AMSTERDAM, The Netherlands--Not long ago, I asked Scott Summit, a pioneer in using 3D printing in the design of custom prosthetics and an industrial design expert, who he would recommend I look into if I wanted to see the best in the world at using this young technology to make and sell consumer products. His answer, without hesitation? A small company run by Janne Kyttanen in the Dutch capital called Freedom of Creation.
In the late 1990s, Kyttanen had a vision. As a student in design school, he was turned off by traditional product manufacturing, storage, and distribution methods, and he thought there was a better way.
The vision was of a way to use a technology then barely known--3D printing, which was mainly being used to make medical and auto parts--and selling products that people could design themselves and sell them strictly over the Internet. Production would be fast, design would be key, and individual customization would be easy.
"The joke was, 10 years ago, we were 20 years too early," Kyttanen tells me in his company's conference room here. "I had trouble graduating because people didn't believe" the vision.
But Kyttanen didn't give up on what he saw as a new paradigm in product design, and because he had an older brother who worked in 3D animation, it was an easy transition for him to start thinking about products in terms of the 3D models that they would be made from. He started seeing everything as wireframes. And when "The Matrix" came out, complete with a 3D world filled with imagery like he'd been imagining, he thought, "Hey, I'm not by myself."
Seven thousand dollars
When Kyttanen began thinking about designing and selling products using 3D printers, there was no possible way to build a business around the idea. The machines that were around in the late 1990s were so expensive that any product would have cost $7,000 just to make.
But the technology was clearly going somewhere, and he didn't let go of the vision. He thought, if it was so easy for him to design 3D models, many other people could do the same, and the basis for an all-new industry was right there, staring him in the face.
At 5,000 euros a pop, there was no business, but he managed to get sponsorship from a Belgian company called Materialise, and started a department there called .MGX. Materialise wanted him to focus on a brand of lamps, something that didn't quite fulfill his vision. After a couple of years, they parted ways. He gathered what money he had and started Freedom of Creation, sometimes called FOC.
For 11 years, he and a small team have been building the company, slowly expanding a catalog of high-concept designs that are all 3D printed, all customizable, and many of which are strikingly beautiful. In May, Kyttanen sold FOC to 3D Systems, the company that started the entire industry in the late 1980s and a leader in laser-sintering, a process that uses a high-temperature laser to fuse together materials (see video below). The idea behind the sale, he explained, was that by marrying the design side with the production and materials side, and cutting out the middlemen--the products are made on 3D Systems printers using the parent company's materials--it creates the only way to make a business profitable like the one he had long envisioned and, he said, makes it possible to do production on a global scale.
Creating a new world that doesn't exist
You can't say that Kyttanen has small goals. With his vision updated for the second decade of the new millennium, he imagines an ecosystem of 3D printers spread around the world, and companies like FOC farming out the production of their designs to owners of printers close to the buyers of individual products.
While FOC is owned by 3D Systems, it is likely to benefit from a growing number of manufacturers of 3D printers now that, he said, the original patents on the machines have expired. That, he said, means the market opens up for FOC's customers.
And those customers come in two varieties. There are the everyday buyers who see something they like in FOC's online catalog and place an order. For them, FOC finds the right 3D printer, makes the item, and ships it. But there are also clients who either create their own design and commission FOC to make it for them, or who get the company to design something specifically for them. It could be a shoe company, like Asics, which has had FOC do several promotions, or anyone that wants a small number of high-design items, something that would be nearly impossible using standard production methods.
FOC's catalog began with a focus on interior products like lamps. But these days, it is expanding to jewelry and fashion. I've come to visit FOC's offices as part of Road Trip 2011 and to see what Kyttanen and his company can do, and spread around the company's offices here are a number of prototype rings, dresses, handbags, and even iPhone and iPad cases made by Fresh Fiber, a separate company partly owned by FOC.
But those are just the items that the company has already conceived. The real power of a 3D printing product industry, Kyttanen said, is that consumers can have just about anything they want, especially if they have the skills to create the 3D models themselves. But even if they can't, if they're willing to pay a company like FOC--and others that have come along since--to create the digital files, then they can describe what they want, and within a matter of weeks, it will arrive in the mail. Some FOC customers have no idea what they want and just say "make it pretty," he explained. And what does FOC do? "We make it pretty."
And that's the key, Kyttanen explains. Traditional production methods for, say, a water glass, require a long process of design, molding, waiting for time in a factory, and then mass production. It could easily be a year before the glass arrives, and then there would be thousands of them, he argued. What 3D printing enables is an extreme compacting of that schedule in which the product, say a fruit tray made out of sand, arrives in a few weeks, if that long, and in which just one shows up.
What makes it likely that a company like FOC is just one of the earliest of what could be a world-changing industry is the proliferation of high-quality 3D printers. Two years ago, Kyttanen said, there were about 40,000 machines in the world. By the end of this year, that number is probably going to hit 100,000, he said. That means competition for printing jobs--which can be farmed out by designers--and hopefully, lower prices.
Of course, FOC's products are not cheap. They can cost as much or more than quality items made using traditional methods. A high-end FOC lamp can cost about $572. But being cheapest isn't Kyttanen's point. Rather, it's to be able to turn out unique products every time that have a fashionable aesthetic, and to do it quickly. FOC wasn't built to make a million one-euro cups, he said. "We prefer a million different products than a million of the same."
And the added value is in the personalization that can be easily added to any item. A customer can choose something from the catalog, and ask for a message, say, "happy birthday," to be embossed on it. That's easy for FOC, Kyttanen said, and nearly impossible using standard production methods. "No one else can do that level of customization."
Kyttanen noted that it's interesting that some of his 3D printed pieces have been included in various gallery and museum permanent collections as examples of the high art of 3D printed design. But he finds that permanence ironic, given their provenance. "They're digital," he said. "They're ever-changing."
There are, of course, other companies out there selling 3D printed products. Those include Shapeways, .MGX, and maybe a few others. But Kyttanen is not shy in saying that FOC has a ten-year lead on its competition. That gives the company a big advantage with consumers, and would seem to keep its rivals playing catch-up.
But the industry is likely to boom at any time, mostly because there are more and more companies getting into the business of making 3D printers. In addition to 3D Systems, other manufacturers include Stratosys, Objet, and Z Corporation. And while prices for professional quality 3D printers aren't coming down very much, Kyttanen said--instead, the quality is getting better each year--having more producers means more awareness, and with that, a bigger market.
That's the theory, anyway. It could be that 3D printing never quite becomes cheap enough to give enough companies like FOC big enough margins to make a go of it. As well, the traditional product manufacturers in China, Taiwan, and elsewhere aren't going anywhere. It could be that 3D printing is never more than a rounding error in the global market for consumer products.
But Kyttanen is adamant. He thinks he and his fellow 3D printing designers are truly on the verge of breaking open the traditional design world paradigms and really changing things. Having seen what kinds of products and designs are possible, I wouldn't bet against his vision.