3D Printing in the Home: Fad, Fantasy, or the Future?

XKCD/CC BY 2.0

In Déjà vu All Over Again: A 2013 Home 3D Printer Is Like a 1983 Dot Matrix Printer, I suggested that 3D printing was just getting started, and that in a while we would be using it in our homes for purposes we can't even think of now. Ruben Anderson, a former TreeHugger contributor, wrote a thoughtful response; Then Joseph Adair, a regular commenter, picked up the discussion and it turned into a remarkable epistolary exchange that I have tried to edit down a bit and republish.

Ruben: "Making objects is that are useful and pleasing to humans is very hard. Making blobs of plastic that are quickly thrown away is easy".

The reason mass manufacturing is so massive is that it is really, really good at what it does. It is cheap and higher quality than anything you can do at home or in a small shop. This remains true for printing on paper--the very best printing is still done in massive shops on massive machines.

I love rapid prototyping, but I have yet to see a need for manufacturing on demand. Economies of scale are economies. And, in the oil-poor future, what transportation problems cannot be solved by re-regionalizing manufacturing? There is still a non-ferrous metal foundry in every major city.

So look around your house. What are you really, really passionate about changing? Are you really going to invest a hundred hours in a new ferrule on the top of your lampshade? Or a slightly different shaped spaghetti server? What problems are so great that average people, on a large scale, will invest the hundreds of hours required to actually solve them?

It is always going to be much, much cheaper to buy a silicone iPhone skin off eBay than it will be to design and print one yourself.

I think 3D Printing and Rapid Prototyping will have a bubble in the mass market, until people figure out that it is too hard and boring to do much with them. Then they will settle into whatever RP and micro manufacturing niches make sense (plus a few disruptive places we can't imagine). And for the few freaks and geeks that want to spend their life customizing everything, why would the public library not have a full FabLab? Most of the work happens at home, on your computer, then you email the file to the library for printing or cutting. Much better than having a printer sitting there gathering dust 99.9% of the time.

Take a look at the marketing for the printers, including the picture on this post. A Yoda head? The Eiffel Tower? I want neither of those things. The only usable parts shown are things like bearings and gears, or handles and whatnot destined for spray paint in the product development industry.

For 3DP to be mass market tools, they need to solve mass market problems at a price comparable to mass manufacturing.

It is true that dot matrix, then colour home printing, all the way up to my colour home laser printer made fools of the futurists--but I think these exist mostly because of manufactured demand. Look through your recycling bin and try to estimate how much of your printing was actually needed. And I think this wasteful behaviour will be curtailed by the energy and materials constraints we will face in the future. We are all going to be using a lot less, because that is all there is. If you look back at times of restraint, were people complaining the knobs on their kitchen cupboards were too boring? They were happy to have something in the cupboard.

So, I don't see a problem to solve that would give 3DP relevance to individuals. They already have disrupted design, and that is great. I think they have a great future in allowing smaller design houses to proliferate (though they currently keep a lot of small design houses chained to providing 3DP services instead of designing). I think there is an exciting amount of blurring to be done between RP and small-scale manufacturing (1000-10,000 parts).

And for my last point, the internet, computers, etc. have made amazing things, amazing connections, opened great opportunities. They have also made the world a much suckier place, as Jaron Lanier says in Smithsonian Magazine.

Good design can seldom be achieved by amateurs because it takes talent, time, practice, schooling and thousands of mistakes to learn to do it well. You can buy plans for house in a magazine--and the spaces are poorly designed for families, the circulation is bad, they are not energy-efficient and the windows don't look at the views from the site.

Anybody with a computer can access the full suite of sounds Beethoven had to play with, and yet not one more Beethoven has been born.

Making objects is that are useful and pleasing to humans is very hard. Making blobs of plastic that are quickly thrown away is easy.

Dot Matrix Printers Were So Futuristic!/Screen capture
Déjà vu All Over Again: A 2013 Home 3D Printer Is Like a 1983 Dot Matrix Printer

Joseph: "It's rare to find something BETTER mass produced than made by an artisan. Something that will last as long or longer, have the quality of construction."

Joseph Adair makes the case for making things at home:

I think it's very much a variable depending on the type of item. Woodworking is never "needed" but you always get much more appealing work from a craftsman than from a manufacturer. The best kitchen knives in the world are made by tradesmen, little old blacksmiths who hand-forge every bit of the metal, in Japan. There is absolutely no automation in the production, and it shows, it matters..the quality of the steel, the temper of the steel, is all shaped by a man knowing when to heat , where to place clay, how to sharpen a blade by hand.

