User-generated content is evolving from media to manufacturing via community-driven, consumer-scale manufacturing and distribution. The latest competitor for your partner and wallet share is Shapeways, which adds a social networking/community overlay on top of an eMachineShop-style prototyping/3D printing service.
A recent piece by Techcrunch's Mike Butcher describes how this new Shapeways site is using conventional additive manufacturing (a subject with which we are intimately familiar here at IW) but adding an image-rich user experience that brings the concept straight to consumer's desktop:
"You just upload the design from some CAD software onto the site. Shapeways checks whether the object can be made and provides a real-time cost estimate. Within 10 working days, a tangible 3D product is produced and shipped globally. At the moment they only print to four kinds of plastics but other materials, like metal, are planned.
. . .Shapeways is actually aimed at people with 3D CAD software used by small businesses and will eventually offer its own online CAD tools. The site uses 3D industry standard file formats (STL, Collada, X3D) and the average cost of objects is $50 - $150. At the moment it looks like they are limited to desktop-sized pieces, but perhaps we’ll one day see Star-Trek-style printing of bigger objects."
Of course a Techcrunch writer was going to eventually bring the discussion around to Star Trek!
The biggest innovation here might be the social networking layer -- Shapeways is aggressively looking to create a "design community" that will collectively innovate and create new designs to solve their own problems, cutting out the manufacturing middleman in the process. Ironic that the "Next Industrial Revolution" might actually end up resembling the First -- i.e., the rise of the cottage industry -- in scale if not in technology or product.
If you haven't seen the process, here's a video of additive manufacturing (h/t Motorola). Likely as not it's a similar machine that Shapeways is using to satisfy the rapid prototyping needs of the community it's trying to build, which begs the question: You've probably got the additive manufacturing machines, but what are you doing to engage your buyer community?