Additive Manufacturing (AM), also known as 3D Printing, is a family of manufacturing technologies that build physical artefacts by adding material layer by layer. AM can make shapes that would be impossible or at least very difficult with traditional manufacturing methods that rely on material removal or forming such as moulding or casting. AM capabilities and opportunities include shape complexity, multi-materials, on-demand production, personalisation, and 4D Printing. Recent years have witnessed the emergence of end-use products manufactured via AM, and this is likely to grow in the future (Wohlers, 2020).
AM capabilities are transformative for product design in many ways (Campbell et al., 2003; Seepersad, 2014), but especially since they remove the traditional barriers between design and production caused by the need to freeze a design and commit to and invest in production tooling. AM can bring production physically closer to where products are designed, overcoming the communication and knowledge gap that can occur when dealing with geographically and culturally distant third parties. Unlike traditional mass production processes such as injection moulding, AM does not require dedicated tooling, such as moulds and dies, meaning the transition from design to manufacturing can be faster, cheaper, and more flexible. The digital design pipeline (Pradel et al., 2018; Zhu et al., 2013), which is well-known to designers for prototyping, decreases the knowledge, skills, and expense of the equipment required to make end-use products thus allowing designers to become makers. With AM, the design of a product can be continually upgraded, personalised, and modified with little or no increment in the production cost (Figure 1). This speeds up the development process while allowing endless iterative possibilities.
At this point, the implications AM will have on product design practice are not well understood (Pradel et al., 2018). For instance, if professional designers can modify or change their designs constantly, at will, at any time, there might be neither a clear end to the design process nor a final design. As in craftsmanship or software development, each iteration of the product can become a new improved version of the previous. The sequential structure of product versions could disappear and be replaced by a continuous design flow of potentially incrementally changed or personalised products with new, improved or just different functions or aesthetics. Every item designed and produced could be a new iteration of a never-ending design process (Pradel et al., 2019).
This can bring great opportunities but also significant problems. For instance, how would the quality of the product be assured? How would regulatory compliance be achieved? How much time and effort should be invested in the design of each iteration of the product? How can brand identity be maintained? How would the design process be managed? Would product designers have more or less work? What new knowledge and skills would be required?
Although there has been significant interest in how to maximise AM capabilities through design (Laverne and Segonds, 2014; Rias et al., 2016; Thompson et al., 2016), research to date has focused on the engineering attributes of the finished product, such as lighter weight for example. There has been almost no investigation to explore if and how Additive Manufacturing will modify the practice and process of design. This is partially due to the lack of significant cases made available and the secrecy required for competitive commercial advantage. Many AM technologies are available to designers as prototyping tools, but the application of AM to the production of end-use components is still relatively new. Therefore, there are only a limited number of design consultancies and companies that can or are willing, to provide suitable examples of how this technology has been adopted by designers. Publicly available examples are limited to successful products meaning potentially valuable lessons for practice are never revealed. These companies are significant since they are potential incubators of new and pioneering design practices and provide valuable information on how product design practice is evolving and how it might evolve in the future. Moreover, in sectors such as aerospace, mechanical engineering and medical devices, AM is already making a significant impact on the way products are designed and made (e.g. Arevo 3D-printed carbon fiber bike, Dr. Scholl’s customised 3D-printed insoles, Specsy’s 3D-printed eyewear, Adidas AlphaEDGE 4D LTD running shoes). There is a gap between developments in very high-value manufacturing engineering and their translation into ‘lower value’ consumer goods and domestic products typically found in industrial / product design. Product designers can learn from these high-value sectors how to optimise product design opportunities for lower-value but higher-volume products.
Our ambition in this project is to uncover and study these cutting-edge cases and explore empirically how product design practice has evolved and is evolving. Thus, defining the implications of AM for the future of product design practice and more contributing to the development of product design theory, process and practice. This directly addresses the AHRC theme of Digital Transformations in the Arts and Humanities and the grand challenge Future of Work. This study will pioneer how to investigate the impact of new digital technologies in product design practice. Although this project will focus primarily on AM, it will create a methodological basis for a longer research effort aimed at understanding the impact of other emerging digital technologies, such as Artificial Intelligence, Data-Driven Design, and the Internet of Things on product design practice. Given the value of the Design economy for the UK (£85.2bn according to the Design Council), the transformative impact of the topic, and the novelty of the research, this project has the potential to make a substantial and lasting contribution to design in the UK. This research will give a competitive advantage to the UK design industry with positive repercussions on the service and manufacturing economies. Its value can be seen in four key areas:
First, it will provide a robust conceptual framework for understanding the impact of AM in product design practice. As noted above, the design community already acknowledges the significance of AM in design but lacks a clear sense of how product design practice will, or should, be transformed by AM and how this relates to what designers will be required to do in the future. Intense ongoing debates among design researchers about ‘Design for AM’ have focused on conceptual tools, quantitative rules, and prescriptive design methods that achieve specific product attributes, yet a descriptive analysis of actual cutting-edge design practice is notably absent from this important research. By developing a detailed understanding of how AM is transforming design practice including its relationship to products and customers, the project will provide a significant and lasting contribution to the larger development of the discipline. This research will thus contribute to the pressing discussion on the future of industrial and product design by elucidating AM and its transformative role.
Second, the study will build a systematic methodology for studying the evolution of design practice. This project will provide a methodological basis for future studies on the development of design practice due to the implementation of new digital technologies. Other technologies such as Artificial Intelligence, Generative Design, Data-Driven Design and the Internet of Things have the potential to radically transform product design practice. This project will provide the framework to investigate these rapidly emerging technologies and their impact on the product design discipline. The methodology will draw the theoretical background from case study research and grounded theory.
Third, we will provide a new perspective through a comparative analysis of design practices across different domains and sectors. Modes of engagement with design practice that have normally been examined in isolation will be brought together in a single project. This will allow comparisons between the same types of design practice across fields, and between design projects directed at equivalent institutions in different parts of the UK and abroad. Again, such important analytical work is only possible through a project of this scale with a systematic methodology. Moreover, this perspective will be broadened still further through a virtual exhibition that will bring together design practitioners working on a diverse range of sectors from across the UK. By revisiting some of the preliminary work on these issues with a more intensive focus on product design, the project will contribute directly to debates that stretch far beyond Britain.
Finally, the data assembled for this project will be transformed into a digital resource that will support both professional designers and academic research over the long term. As detailed in the ‘Dissemination’, the impact of this new resource will be compounded through a future-proofed technical design. Through this, the project has the potential to significantly enhance the tools available to researchers investigating similar topics – such as design processes, practice and skills – as well as seemingly unrelated issues – such as the economics of human resources, employment, technology adoption, sociotechnical systems, practice theory, education and pedagogy. The detailed record of design practice at a key turning point in the transition to ‘Industry 4.0’ will provide a unique and invaluable resource to future design historians.