3D printing has promised makers endless freedom to create new products and daring designs, so why are we still seeing so many plastic cubes and double helixes? The technology can be a boon to designers, but according to Kwambio, a startup using an on-demand 3D printing model to make and sell home goods and jewelry, it may require an aesthetic upgrade. The New York-based manufacturer seeks to marry the best of technology with the best of design, curating a roster of unique ceramic and metal products that can quickly be printed, personalized and shipped, in effect becoming a new platform for American design and manufacturing. According to Creative Director Chad Phillips, whereas traditional companies may require 6 to 8 weeks to create a prototype, Kwambio's model allows it to turn an idea into a ready-to-ship product in the same amount of time.
"We want to change the paradigm of 3D printing," he says. "In some ways, it's like recreating the shop at the Cooper Hewitt Design Museum, but on demand."
Philips, who was the previously the director of retail at the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum and the creative director of the design-focused e-commerce site Fab.com, understands the market, and believes Kwambio can both improve the traditional retail model while changing the way people think about 3D printing.
The concept starts with curation. Philips has chosen a selection of work from American designers, from really minimal work, such as the jewelry of Mir Ett, to more experimental pieces, such as the material explorations of Chen Chen and Kai Williams, creating a "visually intriguing and exciting" catalog. The Kwambio platform gives designers numerous entry points: they can submit a model, CAD files, or even a sketch, which can be turned into printer-ready plans.
Pieces can then be printed on-demand by a network of printing partners (manufacturing is outsourced) in a variety of materials, such as ceramic, silver and bronze. As soon as a customer orders their piggy bank or jewelry, their product is made and shipped within two weeks. In addition to creating better-quality products, with smoother finishes, than many expect from 3D printing, the process also seeks to eliminate many of the pain points facing small retailers and designers.
Kwambio's system dispenses with the concept of excess inventory, which solves a big problem for scrappy online retailers who can't afford excess warehouse space. It allows independent designers to create small runs of their new items without needing to establish relationships with manufacturers, become experts in fabrication, and develop a supply chain. And, the process also allows for varying degrees of product personalization for customers. Right now, it's not much; for example, shoppers can choose which finish they want for a Mir Ett bracelet. As Kwambio's network grows and the technology improves, consumers will be able to alter the size or color of whatever they order and eventually, according to Phillips, they may even be able to add Instagram-like filters to the finish of a product, making it that much more unique.
"This process can be a new form of American manufacturing for everyone," he says.
Going forward, Philips believes the rapid turn-around Kwambio can offer gives it numerous advantages and unique opportunities. The roster of designers and artisans will be expanded to include new up-and-coming names such as Dusen Dusen, Visibility and Farrah Sit. The startup wants to grow a B-to-B arm, helping small designers print out limited runs of products when needed. With such a nimble system, the company can rapidly test new designs and models to see what the market responds to and what sticks. As they grow, Philips says they're examining the idea of building their own printing facility and taking some of the manufacturing in house. The startup's name, Philips admits, doesn't really mean anything or have a specific origin. But he hopes over time, it can develop a positive, progressive association.
"We want to have a hand in helping change what you think of when you think of 3D printing," he says.
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