2,526 crowdsourcing and crowdfunding sites
You don't have to have converted your entire apartment into a replica of the Starship Enterprise to wish we had some of the incredible gadgets that sci-fi has promised us. Nike has released the futuristic self-lacing shoes (that don’t self-lace) from Back to the Future Part II and Mattel has even promised a hoverboard (that doesn’t hover). And yet, I still feel somehow disappointed.
One new area of technology, however, means that we can finally stop crying over non-existent jet-packs: it is now possible to buy something pretty close to a Star Trek replicator for a few hundred dollars (or a few thousand if you don't want to play Scottie and build from a kit). The era of 3D printing is upon us, and if you listen to some of its devotees, it's going to change the world.
The concept of 3D printing is simple: A special printer creates a solid object from a digital model, using plastic, metal or ceramics. The technology has been around for years, but with the advent of affordable 3D printers designed for the mass market, everything has changed. Now anyone with a 3D design program can create a model that can then be shared online. Yes, it's finally possible to download a coffee cup.
The idea of being able to sell a product without having to actually manufacture it is a dream come true for smaller design companies (and for Chinese factory workers). Several sites are competing to become a kind of iTunes for physical objects, allowing designers to list their products and customers to download them for a fee.
Of these, Shapeways seems to have the edge, with its focus on cutting-edge design (I have honestly never seen a better looking eggcup). The potential market is huge, and competition will be fierce. But as well as competing against each other, commercial 3D print databases will have to compete with a flourishing open-source movement. It seems that in the world of 3D printing, the crowd is one step ahead.
Leading the crowdbased 3D design movement is Thingiverse, where you can download free plans for anything from a stylish new pair of glasses to the world's most insane (yet strangely tempting) iPhone case. You can even download the specifications to build your own 3D printer from scratch.
Even more impressive from my standpoint, Thingiverse allows the crowd to develop and refine each design. The site is growing fast as the crowd experiments with the possibilities of the technology, and it's hard to see how a commercial site could compete.
And there may be more headaches in store for commercial 3D print databases: with a 3D scanner, any object can be replicated. This is going to make protecting intellectual property over such designs incredibly difficult.
- Ville "Wili" Miettinen is the founder and CEO of Microtask. He is a serial entrepreneur and investor, with 15 years of professional experience in software engineering and computer graphics. Wili was one of the founders of Hybrid Graphics (later NVIDIA Finland), a pioneer in real-time 3D graphics technologies. He has also been involved with the evolution of various open standards. Over the last few years Wili has been active in the Finnish early-stage technology investment scene, and holds board positions in a number of companies in the industry.