Forget about the 3D printer, the wave of the future is digital fabrication

Blush whale total
CC BY 2.0 Lloyd Alter

3D printing is all the rage, but many consider it to be just one of a range of tools used in what I used to call downloadable designs and now call digital fabrication. It’s hard to pin down exactly what we mean by that phrase; I once defined it as a world where “we will download design on demand. It is like the music for our iPod; dematerialized bits and bytes put together again where we need it, without the waste of a physical intermediary.”

I consider CNC machines and laser cutters to be part of that world. Others do not consider that to be 3D printing; I debated this recently with one of my favourite commenters who said:

Words mean things, Lloyd. If we say "oh, any printed out 3d design is, in reality, a 3d printed house" where do we draw the line? Is any house drawn in auto-cad and then assembled by hand "3d printed" because the file is digital? Sure, the "printer head" is a guy with a saw and a hammer, but at the start of the day, it was drawn on a computer.

closeup of smaller pieceLloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

It’s a good point, and a reason why we have to look beyond the 3D printer, as cute and novel as it is. I thought about this last night as I saw the latest work of Matt Compeau and Bi-Ying Miao of the Hot Pop Factory; they started their business in their living room with a Makerbot but have moved onwards and upwards to other digital tech. It’s an art installation at Toronto’s MADE gallery called Blush Whale. They write about it much the way I did years ago:

In an era of digital prevalence where personalized data flows freely across the globe, our physical world seems to trail decades behind…. however as manufacturing evolves with digital fabrication tools like 3D printing, laser cutting and CNC milling, a whole new breed of artifacts can emerge.

That’s the why the guy with an Autocad drawing and a guy with a hammer is different. The stuff that’s being created today couldn’t be built by hand. It’s not a box, it’s a form “algorithmically sculpted into an amorphous laser-cut entity that undulates as the viewer moves around it.”

blush closeupLloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

This would not have been possible (or at least it wouldn’t have been very easy) without digital fabrication. And these 3D printing pioneers have learned that you need the right tool for each project. It’s why the so-called race to build the first 3D printed house is so silly; moulding tons of ABS or PLA into a house, materials that we try to use less of in our everyday lives, does not make sense. But the digitally fabricated house has already been done.

Matt and Bi-YingMatt, Makerbot and Bi-Ying/CC BY 2.0

I will admit that my commenter is right; words mean something and 3D printing is the wrong term to be using. The future is digital fabrication; from designer straight to tool. Or as Matt and Bi-Ying of the Hot Pop Factory put it, it is an attempt “to break free of the bounds of physicality in the context of our highly digitized, contemporary lifestyle."

Forget about the 3D printer, the wave of the future is digital fabrication
The 3D printer is just a tool that's part of a much larger toolbox that can create a whole new breed of artifacts.

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