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One word: depth

2012 September 20

I think there’s a capacity, anymore, particularly among the technorati and other future-gazers of the internet, to get carried away with excitement about the potential of this or that Next Big Thing to change everything, so far ahead of time that after a while an idea can seem familiar and ho-hum before most of us have even had any kind of practical encounter with it.

Something like that happened with Second Life, which then famously failed to expand beyond a fringe concern, at all. I feel like we’re approaching that point with self-driving cars, lately; the hype has reached such a sustained crescendo that either they start turning up at your local Ford dealer PDQ or else someone’s going to be writing a “whatever happened to” story by the middle of next year. But the best current example of all, I believe, has got to be three-dimensional printing.

This story has been running long enough now, certainly. I can’t even recall when it first began to register in my mind; I think that heraldry of The Age of 3D Printing has been in progress for most of the past year, approximately, though that figure will vary depending on one’s own position relative to me and the bleeding edge of the future. Meanwhile, the hype is certainly BIG enough, as well. It’s the PC revolution all over again. It’s going to turn manufacturing inside-out. And the new manufacturing future will be right here in the USA once again!

Even though I’m guessing most of us, myself included, have yet to see a 3D printer or even a 3D-printed object, let alone use one of these miracle devices.

I guess you could say I’m kind of on the fence about this, i.e. 3D Printing as Next Big Thing. On a theoretical level, I understand the thinking. Make the manufacturing of objects much more flexible, and less centralized and capital-intensive, and it’s natural enough to imagine something much like the wave of innovation which followed from the computer’s transformation from a big, expensive mainframe which only large and deep-pocketed organizations could afford to a small, affordable machine which a vast number of tinkerers could suddenly begin customizing and extending. I’m less convinced that a resurgence of Made-in-the-USA American Manufacturing Might will follow, let alone the resurgence of those good old days of plentiful good-paying blue-collar manufacturing jobs which seems to be implied. Still, even without that there is a plausible case for revolutionary transformation, in theory.

In practice, though, I have to admit that I have trouble getting it. Maybe it’s because my work is so two-dimensional. Maybe it’s because, given the nature of the technology, it’s unlikely to register with anything like full effectiveness until you actually have it in your hands.

And yet, thus far I have seen few really compelling examples from anyone else, either. Proposed sample applications mostly seem to be “you can make this object that already exists and is probably sold cheaply in stores and on the internet, but you can make it yourself, at home, instantly, aside from waiting for it to print out and, in the case of anything with moving parts, probably then assembling it, too.” Hum. I notice that the graphic accompanying this hype-tastic Slate article features… a simple toy airplane. Um, really?

Moreover, I can’t help thinking back to one particular science-fiction work in which a super-deluxe version of this technology was commonplace, and how little it seemed to matter, even there. The world of Warren Ellis’s Transmetropolitan posited nearly ubiquitous “makers,” which devices were effectively magic 3D printers that responded to voice command and could materialize seemingly any object imaginable from any material. I assume there were probably some limitations to the technology; I’ve only ever read the long-running series’ initial story arc. Even so, the maker was clearly far more capable than any extant 3D printer, and yet the the sole uses for which it was employed during the “Back on the Street” storyline were astonishingly un-remarkable. The series’ protagonist ordered up: a suit, and a pair of “live shades” (basically digital-camera classes, with a whopping “two gig” memory).

This is the fantastic science-fiction potential of a fantastic science-fiction version of the technology which is going to transform everything? You can go to the store and buy a suit. Easily, cheaply. In an array of sizes and styles. 3D printing could open up greater opportunities for personalizing one’s image, I suppose, but then as the very essence of the suit, itself, demonstrates, fashion is a balancing act between individuality and conformity. Most people, in most circumstances, don’t really want that much image customization; the degree that they do want seems, meanwhile, to be pretty adequately met by existing manufacturing. The suit produced by a maker (in combination with an equally souped-up version of the 3D scanners which accompany current, real 3D printing tech) would be perfectly tailored, unlike something off the rack, I guess. But, again, this is what science fiction can come up with?

Likewise, if “live shades” existed, I’m sure that one would be able to buy them at Radio Shack, CVS, and probably even the local gas station, to say nothing of a zillion internet vendors. Having a maker at home, therefore, saves a few dollars’ shipping cost or a walk to the corner store. Lovely; heaven knows that so many of us could benefit from a lot less walking!

