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3-D printers such as this one from the company Makerbot are becoming more accessible.
3-D printers such as this one from the company Makerbot are becoming more accessible.

Persuasion Notebook

Will you soon be printing in 3-D? Add to ...

Persuasion Notebook offers quick hits on the business of persuasion from The Globe and Mail’s marketing and advertising reporter, Susan Krashinsky. Read more on The Globe’s marketing page and follow Susan on Twitter @Susinsky.

Silkworms are surprisingly cute.

As they duck and weave, moving their little heads in figure-eight patterns, the little manufacturers also hold clues into the future of design. That was part of the message presented by designer Neri Oxman, who is an assistant professor of media arts and sciences at the MIT Media Lab. Her focus is 3-D printing, a technology that everyone is talking about at the moment.

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So where do worms come in? The limitation of 3-D printing as it stands, Prof. Oxman said, is that at the moment it produces three dimensional objects by printing them layer by layer, effectively building a real object out of a two-dimensional base. But nature does not build things that way.

So while they also work on creating beautiful dresses, corsets, and other products with the 3-D printers they have now (you can see some of her group’s creations here), Prof. Oxman and her colleagues at the lab also put little magnets on silkworms’ heads to study nature’s 3-D printers as they build their cocoons.

The magnetometer is better than a simple video camera because it allows the motion capture process to continue once the silkworm is inside the cocoon, and not visible, but still working away.

But Prof. Oxman insists this is not simply a technological pursuit; it also has real-world implications for where design is headed, and how businesses use it. She predicts that everyone will have a 3-D printer on his or her desk within the decade. (The printers are already available, but as with any technology it will take some time to become mainstream.)

“It democratizes the design process,” she said in an interview following her presentation. “The fascination is the magic of imagining something – in three dimensions – and then having it in front of you. It’s really the magic of creation. It’s almost godly.”

Consumers are looking to be empowered by technology, Prof. Oxman said, and that is leading businesses to design products that are becoming more tailored to the real world. She brought up the iPhone as an example of the kind of technology that can change the way people live from day to day.

“The importance for business is to realize that we’re not selling products, we’re selling processes,” Prof. Oxman said. “...We’re designing for humanity.”

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