Impact of 3D Printing on Product Design

THREE WEEKS AGO, I wrote about how 3D printing as a manufacturing technology can impact supply chain. This week I am writing about the impact on product design and then – especially – on the design process as part of the overall manufacturing process. I expect here the biggest impact will manifest itself. 3D printing has also impact on the design of products itself. But that is a topic for another time.

source: East Capital

source: East Capital

So let’s talk about product design process. For mass-produced goods, the design step is extremely critical. It involves many disciplines from designing the product to sourcing components and finding production partners. The product is thoroughly tested, because it is expensive to make mistakes due to the large production batches. The result is that the product design process is long.

A high level mass-production manufacturing process can be broken into the following steps:


  1. design product
  2. prototype product
  3. test product
  4. manufacture product
  5. distribute product
  6. sell product

What kind of impact can 3D printing have on this process? The strength of 3D printing is the ability for small series or one-off production runs. The effect is that it shortens the lead time of a product and reduces the manufacturing risk due to smaller batches and just-in-time production. These effects have an impact on the design process. It can be leaner and can iterate faster through improved product versions than is usual today. New improved product designs can be taken into production immediately, and the changes are instantly available to customers.

To sum it up the impact of 3D printing on product design process is:

  • Ultra short lead times
  • One-off or small series production
  • Instant design changes are incorporated into the manufacturing process
  • Limited exposure when product fails

These benefits will have an effect on the design process. They will enable new, innovative product design processes. I like to group them as follows:

  • Lean Product Design
  • Continuous or Iterative Design
  • Collaborative Design
  • Distributed Design

Lean Product Design
This is basically an adaptation of the design process for mass-produced products but than employing the benefits of 3D printing. The major difference is the ability to improve the product during its normal life-cycle.


  • design product
  • manufacture product
  • distribute product
  • sell product
  • improve product

Continuous or Iterative Design
A step up from Lean Product Design is Continuous Design. Here, a product design is continuously updated or adapted to match changes in trends, environment or new use cases for the product. A good example is a phone case which is adapted for new models coming out on the market. These adaptations are outside the normal product life cycle.


  • design product
  • manufacture product
  • distribute product
  • sell product
  • market changes / feedback

Collaborative Design
Due to the short lead times and small production runs, designers and customers can start collaborating on product design. Although this is a high touch and expensive design process, for certain product categories it can make sense. A good example is personalized jewelry. Sometimes, this is called Co-Creation.
There are several options how the collaborative design process can be executed:






  • Designer designs, customer gives feedback / input
  • Designer designs, customer modifies / improves themselves
  • Customer designs, designer improves / finishes

Distributed Design
The digitization and homogenization of the production process allows for sharing of product designs or parts of a design. In turn, these shared designs can be used as a basis for a new product design. I call this distributed design.


  • Select Designs
  • Design Product
  • Share Design

The impact of 3D printing on product design processes is potentially significant. It allows for quick iterations of designs and enables sharing or reuse of product designs. Designers can cooperate more closely with customers on the product design and can quickly react on changes in the market or environment. While 3D printing matures, I expect that design processes will adapt and change in significant ways. I am curious to see how it will actually affect the products itself. Will these change significantly? What is the impact on trends? Is the perception of consumers on how things are made and work going to change?

  • J Hanselmann

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts about the impact of 3D Printing on product design processes.

    The speed and lower costs are absolutely the most added-value of 3D Printing.

    I think that also traditional manufacturing processes can or are already working the same way as you describe it here. Very innovative and consumer-oriented firms have shown that. Although this needs extremely more time and money vs. using 3D printing technologies.

    Really new design processes thanks to 3D Printing are two of the mentioned above:

    – Collaborative Design when Designer designs, customer modifies / improves (and produces) themselves
    – Distributed Design

    I am very sure that 3D Printing will gain a lot of more attention and market share in the manufacturing sector. Time-to-market, demand for more individualized products and environmental aspects (on-site-production) will foster this development.

