In the annals of getting-things-made, there have been two distinct approaches that have become apparent in the past two years. One is the classic Shapeways/Ponoko approach (or B2C), which depends on a company owning digital fabrication machines and putting all of the models on one build plate and shipping it to you and/or having a tight chain of suppliers and vendors. The alternative approach is distributed manufacturing (or P2P), where the business provides a platform for machine owners and creators to interact and quality control and analysis is crowdsourced throughout the platform.

Years ago when Shapeways was in its infancy, I asked one of the early team members why they weren’t counting on other 3D printers in people’s homes. The answer was simple – cost would be too high for low-quality products. Fast forward to two years ago when 3DHubs took off and I asked them how they were dealing with quality control – I was told that no real complaints about quality had come up; buyers weren’t too concerned.

Fast forward yet again to today and the most recent announcement from Shapeways is that they will be inviting owners of 3D Printers to print for them. Rinkak, the Japanese variation of Shapeways also announced a similar service, noting that they wanted more people to be a part of their network. Shapeways isn’t saying this is a turnaround or a change of plan but rather, they’re pitching it as a part of their mission to “give our community access to the best and most affordable 3D printing options in the market, and to produce as locally as possible.”

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Shapeways has two giant facilities that are capable of printing hundreds of thousands of 3D models on-demand, with turnaround times somewhere in the neighborhood of within a few days. Additionally, the machines have gotten much better and relatively cheaper; even the ‘upper-echelon’ machines that produce nylon and metal are several magnitudes cheaper than previous generations.

So the question is: will crowdsourced distributed manufacturing take hold and replace the direct method? Will the big brands become big platforms, with nothing but a few servers and offices to connect you and a machine and a community of creators?

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Perhaps not for home-based printing, however it’s reasonable to imagine that it makes sense for there to be small shops with all of the necessary machines pumping out prints for any given local area.

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I care little for the idea that everything you need will come from a single machine, as most people can’t even load a dishwasher correctly or set up a paper printer. Perhaps what is more likely is that every city with over 50,000 people will have a dedicated space with at least ten different machines for a variety of materials and quality that are each producing low-production or fast-turnaround items for immediate same-day delivery.

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