3D printing and the future of product design: Inside Quirky

A tour of crowdsourced product development company Quirky raises many questions about the future of personal and professional design.

Sarah Tew/CNET

How far can you get with a 3D printer and a dream?

CNET photographer Sarah Tew and I took a tour of Quirky's new Manhattan offices this morning. As depicted in her frankly great shots in the slideshow below, we got a firsthand look at the inner workings of a serious, professional product development company.

Normally I don't go in for facility tours. The articles that tend to result from such things too often take the appearance of marketing material. It was the promise of the chance to see how a real design company uses a 3D printer that drew me to accept Quirky's invite.

Quirky's story has been told already. You'll find profiles of the company and CEO Ben Kaufman all over the Web dating back to 2010, including coverage by my own colleagues at ZDNet.

The short of it is that Quirky has a business model based on crowdsourced product ideas. An inventor submits a product concept to Quirky's Web site, where it goes through various phases of community-suggested refinement. Eventually Quirky's own designers vote on a user-submitted, community-honed idea to bring into production. Everyone involved, from the inventor to the participating community members to, of course, Quirky, gets a piece of the revenues from the final product sales.

Quirky brings real consumer products to Amazon.com, Target, and other large stores. To get products into those places, the company not only relies on a community of 150,000 active users, but also has its own team of designers and engineers of various disciplines. Quirky uses a $250,000 3D printer to prototype products during development, but even that machine isn't designed to make the final product. For that Quirky relies on large-scale manufacturing facilities in Asia, just like most other technology product vendors.

A few steps up from MakerBot. Sarah Tew/CNET

The likes of MakerBot , 3D Systems , and others selling this new class of consumer-oriented 3D printer make no claim that their devices will let you print your own product ideas at home to drop off for mass retail availability at your nearest Wal-Mart. Still, look at MakerBot's Thingiverse open-source 3D object design library, or retail 3D printable design sites like Shapeways , or 3D Systems' Cubify, and it's hard to avoid feeling suddenly empowered. Snapped your spatula in half? Just print out a new one. Take that, Oxo.

I'll confess, I've also purchased an object printed on a consumer-level 3D printer.

After I wrote this post-CES article on 3D printing , I was struck by Emmett Lalish's Screwless Heart Gears design. Lalish himself told me he gave his blessing to a vendor on Etsy to take his open-source design and print out the gear hearts to sell. The seller, CarryTheWhat, prints the hearts on an UP 3D Printer, a $2,690 device made by a company in China. I bought a printed gear heart for my wife.

When it arrived, the heart was rough. The gears rotate properly, it feels sturdy, and my wife loved it. But the printed layers are obvious. The seller might have sanded it down, but that would likely disrupt the gear mechanism. You could not sell this thing at Target.

It's not entirely surprising that a product sold on Etsy might lack a certain mass-market polish. Conversely, it's hard to imagine Lalish's design would make it through Quirky's rigorous, profit-driven weeding-out process. It doesn't solve a particular problem, per Quirky's criteria. Yes, at least one person has made profit on the heart, but whatever percentage of my $35 CarryTheWhat brought home, it's a fraction of the thousands of dollars (yes) taken in by Quirky's more-successful inventors.

As evidenced by its storage room's contents, Quirky is very aware of MakerBot. Sarah Tew/CNET

The point of this comparison is not to belittle hobbyist 3D printing, or to look down on the wider world of small-scale Etsy-style craft sales. I wouldn't have paid for the gear heart if I didn't like it, for one thing. Even if I meant to be condescending, I suspect it wouldn't matter at all to Lalish and the thousands of creative people designing and making their own objects, either for profit or simply because they feel the need.

What is interesting is the various emerging choices and venues for those creative people.

On one end of the spectrum you have Thingiverse, MakerBot's community-driven 3D printing design repository. Per MakerBot's open-source ethic, the designers on that site constantly iterate on each others' work, either with the original maker's blessing or otherwise. It's a lot of work from people who do it simply for the benefit of the crowd or their own curiosity. Some of them, like Lalish, apparently don't even mind letting others profit from their work.

Quirky then seems to be the yin to MakerBot's yang. The community participates just as passionately as the Thingiverse crowd, and the output, with Quirky's help, is good enough to generate products with mass-market appeal. Quirky's CEO preaches about empowering individual designers, but the company's goals and those of its participants are also at least partially profit-driven. With its community aspect, though, there's no denying a similar wavelength to the creative energy behind Thingiverse.

In between you get 3D plan retail sites like TurboSquid and the aforementioned Cubify and Shapeways. Profit is the motive, but without input from the crowd or from professional designers, those who upload plans to sell have only their own abilities to carry them. Plenty of inventors have found success that way. It lacks the feel-good appeal of community input, but that route also stands a chance, particularly if 3D printers become common among consumers. Designs for those printers will have to come from somewhere, and the opportunity to make a buck on a downloadable file might draw in traditional toy and widget makers.

As 3D printing and 3D designing grows, and it will, it will be interesting to see how those various options might change in relation to each other. I'd be surprised if Quirky and others weren't already looking at the plan-hosting and plan-selling sites to mine talent. MakerBot and 3D Systems might then decide they need to protect that talent. Or maybe they, too, will want to get in on some of that mass-market retail revenue. Other issues, as well as opportunities, will surely emerge from this new energy around crowd and individual product design. That's what happens when you shake up the means of production.

Corrected price of Quirky's in-house 3D printer. It cost $250,000, not $25 million.

 

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