What Widgets This Way Come? -3D printing

The 3D printer

(after watching the documentary Print the Legend.)

It will become increasingly clear over the next few years that three-dimensional printing is a shift in industrial process as important as the move from wind and water power to steam. I make this assertion as a technological innocent, a sixty-year-old who has trouble keeping up with the new software that I regularly have to deal with as I try to keep some semblance of relevance in the post-industrial world.

The reason that 3D is a critical leap forward is not hard to parse, and has been dealt with by many more savvy people than me, but it bears repeating. The thrust of industrial development since the age of steam has been towards standardization, for the simple reason that the media of industrial processes function best by producing this way. This is why Henry Ford is celebrated as a great innovator. He didn’t invent the automobile (an assertion I’ve seen made, clearly by people who don’t understand how to read dates), but he did figure out how to codify a process for manufacturing them which made them affordable for the people who worked in his factories.

What the 3D printer makes possible is for industrial process to become decentralized:  In a world where  design and production are all but the same thing, it is  not only what is produced that is revolutionized, it is the concept of production itself.  The designer become the maker, in the way that they were when human beings sat with wood and blade, but with technologies even now available,  the wood is nearly any material, and the blades can cut with the precision of a Ming dynasty ivory artist. The consequences for artisanship are not all positive; in a world where we can design a new heart on a cell phone and execute it in plastic resin, craftspeople who deal in wood, metal, and glass will be not much more in demand than people who built aeroplanes out of wood and cloth. They will have henceforth to be like theatre artists, whose social function has been taken over by newer media, but whose creativity is both important to those media, and can be practiced for specialized audiences.

The possibilities for creativity in the use of this new modality will be infinite. It is interesting that in all the pictures I have seen and in the documentary film that inspired this essay (Print the Legend), very little of what has been produced by this new technology is new. The biggest media splash that has been made over 3-D printing is about making guns. However, the same could be said about the industrial process of hyper-oxidized smelting which created iron. It was of course weaponized, but it also opened possibilities from rail transport to particle physics.

The new printing technology is usually presented as a better way to produce objects that are already produced by older industrial or craft methods: widgets made of plastic.  This is analogous to the use of the Gutenberg press to print nothing but Bibles.  This not to say that the wide availability of Bibles was not revolutionary; it was, since it was critical in decentralizing religious authority.  That was however, as much a by-product of the process as a goal.  I do not personally have the imagination to picture what brand-new objects will be made by the 3-D printer, but I am as sure that there will be revolutionary developments as I am sure that we have witnessed a social revolution in our eating habits because of the microwave ovens that came from telecommunications (which derived from weaponizing our 20th century understanding of radio waves). The consequences of the new industrial process of printing books were no less than the Reformation and all that followed. Who can tell what the consequences of printing ANYTHING are going to be?

November 2014

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