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The Future of Rapid Prototyping

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Co-written by Gianluca Fiano

Remember the replicator that allowed the instantaneous, voice controlled creation of food and other objects? Of course, every fan of Star Trek, wanted one, with only our imagination setting the limit for what was possible to create. Will Rapid Prototyping be the democratization of design? We invited the creative community to peer into the future for us on this issue:

The Future of Rapid Prototyping - Rapid and inexpensive prototypes can now be printed from your home computer. How might this technology change our lives?

It appears that for the immediate future, Rapid Prototyping will be used for creating personalized and hard to replace objects such as heirlooms, sculptures, puzzles and other toys, jewelry, custom fitted eyewear, home decoration fix-it-parts, missing chess pieces, IKEA parts and LEGO blocks.

In less accessible places, like the developing world, war zones or outer space, first-aid/medical devices and other critical tools could be printed on location and on demand.

When it comes to users actually designing their own products, computer aided design tools continue to be time-consuming to learn. Intellectual Property rights and safety-issues may also be a hurdle for the democratization of design. However, downloading 3D files or scanning and copying existing designs will afford them new possibilities.

From a sustainability perspective Rapid Prototyping offers rapid recycling. When an object has outlived its usefulness or has broken, one can simply grind it up and use it as material for new things. Also, no need for planning, storing, transporting and merchandising offerings, cutting out not just the middlemen and markups, but also wasted precious resources.

Our attitude towards machine made things may also change, as they become abundant and cheap and less valued. There may eventually be status attached to owning objects that are man made, and all forms of regulation that attempt to control what people can own will become obsolete.

Designers may worry that rapid prototyping will cut into their business, similar to what desktop publishing and music and video sharing have done to the graphic and entertainment industry. However, the result may just be that the bar is raised for what constitutes good product design, which would benefit everyone.

Rapid prototyping may also help distributing resources more evenly and fairly among people across the world. No person or geographic area will be marginalized. This increase in wealth may not only alleviate suffering and fight ignorance, it could also prevent local conflicts and maybe even wars.

The Star Trek Replicator is not quite ready yet for design and as long as the creation of truly new designs demands a high level of understanding of virtual modeling tools, users may settle for mashing existing designs. However, the day of limitless creation may become a reality sooner than one thinks. It was impossible to imagine, a mere twenty years ago, that we would be surfing the web with all its immense advantages. So, Rapid Prototyping, with its myriad of possibilities, may line up to radically change our gift giving profiles for future holiday seasons and to provide some really creative surprises.

Special thanks to Gianluca Fiano for researching and co-writing this article.

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