Wayne Losey, creative director at Dynamo Development Labs, left a successful toy-making career at Hasbro Inc. to launch his own toy company, ModiBot, which manufactures customizable 3D-printed toys.
At Betaspring’s fall 2013 open house on Oct. 3, Losey was named the startup accelerator’s Maker-in-Residence, part of an ongoing expansion of Betaspring’s physical product and technology track.
Losey talked to PBN about the evolution of 3D printing as an alternative to conventional manufacturing and its potential to disrupt the traditional relationship between consumers and the products they buy.
PBN: How has the role of 3D printing technology in manufacturing evolved over the last decade?
LOSEY: For most of its history, until about five to seven years ago, 3D printing (then called rapid prototyping) was used primarily for preliminary models during the design process. The materials were very fragile, so was it used to help us visualize how a product might look, function, and fit in the package. Currently, there’s a wider variety of materials that have more durability, which behave more like the materials we encounter in everyday products. Much of it is plastic, but you also see newer materials like titanium, aluminum and even things printed from foods like candy and chocolate.
PBN: In what ways can 3D printing improve the way manufacturers interact with their customers?
LOSEY: It’s always been good for showing users how a product might look and function, but more and more, a wide variety of products can be “made to order” via 3D printing, which can allow for completely customized products like a phone case or ear rings that can have your name, photograph or even a 3-dimensional scan of your face or body integrated into the products design. As many of the things we consume have moved to digital, we’ve gotten used to having options, and a lot of personal choice in music, games, fashion, software, etc. This technology is beginning to give us the same amount of choice in everyday physical products. It’s truly mind-boggling when you think about the possibilities.
PBN: What advantages does 3D printing offer for companies looking to sell a product to a niche market?
LOSEY: It’s still really early to tell how it’ll all play out, but 3D printing and printed products are being offered via sites like Shapeways.com to create and sell uniquely-designed items. These services allow independent producers to design, refine and sell items that 5 years ago would have cost tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars to manufacture, distribute and market. Now they can take a chance on making and trying out a variety of designs to see what might sell before ever investing big money on conventional manufacturing. A designer can literally create a design and within a half hour, have it up for sale online. Since the print is created from digital files, the designs can be easily revised or updated if there are problems with safety or quality and then once again be uploaded and for sale within hours. These types of mistakes can kill any company who may have invested heavily to get to on the shelf at retail. But, with the printed approach, you can know of problems after only one sale and make sizable improvements. It’s more like working in code than traditional product development.
PBN: 3D printing has received a lot of attention recently, with some even claiming it will lead to a second industrial revolution. Are these claims exaggerated? What is the ultimate potential of this technology?
LOSEY: I believe the promise of it to be 100 percent true in the long run. It will completely change how we interact with, purchase and what we generally expect from our products. Right now they are static, when we buy them off the shelf, but in the future, everything will be modular and customizable in the same way we might think of a motorcycle currently. We’ll be choosing colors, adding aftermarket modification and even adding fully custom parts. Nearly everything will be available for sale or free as a file. It will be printed locally for some things, probably even in your own house, or if you want specialty materials or processes, you’ll upload the file online and get it sent in the mail.
The state of the art for printing is still pretty rough. Most people don’t like the “unfinished” feel of many printed items. Home printing is really cool. I have two printers myself, but as cool as it is to see something “grow” before your eyes, it’s nowhere near the quality or finish of what we expect from even the cheapest of products. In the long run, though, it will be a complete game changer. I’ve been making products for 20 years and I believe it will completely disrupt both retail and manufacturing. It’ll make what happened to the music industry look like child’s play. That’s why there’s so much attention on it. All the players realize to some degree and companies are starting to make bets on how it’ll play out. It’s going to be amazing to watch.
PBN: What challenges will 3D printing have to overcome if it is to disrupt traditional manufacturing?
LOSEY: In the short term, due to economics, 3D printing isn’t going to replace traditional manufacturing. Currently, a molded product is far more durable, inexpensive and predictable from a quality standpoint. Large industries will be using it to produce really high-quality products for the next 50 years, at least. But the fast and personal part of our product economy – fashion, gifts, toys and novelties – will be literally driven by 3D printing in the very near future, maybe inside of 10 years. Look at the app market and you see a lot of small, boutique studios producing right next to the big guys and sometimes beating them. It’s not just about 3D printing, the bigger idea is that many of our products will be designed and delivered “digitally.” That’s the real game changer. 3D printing is just the enabler for it.