    • Robert Schouwenburg

      Thanks for your comment.

      You are right that both Lean Product Design and Continuous Design are possible with today’s manufacturing techniques. But as you wrote, they are time- and resource-intensive. 3D printing makes it much more viable for more products and more companies. That is the reason I listed them.

      I agree that the truly innovative design processes are Distributed and Collaborative Design. I am sure we will see much instances and services focuses on those aspects. And there are already a few services out there.

  • Matt Sinclair

    Hi Robert,

    I totally agree with your closing comments, that 3D Printing “allows for quick iterations of designs and enables sharing or reuse of
    product designs. Designers can cooperate more closely with customers on
    the product design and can quickly react on changes in the market or
    environment.” Those are the things that excite me, as a designer, about the growth of these technologies. But with my pragmatic head on I see some issues with some of your statements…

    You show a six-stage product creation process, and rightly say that the process is long. But how much time does 3D Printing save? Assuming that a manufacturer already uses 3D printing technologies in the Prototyping phase, the only place you save time is in the Manufacturing phase. Stages 1, 2 ,3, 5 and 6 still take the same amount of time, at least until the ‘download a file and print it at home’ scenario becomes a reality. Plus, as you say, where 3D printing excels is in low volume production runs. But for anything other than small cosmetic changes, each new product will have to go through stages 1, 2 and 3 again. So designing and manufacturing 100 pieces of 100 different designs is probably going to take a lot longer than 10,000 of 1 single design.

    I’m not sure about the Lean Product Design model either. Perhaps for very simple products – a vase maybe? But for anything more complex, no way is a manufacturer going to move to the Manufacture and Distribute phases without going through the Prototyping and Test phases. And there’s also the (legally unavoidable) Approval phase – CE, FCC etc. Lean Product Design works for software (though you only have to look at the anger sparked by a game that’s poorly tested before launch to see it’s not the best way to generate brand loyalty), but for physical products? I’m not sure, but I’d like to hear your thoughts…

    All the best,

    • Robert Schouwenburg

      In my opinion I think that smaller batches, make it possible to speed up steps 1,2 and 3. Moreover the manufacturer has less risk to deal with. Of course there will be still tests. But by enabling small changes, the level of effort is less. I can also imagine that proven building blocks or components are used which do not need testing as part of the overall product.

      Let’s assume you are making an iphone case. The next version of the iphone has a slightly different dimensions. The adaption of the design can be quite simple. The durability and applicability of the design has already been proven in a previous iteration. So a trial run of 1 or 2 can suffice to validate the design. With 3D printing that is easy.

      In my vision 3D printing makes it possible to a) manufacture on demand and b) manufacture locally. This will simplify the whole supply chain. Also see my other post on that topic.

      Of course there are barriers to overcome. CE and FCC certifications are a great example. But I am confident that they will adapt over time.

      The level of effort for designing iterations versus batch sizes will have an impact on the gross margin of a product. It will depend per product type what makes sense. It is hard to generalize across the board on this, but I do feel strongly that 3D printing as a manufacturing technology makes it possible to do so.

      Thanks for the feedback!

      • Matt Sinclair

        Hi Robert,

        Thanks for your reply. For a simple product like an iPhone case, I totally agree with what you’re saying. But how about for an iPhone itself? The complexity of such a product changes the arguments, I think. The argument for local manufacturing, for instance, becomes much more complicated when the product is a complex assembly.


        • Robert Schouwenburg

          Yes, that is true. I see 3D printing move from simple product to more complex products over time. This means that complex products will be easier and cheaper to produce using mass-production manufacturing for some time. Judging from what I read and see happening in the research community, I have faith that we will be able to 3D print complex electronics in the future.

          I expect a transition phase to occur where products are assembled from 3D printed components and mass-produced components. At some point the balance will tip towards local manufacturing and assembly.

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