Democrotizing design-your-own tools

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Innovation often focuses on improving usability in order to access a broader audience.  Photography is a good example.  You can buy a powerful, complicated SLR camera and take a photography course, or you can buy a point-and-shoot camera and get started right away.  Further, you can upload any basic image from your phone to Instagram and add a filter without having to know anything technical about film processing.

The Internet economy has always been focused on improving usability and empowering the masses.   Successful Internet companies provide self-service tools that allow non-technical users to engage with their products and services.  eBay, for example, empowers anyone to become an online merchant, SurveyMonkey empowers anyone to write and deploy their own web survey, and WordPress empowers anyone to become a blog publisher.   The theme is “no programming skills required.”

Any product or service that can be templatized or configured via an admin panel will be.   We’ve written previously about such trends as “democratizing fashion” and the proliferation of product configurators (customization) and online design tools (personalization).   Here are a few examples of the next frontier of the digital do-it-yourself movement.

Design your own video game

In the education space there are many self-service training tools like CodeAcademy, Treehouse (no relation),, and Khan Academy that give aspiring web developers the tools to learn new skills.    Along these same lines, Game-o-matic allows aspiring game developers (or aspiring computer science students) learn the basics of object relationships through an interactive video game development platform.   The interface is drag-and-drop intensive with no exposure to the game code itself.

Design your own toy

Cubify lets anyone design their own toy.  The 3D product configurator allows a user to make functional and color selections.    According to Cathy Lewis, Vice President Global Marketing, 3D Systems,  “Cubify Bugdroids underscores 3D Systems commitment to democratize creativity.”  Indeed the online product customization tool enables anyone to play the part of an industrial designer.  The experience is limited and guided, of course, minimizing the risk of user error.  “Creativity loves constraint.”


Similar to the maker’s movement transforming the US economy, we’re seeing an increased interest in “pride of authorship.”

As we’ve often written on this blog, there is a fine line between designing and shopping.  Designing used to mean manual aesthetic creation by trained professionals, while shopping used to mean selecting and buying mass produced products off the shelf.    Now we’re seeing the worlds of product design, product selection, product customization and crowd-sourcing merge together as the Internet continues to produce innovative, browser-based, do-it-yourself, design / shopping tools for the masses.

How will 3D printing shape history?

From the Economist: “The industrial revolution of the late 18th century made possible the mass production of goods, thereby creating economies of scale which changed the economy—and society—in ways that nobody could have imagined at the time. Now a new manufacturing technology has emerged which does the opposite. Three-dimensional printing makes it as cheap to create single items as it is to produce thousands and thus undermines economies of scale. It may have as profound an impact on the world as the coming of the factory did.”

Are 3D printers going to disrupt mass production models and streamline the protyping process?  And, will they find mass market potential much like the paper printer before them?

Makerbot is betting they will.  Makerbot sells 3D printers that start at just $1299.   As prices decrease, could Makerbot put a 3D printer in every household, just like Bill Gates and Microsoft put a PC in every household?

The allure of 3D printing is that lower-cost machines democratize manufacturing, ie give a larger market of makers access to expensive machinery.   Surely the power of the crowd will lead to some inspiring businesses and products.  But, time will tell what economic value is created by the distribution of these manufacturing machines.


Perhaps 3D printing’s purpose will be to enable self-expression?  3D printing service iMaterialise aspires to “empower designers to create designs that enrich their life and to share their sense of beauty with the people around them, by adding unique touches to their environment, by creating a truly personal gift for the ones they love, by taking the opportunity to crystallize ideas they can truly be proud of.”

The Long Tail


Fundamentally, 3D printing serves the Long Tail, ie serves more variety at smaller volumes, enabling

  • Smaller volume batches of productions
  • The manufacturability of products that previously could not be manufactured
  • Highly configurable products, ie customized products

The opportunity for 3D printing, in summary, is to run smaller batches, with less of a need for standardization, ie economies of scale.   Indeed our dependence on the value of scale (namely cost and accessibility) could finally be breaking.

What is 3D printing’s “killer app?”

Shapeways is like an eBay for 3D printing, it is an online portal offering thousands of varieties of trinkets, napkin rings, puzzles, and jewelry.   Like Ponoko and Zazzle, Shapeways suffers from a disproportionate supply of virtual products to real demand.  Sure, you can make “anything,” but how many items have saleable potential?   Portals powered by a network of micro-designers can drive infinite growth of product ideas.  Zazzle, for example, offers for 41 billion virtual SKUs, but what percentage of these products are actually selling?

eBay and Pez dispensers

Like eBay with Pez dispensers, 3D printing needs an anecdotal use case that represents the potential of the makers market.   eBay started as a collectibles market place, ie an online flea market, but found a larger market by expanding across categories and providing a valuable network of buyers and sellers.   Time will tell what markets 3D printing will serve and what products will be associated with innovative 3D printing techniques.