Now, you can make perfectly adequate products of any description in mass production factories...in fact, there are a few things that are made better by the machining process...the steam press did AMAZING things for the production of steel cooking containers, for example.

But it's rare to find something BETTER mass produced than made by an artisan. Something that will last as long or longer, have the quality of construction. And beyond that, though they cost more, a hand made item that is of quality manufacture will always last longer in use in the world...a hand made set of kitchen knives, or a hand carved table? That will go through generations, loved, cherished.

A IKEA flatpack table? Or even a well made solid wood but very generic table? Eventually someone will get sick of looking at it and throw it out.

© CES 2013: New CubeX 3D Printer Spits Out Objects the Size of Basketballs

Ruben: "Our love for craft is not what 3D printing is all about."

I would love to make kitchen knives--I love good tools, and sharp kitchen knives are one of the best tools there are. If I get access to a garage space I will probably start making knives.

But my knives will suck. I am a relatively handy guy, but I will have a huge learning curve. It could take me decades to make the hundreds or thousands of knives required to become an expert.

But in a factory situation, the machines and processes eliminate my inexperience. All the operator needs to do is press a button when the thingy says the right number. Jigs or CNC grinders ensure the uniformity the market likes. (slight overstatement alert--if you watch How Its Made videos, you will see lots of people in factories doing things like grinding knives).

And then, as you say, the true expert is the finest of all. I worked with Adachi of Ryujin, who, after 25 years of smithing called himself an amateur. No factory exists that could make such fine and beautiful blades as he did.

So the factory is really filling the niche of Making stuff better than I could. It is an upgrade to amateur production. But it is not generally as well-built, well-designed or well-finished as items made by a true expert. (lots of caveats apply. Obviously there is no human who could make computer chips at the tiny scale achieved in factories).

So I agree with everything you say, and that is why I no longer do Industrial Design.

But, our love for craft is not what 3D printing is all about. You will never be able to sculpt on the computer in the way a sculptor can with their hands. 3D printing is trying to eliminate the marks of craft and make things look like they came from a factory, even if the production run is only one part.

Now that I say that, I feel very sad. I have never thought about it this way before. Have we so come to loathe the marks of humans? We would prefer everything in our lives to look machine-made--even the new knob for our toaster?

Emmet, Best Cartoons from Punch, 1952/Public Domain
Staples to Introduce In-Store 3D Printing

Joseph: "Is a digital image that an artist spent a hundred hours on less real than a painting simply because it can be duplicated more easily?"

Mass production is essential for modern society, as you say, we wouldn't have computers without it.

But I would disagree rather strongly about the 3d printer completely removing the "hand made" from crafting. Is a digital image that an artist spent a hundred hours on less real than a painting simply because it can be duplicated more easily?

People have made any number of incredibly lovely artistic creations with 3d printers. They have also sat down and designed out and printed for themselves useful items of such precision that they could not carve such an item without amazing precision tools.

Yes, it removes the tool marks, the fingerprints, but it doesn't remove the artistry.

Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0
Hotpop Factory Brings Design and Production to the Living Room

Ruben: " I think there is something concrete about the human touch, the history of a thing."

I do know there is a depth of perception that comes from being able to see something with your eyes and stroke it with your hands--millions of sensors in our eyes give us shades of perception the screen can never output.

And since the curve of a beautiful object can make or break on a millimetre or two, I think that matters.

When I was in design school I had a foundry pattern carved by CNC for my grad project. I built the model in SolidWorks and spent hours and hours looking at it, spinning it, applying various filters to it, slicing it and looking at the sections. Hours and hours just looking and I never was sure it was right. If it was in my hands, I would have known in a minute, and made the changes with a knife, rasp and sandpaper.

I think there is something concrete about the human touch, the history of a thing.

It reminds me of art school--my photography teacher (this is back with film cameras) would go on about semiotics--the signifier and the signified--and point out that photographs are physically connected to the object they represent. A photon, a physical particle of light, touched and reflected from a person or a thing. That same photon hit the film and passed its energy to the molecules in the emulsion. The image exists because of physical touch, even though on a tiny scale.

So, digital images can be beautiful and important and artistic. But I think they are different from images made with touch. That doesn't mean they are bad, or useless, but they are different. If you look around us, the touch of our fellow humans is less and less evident in our lives, and I think that is a great loss. I think it is disconnecting from the people we live with and the people who lived before us.

I think we are also too early in the experiment to know how people who interact only with machines will be changed. Painting with photoshop is a very different physical experience than painting on canvas. Just as Ecopsychology finds better healing when patients have a natural view outside their window, I think humans need natural touch. I think we need to live in a physical world.

