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.





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