When the Prototype Becomes the Product

The June 18th edition of The Economist discusses using the rapid prototyping technique of building plastic and metal parts layer by layer – someday –  to “print” replacement organs one cell at a time.  Living cells grown in a culture would be loaded into the hopper and then mechanically spit out to create a new liver, tongue or eyeball.

In my mechanical engineering days, I employed this layer-by-layer technology to create prototypes of my designs.  The purpose of these prototypes was to fine-tune the metadesign before releasing it to production, where it would be churned out in the thousands, millions, or billions.  Designers love the ability to print out parts, as it enables a high level of fidelity with quick turnarounds, on the cheap. 

In fact, some designers (for example, Karim Rashid talks about this) go so far as to envision a future where everyone could design, modify, and print out their own special products.  In reality, for most arenas of material culture, allowing anyone to customize and print out products doesn’t quite jive, for a multitude of reasons ranging from safety to performance to IP to aesthetics.  For example, would you really want to mess with the professional design expertise embedded in your iPod just to have a personalized shape or interface?  Myself, I’d gladly pay for Mr. Ive’s aesthetic values over my own.

In contrast, there’s an obvious and compelling value proposition in using rapid prototyping to create custom versions of anything that becomes part of the body.  In some ways this degree of customization is already being achieved today, albeit with ancient casting techniques, in the domain of custom replacement dentures.  But just imagine what happens when we get new organs designed, built and delivered expressly for a market of one. 

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