Manufacturing in motion: first survey on 3D printing community

Written by nuvatsia. Posted in Longitudinal results, Survey Result

by Jarkko Moilanen & Tere Vadén

Another industrial revolution?

Wealth of Networks, Yochai Benkler

Yochai Benkler’s book is available online as PDF, HTML and many other formats

Economists and theorists of innovation such as Jeremy Rifkin, Yochai Benkler, Michel Bauwens, and several others have concluded that the Third Industrial Revolution is at hand [3, 10, 11, 12, 14, 15]. Often the discussion around this topic refers to emerging new technologies such as clever software, novel materials, nanotechnology, more dexterous robots and new processes such as three-dimensional printing or the new wave of rapid manufacturing developed by the open source/hardware community, and the associated distributed ways of organising design and production.

3D printing has been around for a few decades already. In that sense, the technology is nothing new. What is different now is the method in which 3D printers and related software are developed and in some cases even manufactured: the open source/peer production model.

In the old world (dinosaur age in software development), the proprietary approach was dominant, companies held their innovations inside and sold binaries to customers. The same with hardware, e.g., printers. In software business the change has been in motion since the 1990’s, most notably through the birth and advancement of of software like Linux and Apache. Open Source software has taken a stronger foothold in business and systems world wide. The advancement of Linux is in Benkler’s words an example of a new kind of production, commons-based peer production [4] and the more general opening of innovation processes has been referred to as open innovation [23].

Commons-based peer production

‘Commons-based peer production’ is a term coined by Harvard Law School professor Yochai Benkler to describe a type of socio-economic production in which the creative energy of large numbers of people is coordinated (usually with the aid of the Internet) into large, meaningful projects mostly without traditional hierarchical organization or centralised decision making.[1] In the book The Wealth of Networks Benkler describes in detail the idea and content of commons-based peer production. Commons-based production as “a socio-economic system of production that is emerging in the digitally networked environment” [2] is different from market-based and company-based production in that the resources used and the products produced are shared among the participants in the distributed network. A subset of commons-based production is peer production in which participants are self-selected and decision-making is distributed. Commonly known examples of commons-based peer production communities are Wikipedia, Linux and PirateBay. One of the latest additions to the list is the RepRap [6] community and projects related to it.

Commons-based peer production as “a socio-economic system of production that is emerging in the digitally networked environment” uses shared resources and distributed decision-making.

Motivations of open source hackers

The motivation to participate in commons-based projects is different compared to “old” types of production. People participate for the fun, they themselves choose the projects they participate in (typically not told or directed by superiors at a firm or place of employment) and they also choose how they contribute [4]. In other words, participants are self-selected and their motivations are “internal”, as opposed to external remuneration, e.g., a salary paid by an employer. The motivational backgrounds of this ‘open source hacker generation’ have been analysed in several publications and research projects, starting with software hackers and more recently also hardware hackers [16, 17, 18, 19, 20]. The specific motivations of individuals vary considerably, but in general, ‘open source hackers’ enjoy what they are doing and benefit from their activities by gaining skills, contacts, respect, and – most importantly – the results of the projects themselves. In a nutshell, open source software hackers do what they do because they want to do it (maybe need the process or the end result for something) and because they have fun while doing it.

In a study of a Open Source Hardware community [16], the eCars community, it was found that 89 percent of the developers are involved because they want to help others and 85 percent say that their (non–exclusive) motivation is the will to improve technology. Also the “altruistic” motivation of wanting to share information and skills motivated 70 percent of the respondents. Only 19 percent reported that they were motivated by monetary aims. (Incidentally, 19 percent is also the figure of respondents that had previously earned income from open source technology, either software or hardware).

Similar results have been found in a larger longitudinal research on DIY communities, which will be conducted third time this summer [5]. The results so far indicate that people participate in hackerspace (and alike) activities in order to build objects (82%), because of social aspects (67%), to do software hacking (65%) and in order to contribute to the community without expecting something in return. In the same research, it was also found that about 75% feel that commitment to community is one of the most important sources of motivation. For nearly all (95%) meeting other hackers and hacker-minded people and having fun (98%) are the most important reasons to participate in hackerspace activity. In other words, the social factor of peer production communities seems to be one of the key elements.

So the question becomes, do these characteristics also apply to the 3D printing community that seems to share features of the open source and DIY cultures?

Background of the survey

Research around 3D printing as an example of commons-based peer production is still minimal (Troxler’s study [21] touches on the issues). The approach in the current research has concentrated in defining the overall change and analysing most prominent features. Statistical studies of 3D Printing community are still missing. This research aims to take the first steps towards that direction.

Research settings and methods

This research is built on surveys. Surveys will be conducted annually, forming a longitudinal data base about 3D printing community, members of it, and features of the community. We have included both 1) people using 3D printers and people who 2) develop 3D printers and related software.

The former group refers to people who print objects with 3D printers but have no interest or skills to make any development either on software or hardware. This group contains also people who use 3D printing services like Shapeways and Ponoko. Shapeways and similar services also represent a kind of commons-based peer production since the models and ‘things’ sold in webshops are made by a large population of people who participate (at least mostly) voluntarily. They create the content. The same situation can be found in the other group too. The second group (technology developers) contains those who make contributions, software or hardware, to 3D printing communities. Of course, the above groups are only a subset of people involved in 3D printing. Somewhere in between are people who buy 3D printers, and assemble and use those mighty machines with the help of the community. They are commonly referred as 3) early adopters.

Figure 1. Target audiences and approach channels

Figure 1. Target audiences and approach channels

An example of community help is assembly instructions related to the Ultimaker 3D printer and the RepRap. People even go beyond the assembly instructions. The community produces a lot of information in wikis. The information produced consists, for example, of test results with different kind of printing speeds, experiences of how different printing materials behave on printers and about particular hardware modifications.

The survey in 2012 was directed to all three groups (in Fig. 1 above). Developers were approached through developing mailing lists and hackerspaces discussion list. End users were approached with the help of a few 3D printing services and twitter. Shapeways, Ponoko and Fabbaloo were asked to promote this survey and they both blogged and tweeted about it [7, 8, 9]. Early adopters were assumed to populate RepRap users mailing list and follow 3D printing related twitter feeds and blogs. Using twitter and getting publicity from 3D printing service providers most likely lead to some amount of ‘false respondents’ (the most extravagant answers were filtered out).

Time to take a look at the results.

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