As I’ve said many times in the past in this column, we’re in a big digital revolution. One of the big drivers of that is that computers have gotten cheap to own and are available anywhere. That means any developer – well funded or just working in his or her basement – can build the next great app. That revolution is in full swing.
Now we’re starting to see a new revolution starting up, and that’s the 3D printing revolution.
For years, 3D printing has been something for huge companies with multi-million dollar machines to make prototypes of products. Recently, however, 3D printing has become a whole lot cheaper and as a result, it’s available to many more people.
I don’t have a million dollars and I’ve got a 3D printer sitting right next to me as I write this. With it I can make all kinds of things: cell phone cases, cat toys, repair parts, tools and much more. That’s all fun, but…what if I told you that you could print a 3D house? Read that sentence over again… Yes, it’s possible, and it’s happening right now.
There is an open-sourced project right now called WikiHouse. They have developed a “kit of parts” that will let you build a house of your design out of 3/4” plywood. To build the house, you get Sketchup, a fantastic 3D modeling program, then you can download their parts and assemble your house just as if you were working with Tinker Toys or a Lego set. Wikihouse has done all the hard work of engineering the joints and creating modular sections of structures that won’t fall over.
In the 3D virtual world, you snap together the parts, and then the program will automatically lay out your parts on 4×8 sheets of plywood. Bring those files, and a large truck down to your local woodshop that’s equipped with a robotic CNC router, and you’ve got the parts to assemble a house! Who said growing up was a bad thing? Instead of giving up Legos, we’ve graduated to life-size structures!
At the end of this month, I and a small group of software engineers will be assembling a 24’x24’ Wikihouse at NYC Maker Faire. Because of the way it’s designed, we’re going to be able to assemble this thing with almost no construction experience.
IMPACT ON CABINETRY
The Wikihouses are setup to receive roofing, flooring, drywall, electrical, plumbing and exterior sheathing.
The big idea behind Wikihouse is that the factory can be anywhere using tried and tested robotic CNC cutting equipment. This can reduce transportation costs, decrease design and build time and offer great flexibility in design. Plus, with the benefit of engineers coming up with the joints, it frees up designers to design more. You didn’t have to design the Legos as a kid, you just built things with them – well, the same idea is true here.
So if this concept makes you want to put on your tinfoil hat and reach for your pitchfork, let me bring you back to reality… This is already happening in our industry. As you probably already know, robot CNC machines mill many of the parts that make up the cabinetry you specify. This allows cabinet companies to do a number of things: First, they can offer many different door styles and configurations without increased cost. What used to be a difficult moulder head change is now just a few lines of code uploaded into a machine on the fly.
Second, this also allows for distributed manufacturing. With many parts of cabinetry being automated and mechanized, cabinet companies can distribute manufacturing across a large area. This essentially can bring the factory closer to you.
Now this may sound like we’re moving towards standard SKUs and boring designs, but I think cabinet companies are becoming more flexible. I’ve seen many cabinet companies that used to be strictly SKU based become semi custom companies because of this increased flexibility.
Another fantastic example of 3D printing in our industry is a division of a faucet company right here in Massachusetts that not only makes high production faucets, but they will make runs as small as 150 faucets. They will take your idea, print you out a sand cast facsimile of your faucet for your approval, and then make your run of faucets. If you’re designing a hotel or large commercial space, you could use them to make a custom faucet that exists nowhere else!
At an even smaller scale is a company in New York City called Shapeways. Shapeways has many different 3D printers in its building. The company can make objects out of plastic, steel, gold, silver, ceramic and many other materials. Kitchen and bath designers just like you could design a custom cabinet pull, hinge, faucet or just about anything else. Shapeways will ship you your creation, or let you sell it on its store. Each item is built on demand and at a reasonable cost.
Mechanization and automation can scare a lot of people, especially people in our industry, because they fear that their small custom nature will be erased. However, just the opposite is true: With the power of manufacture being more accessible to the designer, we’re going to be more creative and custom than ever. Imagine a future where you can source your cabinets quickly, locally, and customize them as much as you want. In the back room you may be printing out hardware, faucets, sinks and hinges, all designed just the way you want them. That future isn’t far away, it’s going to put designers more in control and it’s going to be awesome.