Free user development of process equipment: 3D printers

Like commercial producers, free innovators use production processes to create personal copies of the innovations they develop. These production processes must be quite inexpensive to be within the personal means of individual innovators in the household sector. Production equipment made for producers is often quite costly, and so it is reasonable that free user innovators would attempt to develop less costly production process innovations and improvements for themselves.

Consider the development of personal 3D printers—fabrication machines that use design information encoded in software to "print” physical objects. The major role of free user innovators in the innovation history of this field has been reported by de Bruijn (2010) and by de Jong and de Bruijn (2013).

The innovation history of the 3D printer field (often called additive manufacturing) began in 1981 when Hideo Kodama of Nagoya Municipal Industrial Research Institute invented fabrication methods that built up a three-dimensional object from successive layers of a polymer hardened by exposure to ultraviolet light. Other researchers followed, developing alternative methods of "3D printing,” and in 1984 commercial production of 3D printers began. The first commercial machines were quite expensive, costing about $250,000 each. They were marketed to research institutions and to the R&D departments of firms, and were used for rapid fabrication of product prototypes. The time savings over conventional prototype fabrication techniques made the machines quite cost-effective for producers in that application.

In 2004, Adrian Bowyer, a senior lecturer in mechanical engineering at the University of Bath, proposed the development of a rapid prototyping machine that he called RepRap (meaning Replicating Rapid prototyper). Bowyer wanted to design a 3D printer that would be very simple, cheap, and at least partially self-replicating (in the sense that one printer could print many of the parts needed to make additional printers). After his initial proposal, development commenced at the University. The evolving design was openly shared online and soon captured the interest of a widely distributed audience of free innovators who joined the design effort and pooled their contributions. Fewer than ten people were involved in the first year, but interest grew rapidly. By October of 2010, the online hobbyist 3D printer community had grown to between 4,000 and 5,000 participants (de Bruijn 2010, 19, 31).

De Bruijn surveyed 376 members of this online community to determine, among other things, how much time members were spending on various activities related to their hobby. On average, he found, they were spending 10.41 hours working with or developing their personal 3D printing machines per week. That time was distributed into the several activity categories shown in table 8.2. As can be seen, developing improvements to the personal 3D printer—either to print what an individual user wanted or just to make the machine better—accounted for 15 percent of the time devoted by household sector users to activities related to 3D printers. Many important improvements resulted, and all were shared openly. The developers in the online community were free innovators intentionally following open source software community practices (de Jong and de Bruijn 2013).

Table 8.2

Time, per week, spent by the average individual on using and improving a personal 3D printer.


Percentage of time

Building the machine



Printing objects



Developing improvements



Helping other users



Improving skills






Source: de Bruijn 2010, table 4.3

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