nevertheless, the car and all the other artefacts, traditions, and institutions around you, have evolved thousands of years by incorporating knowledge of the people that created and perfectioned them. Luckily for you, you only have to take a few driving lessons and pass a test! As this example shows, the progress of our wellbeing is built around the creative solutions that accumulate through time. By people who find a problem and create solutions that later help everyone else. For Hayek, this creative process should be accessible to all. If in the past one person like Leonardo DaVinci, could create so many incredible ideas and solutions just imagine what could happen if we all had the same possibilities that DaVinci had! In a free society, people should have access to creative tools that help them in the creation of new solutions no matter what they are. The 3D printer is one of those tools that have the potential to allow people to combine ideas and create novel solutions for all of us. We just need to learn how to create complex ideas that make use of the capabilities of the 3D printer. 


The Additividt Cookbook experiments what 3D printing means beyond technology (http://additivism.org/)


Exploiting this complexity is a difficult challenge for all. As we mentioned above, manufacturing complexity has always shaped our thinking. Dealing with this complexity freedom requires that we re-evaluate everything we know about design, manufacturing, and business. Because besides creating solutions for the sake of invention, giving everyone a 3D printer would theoretically allow them to create complex products and profit from them. Economic development initiatives could leverage the impact of 3D printing by giving people access to new methodologies and processes that could help them managing product complexity. Amazing examples can be found in explorations such as the Additivist Cookbook and the Fabricate International Conference Proceedings. Algorithms for topological optimization, structural analysis, parametric modeling, micro-structures, temperature responsive surfaces, and intersections with other manufacturing processes and disciplines are already being developed. In order to completely exploit the possibilities of 3D printing technologies, we need to design systems and interfaces that translate all these developments for everyone in contact with additive manufacturing. Maybe then, the democratization of 3D printing could reach its full potential as a liberating tool. Creators from every point of the society could make use of 3D printers to explore new ways of solving current problems by combining existing artefacts and ideas without the need for capital investment. 

Maybe giving everyone a Replicator to have at home sounds like a great idea. Yet giving away the technology without helping users to understand how it really works sounds more like giving away canned food without giving people can openers. As many experts and journalists claim, 3D printing could start a 4th industrial revolution … as long as with those printers, we also teach people how to design with complexity.