Will 3D-printed Design Ever Be More Than a Tech Fetish?
There’s not much that hasn’t already been said of 3D printing or the predicted revolution that promised to transform manufacturing and put a MakerBot in every home. While the technology continues to evolve, with new applications like cutting-edge medical uses and building-size structures, it has yet to truly overtake industrial production in the mainstream market–though not for lack of effort.
Ian Yang, founder of the San Francisco product startup Gantri, which launched around this time last year, is relatively late to the 3D printing game, but is passionately and well convinced of its long-term potential. The fledgling brand sells desk lamps by indie designers for under $200 thanks to its use of 3D printers. But unlike many of its competitors, it’s using 3D printing to optimize the manufacturing process without being heavy-handed about the buzziness of the technology. In Yang’s mind, 3D printing is less of a selling point than a purely practical, logistics-driven decision. If you were to spot a Gantri lamp in the wild, you might not even realize it’s 3D-printed at all.
The son of two ground-up entrepreneurs, Yang is a 29-year-old Shanghai native who spent many childhood days tagging along on factory visits and “knew from a young age that starting my own business would be my calling.” After studying at the London School of Economics, he spent a few years working in management consulting while moonlighting in classes at Central Saint Martins, where he became enamored with design and an ecosystem of makers across disciplines.
Fast forward a few years, a move to the Bay Area, a software engineering gig, and an eye-opening membership at the local DIY maker space TechShop, where Yang first encountered 3D printing and the changing landscape of manufacturing with measured caution. “That was 2015, and 3D printing had already come off the hype cycle, and there was sort of an air of pessimism about the future of the industry,” he says. “But I was new to it, and so when I saw it, I didn’t frame it around the vision that everyone would one day have a 3D printer in their home… I saw it as a means of producing design products in a way of helping designers bring their products to market in a way that’s more affordable, sustainable than the current manufacturing process.”
There have been a smattering of similar 3D printing startups in recent years, seemingly split pretty evenly between printing vendors and hardware manufacturers (Shapeways and MakerBot are among the most commonly known) and consumer-facing brands selling 3D-printed products. The three-year-old startup OTHR is one of the latter, ditching plastic for an elevated material palette of bronze, porcelain, and steel, and working with well-known designers like Marc Thorpe and Joe Doucet, who’s also a cofounder. Similarly, Kwambio, which launched the following year, seeks to boost the appeal of 3D-printed products with a savvy roster of designers, and a two-week lead for small, everyday objects printed on demand. On the design week and festival circuit, students at ECAL have been using it almost as a performative concept, with a cash-and-carry “Digital Market” pop-up at this year’s Salone del Mobile and London Design Festival.
Ventures like OTHR and Kwambio seem intent on “rebranding” the appeal of 3D printing for the masses. But rather than marketing 3D printing process as a flashy selling point or heady statement, Yang is simply betting on the technology as a practical, economical means of production, and a way to bring more independent design talents into the fold. He’s focusing on lighting as an initial product category, a significantly more demanding product to create than, say, a vase or bottle opener, with electrical standards and more safety and functional requirements to ensure. And Gantri is using an “intelligent stocking algorithm” that keeps popular models in stock, ready for overnight shipment. It’s all a subtle play at besting other consumer-facing 3D printing companies by focusing on the design and delivery, rather than the process.
Priced at under $200 each, each of Gantri’s products–there are roughly 30 currently on offer, by designers from the North America, South America, and Europe–are entirely submissions-based, vetted, tested, and prototyped by its in-house team before they’re printed in a biodegradable, cornstarch-based PLA that’s specially engineered to withstand overheating. After the lamps are printed, they’re hand-sanded, then painted with a durable lacquer–typically used as a protective coating on luxury yachts–to finesse and mask the signature striated texture of a 3D print to a smooth touch that will give off a soft glow when illuminated.
An accessible starter kit, which outlines best practices of 3D modeling, available components, and other technical requirements, is offered on Gantri’s website to lower the entry barrier for designers and do away with the commissioning process typical of larger industrial product companies. Should a design be selected, Gantri pays back a royalty of 5% of the retail price back to the designer–which sounds low but is notably more than the 2% that is typically offered by larger brands, according to Core77.
In his formative time at Saint Martins, “Every person I met was different, with a distinct aesthetic viewpoint and way of speaking about their work, but what they all had was a dream and ambition,” says Yang. “In the fashion world, that dream is to own their own label or show at a big fashion week. But in the product world, designers don’t really have as much of an outlet–a lot of them end up working for big companies or agencies. They don’t really have a way to build their own voice, their own design brand.”
Gantri, he explains, is a play on the term “gantry,” which fittingly refers to a supporting structure and, in fabrication-speak, to the hardware that holds the machine’s printer head in place. In spite of the nuanced meaning, when users unbox their Gantri lamps for the first time, Yang isn’t concerned if they’re aware of any of this, or that the objects are 3D-printed at all.
“Our mission is not to spread 3D printing–our mission is to help designers bring products to life and offer these products to a consumer at an affordable price. 3D printing is just a means to an end, and lighting is just the beginning,” says Yang, who, point-blank, states his ambitions to compete with the likes of stalwart modern design brands like Blu Dot or Design Within Reach.
“It’s all about the end-product quality for us. Who cares if it’s 3D-printed inside or not?”