For my money, Teenage Engineering’s OP-1 synthesizer is about as good-looking as instruments get. Admittedly, it’s not beautiful in a classic sense, like a grand piano or a harp. It’s a small, button-strewn thing—like a wireless keyboard for a futuristic PC—and, at first glance, it doesn’t even really announce itself as a musical instrument at all. Instead of ivory keys, or plastic ones that resemble them, it’s got stubby gray buttons, with a row of small dots standing in for the black ones. It is, indeed, a high-end, professional-grade music-making tool, but you wouldn’t be wrong to think it looks a little bit like a toy.
That tension is something the Stockholm-based company embraces. It’s proud to be a lean, unorthodox hardware outfit in an industry dominated by giants. It’s a position that lets them sell $850 synthesizers that look like toys. And one that lets them release accessories for that instrument free of charge on their website, for anyone with access to a 3-D printer.
BUILDING THE SYNTH
Teenage Engineering’s first forays into rapid manufacturing came as they were developing the OP-1 itself, a few years back. Building a compact synthesizer requires careful consideration of the available real estate, on both the inside and the outside of the instrument. That meant a lot of tweaking—and a lot of prototyping, for which they had to look outside their own team. David Möllerstedt, head of audio at Teenage Engineering, recalls:
"When we developed the synth, we were in a position where we had to prototype a lot of things. And I guess we started off like everyone else, going to different people for doing CNC metal, and doing plastic components, and all of those things. We found that process to be quite frustrating, both in terms of turnaround and time but also having somebody else to do your own work, basically, and not have that control and detail of that in our own hands."
The team decided to invest in a few rapid-prototyping machines for the office, which quickly became integral to their design process. Of course, this was a few years back, when the true usefulness of 3-D printing to a company like Teenage Engineering might not have been quite as much of a given, and when the technology came with a slightly higher price tag. "Looking back, it was totally good," Möllerstedt says, "but back then it was, like, lots of money!"
NEW USES FOR 3-D PRINTING
Now, with prototyping machines more accessible to the public than ever, Teenage Engineering is forging new ground and using 3-D printing for a different purpose: establishing a community around their products. They made a small but significant step to that end a few months back, when they released the first set of accessories for the OP-1—a series of simple plastic do-dads that users could fit onto the synth’s nobs to physically tease new noises out of their samples. In addition to making the accessories available for purchase from their web store, the company also posted CAD files for the add-ons online. Customers can find them on the company’s site, right next to its online manuals, or on the 3-D repository Shapeways, where they can be ordered for just a few dollars.
Möllerstedt says it has to do with fostering a sense of collaboration around the synth. "We want our stuff to play well with other stuff," he says. For evidence, look no further than the Brick Shaft, one of the new accessories that adds a small, ridged peg to the OP-1's knobs, allowing musical tinkerers to control them with Lego creations.
But in addition to nurturing that sense of exploration around the hardware, the move to make the CAD files available to customers directly is also about eliminating the costs, financial and otherwise, of shipping the accessories to the customers on their own. "To ship more pieces of plastic around the world doesn’t really make sense," Möllerstedt says. "We want people to buy our synthesizers, first and foremost. It’s not like we’re in the shipping business."
THE UNMEDIATED FUTURE
It’s hard not to see what Teenage Engineering is doing here as something that will grow along with 3-D printing itself. As the technology becomes more affordable and more widely available, sending away for accessories, or even replacement parts, will seem increasingly inconvenient (and, in terms of the carbon cost of shipping, maybe even irresponsible). "There is a transition happening now where it’s becoming more accessible and a bit cheaper," Möllerstedt says, "and that kind of turns around a lot of things in terms of how you can work and how you can prototype, but also in terms of how you can collaborate with others and work together."
Möllerstedt likens it to what happened with software decades ago. In the early days, when computers sat not on desks but right on the floor, filling entire rooms, programmers had to book time at the local mainframe to test their programs—that is, until PCs became accessible enough enough to have at home and those programmers could tinker on their own time. As its proponents have long pointed out, 3-D printing is poised to have the same democratizing effect on hardware. And it’s something that’s going to happen whether companies are on board or not.
"For a bigger company, it’s maybe a scarier step to take," Möllerstedt admits. But for outfits like Teenage Engineering, who think it makes sense—both in terms of business and in ways more philosophical—to focus on a few core products, 3-D printing offers an irresistible avenue for unmediated distribution. And, perhaps more importantly, it represents a forum for establishing an entirely new type of two-way relationship with customers, one that could be unprecedentedly fruitful for both parties.
The OP-1 accessories are likely just the start. But Möllerstedt couldn’t say where 3-D printing might fit into what the company does in coming months and years. "We’re not really sure," he says. "We’re kind of exploring these things ourselves."