For a few reasons, I’ve been thinking about printing recently:

USV recently made an investment in Shapeways, an online marketplace for 3d “printing patterns” and objects. Most of our work leading to the investment had been completed by the time I joined, and my mostly-outsider take is that it’s an exciting opportunity because it shifts access to large-scale manufacturing from larger organizations to people with a pen, AutoCAD, or Sketchup (i.e. you and I.)

3d printers were on display at the Maker Faire a few weeks ago, printing plastic tokens and cubes all day long. I didn’t find the tokens terribly impressive, but the idea of self-replicating machines is both fantastic and frightening. (And, of course, tokens don’t begin to approximate what MakerBots could do.)

Then there’s laptop and mobile phone skins, decals, and cases by companies like SkinIt, Zagg, or Etsy sellers, often printed on vinyl or other thin plastics. The cases have a functional aspect — after spending $200+ for a device, I’m likely to spend the extra $20 for a protective shell — as well as an aesthetic and personal one — the cases come in various colors, patterns, sports teams, Sanrio characters, Justin Bieber headshots, etc., etc.

People personalize devices for many reasons; a few more likely, based on past design research in which I’ve participated and have seen, include displaying affiliation, explaining yourself silently and quickly, establishing a different identity, and identifying with a group. There’s been even more personalization of devices since their costs have fallen; if a device’s lifespan is measured in months, not years, what does it matter if you put an “ugly” design on this one?

If it’s not already clear, I think smaller-scale printing for personalization will be more common in the future, not less. So: what happens when today’s hard plastic or silicone cases become paper-thin plastic? (Zagg is dancing around this with its invisibleSHIELD and ZAGGskins — yet I haven’t an idea how heavily they’re pushing on their manufacturing capabilities with these products or others as-yet-unannounced, if at all. )

Imagine you’re at Best Buy and can order up a case/shell/cover with your own design in a few seconds. Imagine if many more venues, less specialized than Best Buy, can do this for you: walk in to to a store, access your digital image in the cloud, and walk out minutes later with a made-by-you thing. Or do it all online.

It’s tempting to jump on what a big opportunity this is and envision a new industrial revolution. The number of people creating personal experiences for themselves is growing, but I don’t think we’re anywhere near the broad-based “creative class” that the Maker Manifesto envisions. Further lowering the barriers to creation will not make artists and producers out of all of us, but it will allow for more experimentation. As a designer and participant, I’m looking forward to that.