Is 3D Printing Disrupting Multiple Industries? How About 3D Printed Surfboards?

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Screen Shot 2014-07-29 at 9.37.27 AMThe Disrupt Movement (motto: Do Epic Shit) challenges people to be daring activists that challenge conventional wisdom and refuse to accept the status quo. This popular “how to be a successful rebel” ideology is built upon theories advanced by Clayton M Christensen in his 1997 book “The Innovator’s Dilemma.” In this book Christiansen outlined his idea of “disruptive innovation” which he described as “the selling of a cheaper, poorer–quality product that initially reaches less profitable customers but eventually takes over and devours an entire industry.” Since then, disruption is The Thing to be doing.

While it certainly can become as hokey and meaningless as all activities that require things such as visioning or rooms full of executives chanting “DISSS-RUPPTTT!” in unison, it does provide a lens for examining the ways in which 3D technologies continue to shift the landscape of modern production. This shift has been one of democratization of production as higher-powered tools become more cheaply available to a wider number of users of all levels. This is more than just the provision of a technology, making sure everybody has a toaster, for example. Instead, this latest disruption is more akin to allowing people access to a fully stocked test kitchen and asking them to rethink ingredients.10456262_1514221552124663_5475641839200138695_n

Just as the disruption caused by internet technologies has become so familiar that it’s cliché simply to mention it, so too is the impact of 3D technology. Similarly, just as the internet was predicted to cause such fundamental change that we would soon be transporting ourselves in a way that would make Scottie’s efforts to ‘beam us up’ look primitive, 3D printing has been hailed as the mechanism by which humanity will be saved (or destroyed depending upon which side of the hype you happen to fall.)

There is no denying that these technologies have altered and will continue to alter the world as we know it. No one has remained untouched by the internet revolution – even if only indirectly. However, we are not beaming ourselves through teleporters and books are still a vital part of human life. So, how do we separate the hype and histrionics from the more realistic assessments?

Chris Anderson, CEO of 3D Robotics, former editor-in-chief of Wired, and author of  “The Long Tale, Free” and “Makers: The New Industrial Revolution” sees the major shift caused by 3D technologies being in the desktop and personal aspects of manufacturing. In an interview with Robert Bolton, Anderson describes the impact that 3D printing would have on American manufacturing:

“Traditional manufacturers have been able to do this for a long time. It doesn’t change what they do tremendously… We are seeing this democratization movement where it’s not 3D printing is new, it’s that desktop and personal 3D printing is new. Likewise for manufacturing across the board, you can start at the words “personal” and “desktop” to manufacturing… What you’re seeing is mass participation in the kind of product development that previously required industrial skills, companies with funding, and expensive tools.”

Which brings us to surfing.

Srufer free falling from board, photo courtesy of Matt Lightner, https://mattlightnerphotography.tumblr.com

Srufer free falling from board, photo courtesy of Matt Lightner, https://mattlightnerphotography.tumblr.com

The surfing culture is one of individualism, but not in Midwestern Mountain militia form, but rather in a more laid- “I gotta be me” kind of mentality. As a subculture it came into its own right after World War II and drew on ideals of leisure and endless summer that were the antithesis of the crewcut corporate career values that were seen as mainstream. Surf culture in its ideal form rejects capitalist materialism as well as conservative social values. However, there are a large number of capital outlays required to purchase both equipment and the free time to engage the sport.

10261998_1492194267660725_7953081757468587545_nA surf shop called Disrupt Surfing in Bondi, Australia is making an attempt to bring together the naturally disruptive nature of surf culture with the technologically disruptive nature of 3D printing. Building on the personalization possibilities presented with 3D printing and a moral mission to create more opportunities for surfers to engage the sport, they offer custom surfboards at only $350.

Threads of crowdsourcing run through their business model. The price of the boards is made possible by block ordering, a system by which a certain number of orders from individuals are collected before processing, allowing the costs for all to remain low. Customers provide Disrupt Surfing with details about their custom surfboard and Disrupt Surfing then creates a 3D rendering of that board. A 3D printed model of the board is created and further refined in preparation for full-scale shaping. That shaping begins when a 3D digital file is uploaded to a shaping machine and ends with the product being glassed and sprayed.

Christiansen’s idea of industry disruption occurring when cheaper products displace those with established availability. An aspect of his theory that is problematic in light of this new wave of disruption is the idea that these newer products will necessarily be of poorer quality. We have reached an age in which quality was sacrificed for price and where prices have steadily risen since quality has continued to decline. In fact, therefore, this latest series of disruptions may result in lower-cost goods at higher quality.

It is doubtful that it will lead to utopia – hardly anything ever does – but a more realistic assessment is that this generation of disruptors will be the next generation’s status quo… ripe for the next wave of disruption.

Let’s hear your thought on the powers of 3D printing to disrupt in the 3D printed surfboard forum thread on 3DPB.com.

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