Designing Products in an Open Source World

My friend and former colleague Brandon Schauer tipped me off to the Open Prosthetics Project. It’s a really fascinating glimpse into the future of product design, when the values of “Web 2.0” (transparency, community participation, hackability, the sharing of data) permeate fully into the world of physical objects.

The Open Prosthetics Project produces “useful innovations in the field of prosthetics and freely shar[es] the designs. This project is an open source collaboration between users, designers and funders with the goal of making our creations available for anyone to use and build upon.” Started by Jonathan Kuniholm, a designer and Iraq War amputee, the project (which has the unfortunate acronym OPP) allows people to freely swap CAD files in order to improve the design of prosthetic limbs.

In the web or software, this would be the end of the story. Exchanging code (or CAD files) is relatively trivial in terms of cost and implementation. (Although certainly not trivial in terms of importance.) But as Brandon points out, with product design, the next hurdles of manufacturing and distribution are currently a significant one. An end-user, even a pretty sophisticated one, can’t do much with a CAD file on its own. Unless you’re an industrial designer with a shop, turning a CAD file into a physical object is a significant investment in time, effort, and money for most. Sure, with a little bit of digging, you could send the CAD files away to be made, but even that is harder than most people want to work. For those with a faulty prosthetic limb, it’s probably worth the effort, but what about if I want to have an open source blender or toaster?

Instant fabrication via 3D printers is a likely solution and, as many have pointed out, going to crack open industrial design the same way that desktop publishing did printing. Currently, though, even cheap fabricators are in the thousands of dollars and the good ones can run up to hundreds of times that. Even DIY fabricators are over $2000. Perhaps the solution is something like is done with paper copying machines now: perhaps there will be fabricators at Kinkos and corner mailing shops that anyone can rent for a fee. The Zipcar model (buy the service instead of own), in other words.

This would be a very interesting business model, although it would be interesting to see how the economics would play out. It will probably be more expensive to “print out” a toaster than to buy an off-the-shelf one. Perhaps the technology will be used mostly for customization of things like prosthetics, clothing, and custom (replacement) parts for larger items like cars. (No more sending away for a special tube.)

OPP and similar initiatives are the first steps towards this different paradigm in product design. It’ll be interesting to see how it plays out.