Behind the Work: GE, Evolution Bureau and Makerbot's 3D Team Up

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Facebook fan engagement can mean many things. For the majority of marketers out there, a fan contest or quizzes are the easy way out. But when GE asked Evolution Bureau to engage its Facebook community while promoting its sponsorship of the Osh Kosh Air Show, the agency decided it had to get more real than virtual.

GE is a "real" kind of company-- it has always been about showing, rather than telling, explains EVB ECD Stephen Goldblatt. So simply asking fans "What would you like to see at the Air Show?" simply wouldn't cut it, he believes. "What can we do to get people involved in the innovation and invention process?"

The answer? Bring consumers' own ideas to life with the idea of a "[BLANK] Air Show."

Enter Makerbot Industries, a Brooklyn-based company that is breaking new ground in 3D printing. (Check out lessons from Makerbot founder Bre Pettis from our CaT Conference earlier this year).

da Vinci Gliders to Flying Engines
Evolution Bureau teamed up with Makerbot to create 3D models of things GE fans asked them to make on the brand's Facebook page, from da Vinci gliders to flying engines and everything in between. They took submissions, designed the 3D model in CAD and then created it using the Makerbot machine. The finished designs were then placed into a narrative and shot into videos, which then went up on the Facebook page.

The set itself was handmade through props and hobby store elements, with tiny lawns, trees and bushes. Wherever possible, existing CAD drawings were used. But sometimes, the agency had to design from scratch. When this happened, only half of the object was modeled. It was then flipped around and duplicated. That way, symmetry for each object was achieved.

The biggest challenge, Goldblatt said, was the timing. Submissions were put up on a Monday, the piece was printed within two days, and then the narrative was shot. "For every video we made, the maximum turnaround time has been eight days," said Goldblatt. "It's been pretty much nonstop."

That speed also meant the agency cut corners wherever possible. Even if the CAD drawings already existed, the agency tried to make them "Makerbot-friendly" to cut down on production time. That meant simplifying each object down to its core, filling in holes like windows, doors and keyholes, and then feeding it to Makerbot.

"Because we've never done this before, we skated right through these problems not knowing they were challenging."

The Stuff of Legos
All the models featured so far are made with a material called ABS, the same material that everyday Lego pieces are made out of. However, there is also an option to go green. Makerbot also lets you print from PLA, a form of corn-based bio-degradable product.

Small models, like the da Vinci glider, took under an hour to print. Larger items, like the flying engine, took around eight hours. EVB heavily relied on Google Sketchup, because it is easier to import STL, the native format for Makerbot-- something that Goldblatt said other CAD programs are still unable to do.

But the trend of 3D printing is not just a trend, said Goldblatt. The barriers to entry are relatively low: Makerbot has created the machine to be used by consumers. The biggest challenges are with technical alignment of the various moving parts. "It is precision, and whenever you get into that world, things can potentially spiral out of control." On set, Evolution Bureau kept Makerbot consultants handy in case of disaster.

3D Printing, Handyman's Enemy, Advertisers' New Friend
In the future, 3D printing is expected to do all sorts of things, including eliminating the need for a handyman. For example, if a part of a refrigerator needed replacing, you could print it out yourself, given an ample database of applicable parts and CAD drawings. "The entire utility aspect is massive," said Goldblatt.

As for brands, the option to give consumers whatever they want, whenever they want it, is a huge step forward. "Brands can really tap into this, whether it's something to better their product at home or something for entertainment," said Goldblatt. "I want to be able to say to my six-year old, 'what do you want to play with today?'"

The biggest issue with bringing 3D printing mainstream is people questioning why they should buy it. "It's a machine, first and foremost," said Goldblatt. The only solution is what the team at Evolution Bureau, and other 3D printing efforts in recent years, have been doing: bringing the possibility of creating your own objects to consumers and letting them run with it. "Allowing people to take part in the Makerbot virtually is the first step."

Most recently, Google's interactive agency Grow Interactive created an immersive digital ad for Google's search app that used 3D printing to create real-life objects like buildings, trees and chairs.

Engineers from Cornell University also introduced EndlessForms, where users can "breed" objects like lamps and butterflies, and then bring them out into the real world by getting them printed on various materials.

The folks at Spain-based blablabLAB also put up an installation earlier this year where people on the streets of Barcelona could step in and pose for CAD drawings, which would then be made into miniature, 3D "souvenirs" of themselves.

Since GE launched the project on its Facebook page three weeks ago, the number of fans has grown nine times to just under 100,000. "Consumers are intrigued by something new, even if they're not letting on that this is new to them," Goldblatt says.

The last Makerbot episode, which is scheduled to run Sept. 8, will be a "grand finale" of sorts for the project. The agency and GE plan to add more and more elements to the set and the narrative. "We have some pretty fun stuff, including races," Goldblatt says. And looking forward, the agency plans to continue working with GE to tie in Facebook engagement with real world output. "There is no shortage of ideas," says Goldblatt. "There is no shortage of possibilities."

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