© Thomas Duval
Flower Inspired 3D Printed Lamp Blooms Open & Closed

Joseph: "Anyone who wants to experience this object, anywhere in the world needs only access to the right printer and the digital file that the artist created."

It's true, even the most astounding items I've seen come out of a 3d printer are only improvements on thinness or complexity over things I've seen done by human hand...but it brings the capability to a wider group of crafters.

I've seen, in the real world, a sphere carved out of stone. a lattice work, finely carved. And inside that, another sphere, and inside that another. It took a true, talented artist years to complete. It cannot be duplicated. It cannot be photographed in such a way as to show off it's true amazement. To see it, to be awed by it's complexity, you have to see the one example of that work.

I've seen a similar work, designed and printed in an advanced 3d printer...Still an amazing work, still quite well created, and lovely to behold...anyone who wants to experience this object, anywhere in the world needs only access to the right printer and the digital file that the artist created.

I am unsure about the subject of "touch" in painting, however. While yes, you have a tactile feel of wet paint on the tip of a brush, a difference of texture, over painting with a stylus that can also detect differences in texture, I believe there are similar levels of separation from "reality" in both. The only step closer to reality a "real" painting has, in the end, is the fact that you actually have to paint over it if you make a mistake. It's a physical object, but it's flat...almost as flat as a digital object.

But then, I know exactly zero artists, or craftsmen, or hobbyists of any description that create, purely, in a digital format. I know many who draw in pencil, and do inks, and then color on computers. I know many who paint, both digitally and not...I know exactly zero people who live, purely, without the touch of other humans on their creativity and their work.

© Gartner
Tech Consultancy Puts 3D Printing at Peak of "Hype Cycle"

Ruben: "How does this impact me? So I can easily switch the knob on my teakettle? Who cares?"

You and I have spent a lot of time talking about craft, beauty, artistry. Some 3DP objects have that. But what need do 3D printers fill? How many new cases for our iPhone do we need--or should we have? How many custom action figures? How many little clips to hold a gadget on our handlebars can we possibly use (and if we need to make more than two or three, we need to think a lot more about the design)....

And again, how does this impact me? So I can easily switch the knob on my teakettle? Who cares? Or design around the limitations. The Ise Shrine in Japan is rebuilt every 20 years without a single nail, screw or bolt.

So, for what do we need 3D printers? We will never make teakettles in them. So we could make knobs. Highly unlikely we will ever make cutlery in them. What in our lives would we possibly like to change enough to make this useful?

Makerbot/CC BY 2.0
The Future Of Manufacturing Is In America, With Robots and 3D Printing

Joseph: "We will, most likely, never have a replicator from StarTrek. But chances are pretty good that before I die, I will be able to hold a fully functional electronic device that came out of a 3D printer."

Today? A 3d plastic printer that your average hobbyist could have in their home isn't useful for making everything. But it has a lot going for it. Yes, you can make replacement legs for action figures and a nob for your stove. You can make a case for your Pi, arduino, or or other self made project, that you only need one case for, not a thousand. For your average consumer, it's not that useful. For your average tinkerer? It's great.

And it goes beyond items that are functional for their own merits. The term "rapid prototyping" used to mean you sent a design off to a costly lab and had a functional part whittled out of clay or wax or steel or whatever, generally for thousands of dollars. Now, with a $200 printer, you can hold a digital design in your hands, test it for functionality...you can even use it to make a mold for casting metal.

Are they for everyone? No. Will they ever be for everyone? Maybe...if the quality goes up to the point where a 3d printer can toss out a part that is exactly as good as a injection molded part, at the same or lower price point? It will be useful. We will, most likely, never have a replicator from startrek. But chances are pretty good that before I die, I will be able to hold a fully functional electronic device that came out of a 3d printer.

Order something, pay for a few ounces of plastic and metal and a small pile of electronic parts, and feed them to a machine, and it prints out a personalized cellphone, or mp3 player, or whatever you want. That will be a possibility in the not to distant future.

sony/Promo image
From Hermit Crab Shells To Moon Bases: 19 Amazing Things You Can Do With 3D Printing

Ruben: "TreeHugger often treats 3D printing as if it will stop container ships coming from China, and I don't think that will be the case."

I can't argue with much you say. TreeHugger often treats 3D printing as if it will stop container ships coming from China, and I don't think that will be the case. As you say, for the average tinkerer, they are great....3DP is part of the Bigger and Shinier narrative, as in the future is going to be just like today, except bigger and shinier. Well, I think resource constraints are real. I think we can't make something out of nothing. I don't think we will have an internet that looks like what he have today, let alone the capacity for anybody to print gizmos in their breakfast nook.

Tags: Dematerialization | Downloadable Design

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