Designing for the Long Tail – 2 Examples Enabled by 3D Printing


Lee-Bath Nelson  

3D printed award winning 103% vase designed by Han Koning

The world around us is more and more personalized and customized. Designers find themselves with a dilemma: design for the average person which might be a compromise on the designer’s part and on the individual customer’s part, or offer variations each of which would apply to different people. You might think there is no dilemma, the second option clearly serves each end customer better – these diverse end customers are collectively called “the long tail”.

However, mass manufacturing, logistics, and inventory costs make it very expensive for designers to cater to the diverse long tail and they often need to guess in advance which variations will be more popular (and mass manufacture only those designs) – defeating the purpose. That’s where 3D printing as a production method comes in – with 3D printing, any quantity goes and variations don’t carry any added manufacturing cost.

Here are 2 examples (and an Alessi bonus) of how designers used 3D printing to tackle, or potentially tackle, the long tail and product variations.

3D printed 103% vase designed by Han Koning - detail

1. 103% vase

Han Koning‘s award winning 103% vase was mass manufactured in China in 2002, after winning the HEMA design competition. This stock was sold out and now, 13 years later, Koning found himself with demand for this popular design but not enough demand to warrant mass manufacturing. His solution is to 3D print the 103% vase to order (see both pics above). This allows him to meet the demand without putting up a significant up front investment into mass manufacturing a large batch of vases in China, and then storing them and managing their logistics. A clever solution that can apply to any 3D printable design that is still in demand by the long tail.


Francis Bitonti 3D printed Cloud Collection Photo Andrew Tingle Group

2. Cloud bowls

Designer Francis Bitonti wanted to let his customers influence their items and customize them to their needs. He designed a vase, bowls, and a plate that can be modified by the customer and then the customer can download a 3D printable file to print their customized design locally. Allowing the customer to interact and influence their selection creates psychological involvement and a deeper sense of ownership. Local printing is cheaper and better for the environment – everyone wins. The Cloud Collection (above, photo by Andrew Tingle) taps into all that.

3D printed prototype - multi tier tray designed by Marcel Wanders

3D printed prototypes designed by Toyo Ito for Alessi


In all cases, delivering a 3D printable digital design file simplifies the process and lowers up front costs for the designer, while lowering the total cost for the consumer. If the designer wraps this digital design using Make it LEO, he can still control the number of items that can be 3D printed from the file as well as the boundaries of the allowed changes to its underlying design. This gives designers and product owners the comfort to share or sell digital designs (more info).

Now imagine if brands would also use this combination of 3D printable digital designs and Make it LEO to efficiently test products: release a limited 3D printable quantity to the market and observe which designs have high demand before deciding which design to mass manufacture and which to continue 3D printing for the long tail (or discontinue). This idea was highlighted by the current exhibition of Alessi‘s rejected products at the Design Museum Holon, titled In-Possible. Quite a few products were rejected because customer adoption was uncertain or because mass manufacturing was too expensive. In both cases, it is very possible that there are people in the long tail that would pay a slightly higher price for these innovative items to be 3D printed. 3D printed prototype examples of some potential Alessi products from the exhibition can be seen above (by Marcel Wanders and Toyo Ito) and below (Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec). The DMH exhibition is on now until June 6th.

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3D printed prototypes Bouroullec Brothers for Alessi

3D printed prototype by Bouroullec brothers for Alessi


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