Obviously, I’m indulging a bit here, not only in sarcasm but in poking holes at a minor piece of one small story from a 15-year-old science fiction epic which was always more about sociopolitical satire than about making accurate and extensively-thought-out predictions. In fairness to Ellis, he has written more recently about 3D printing, and what he reported about current technology for Vice is actually a great deal more amazing to me than what he made up about imaginary technology in Transmet. (Story here, note possible NSFW content.) Quoting Ellis:

RepRap [is an] open-source home 3D printer resembling a weird little loom that [developers, presumably] consider a “self-replicating machine”, encouraging owners to first use it to print off another RepRap.

I mean, genuine wow. Despite the fact that by itself this doesn’t literally add anything to the equation—the ability of a device to replicate itself is, in the absence of any other function, essentially useless—this just stuns me. Obviously a 3D printer can do more than just make 3D printers, but the fact that it can do this as well as those other things is astonishing for multiple reasons. This is a technology capable of a lot more than dumb little toy airplanes, even if most of us struggle to identify further uses, right now.

Thus, I still feel like there’s probably considerable potential to 3D printing even if it’s very difficult to imagine the specifics. I’ve little doubt that, had I been alive and practicing graphic design back in, say, 1977, I would have read about the personal computer and thought “what would I possibly do with that?” And with reason, too, because the answer at that moment would have been “not too much,” at least for me, personally. By the time I was entering elementary school, however, this was already changing. Even though the PC didn’t do that much of general interest by itself, it was a general-purpose technology which meant that it could do all kinds of neat things once people came up with instructions to tell it how. By the early 1980s, the technology’s “killer app” had appeared, to be succeeded by a gradually accelerating avalanche of more killer apps and, well, here we are.

I don’t think that the killer app for 3D printing exists, yet. And whenever it’s developed, it probably isn’t going to be developed by me. And honestly that’s probably the real element of disappointment, here; I suppose I feel less like 3D printing is going to disappoint relative to expectations than I feel like there’s going to be another gold rush and that I’m going to be sitting on the side as a spectator. Oh well.

3 Responses
  1. September 20, 2012

    I’ll tell you my personal interest in 3D printing: unique toys. They show the samples of the generic airplane or robot or whatever because, obviously, they don’t want to get a big license from some IP owner just to show off. But a single individual could, in theory, make custom action figures of, say, the Adam West version of Batman. (West himself has never allowed his likeness to be duplicated in such a manner.) What about a Sherlock Holmes modeled off Jeremy Brett? Rotwang from Metropolis? Doc Savage? Captain Klutz? Myself? All to scale with Batman and Captain America. Totally an over-priced pipe dream today (though technically viable) but potentially possible down the road a bit.

    I’m certain my father could use it more professionally. As a magician, he makes many of his own tricks and is limited by what materials he can use. Frequently, they tend to be relatively flat tricks whose graphics conveniently are smaller than 11″ x 17″.

    But idealistic dreaming aside, there’s two big impediments to the technology, only one is reasonably solvable in the short term. The first issue is price. It’s just too costly right now. I’ve seen prices cut by about 1/2 in the past 12-18 months, so another two years or so, it’ll be close enough to start getting reasonable for the commercial market.

    The second, bigger hurdle is one that’s generally glossed over. Namely, that to do anything beyond simple balls and cubes, the operate needs some proficiency with 3D software. Just like you really need to know what you’re doing to create something cool in Illustrator or InDesign, you’ll need to know what you’re doing to create something cool in 3D software. There will be the equivalent of clip art, I’m sure, but a lot of people have difficulty working up 2D pieces using existing materials; I don’t doubt adding a third dimension will make things more difficult by comparison.

    Which means that having Spider just ask for live shades might be easy enough, if someone’s already programmed it, but if you want to do something custom — which is where the real beauty of 3D printing lies — you need to get a professional in place.

    I see 3D printing following a similar track as desktop publishing. Once it hits that ‘reasonably commercial’ threshold, you’ll see a lot of people trying it and doing mostly unremarkable things. And, after a few years, there will still be people doing unremarkable things with ‘clip art’ and a small cache of 3D designers working to do small scale prototypes and truly unique pieces for commissions.

    • Matt permalink
      September 20, 2012

      Cool example applications. (Though the first one definitely feeds into the expectations, hopes and/or fears of a “DMCA for 3D Printing” which that Economist post explored.)

      Good point about programming, too, though I kind of take that as given. I don’t see designing 3D objects being any harder than computer programming in the 1970s (or even now, for that matter). And, unlike the 1970s, we now have the internet, so letting the relatively small community of power-users and tinkerers connect, share and cross-pollinate should be a much more efficient process than in the days when software was exchanged via sneakernet, or pages of code printed in a magazine (I actually remember that).

  2. September 21, 2012

    Just found something this morning that might be of interest/relevance to the discussion…

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