By Aad van de Wijngaart

The Orange Hall in the Library becomes dead silent. Peter Troxler just explained that in industry will require much less overhead. According to an IBM study, product batches ten times smaller could already be profitable. But, he adds, a not insignificant part of that shrinking overhead will consist of engineers… Precisely the sort of people who have turned out in large numbers to attend his lecture, titled ‘3D Printing and Open Design: A Bright Future for Engineering and Design Professionals?’

They could have known, since 3D printing and similar technologies require little or no tooling or setup time. That’s why Troxler calls them ‘direct digital manufacturing’.

After the silence, there’s a flurry of questions and protests from attendees. Troxler, himself a Swiss industrial engineer and now a research professor at Rotterdam University of Applied Sciences, gives them plenty of leeway. Yes, maybe designers too will be able to work much faster and more efficiently. No, many consumers will have no interest in designing for themselves. And anyway, Troxler adds, the 3D revolution isn’t going at breakneck speed: the oldest patents lapsed eight years ago.

According to him, there may be various roles for designers and other engineers in the new situation. The old image is that of the designer who understands the customer and therefore instructs the producer. But soon each of these three will assume a part of every role. So, we end up with the ‘open designer’, according to some.

Another possibility is that designers will invent not finished, but ‘configurable’ products. Think of tailored clothes with fabrics and details of your own choice.

Some engineers will opt to work as ‘facilitators’, seeking to influence or alleviate social issues. Others will focus on ‘metadesign’: the development of production tools.

An existing alternative is producing a ‘common infrastructure’. Take, for example, OpenDesk: this company started out as a small design shop in London, designing desks that people could build for themsleves with inexpensive materials. Since then, however, it has developed into a platform for such designs, with an open network of designers and producers.

At the end of his lecture Troxler concludes that direct digital manufacturing will force designers to develop a new form of professionalism. Because of the small scale and flexibility of production, the needs and wishes of the user will be central. This will have considerable implications, for as a professional you are the amateur of the use-case. Just think of everything a doctor discovers when he suddenly becomes a patient himself…

Is this a ‘bright future’? “Well”, Troxler smiles, “heaven and hell are both bright places.”