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3D Printing

When Jeremy Paxman reported on 3D printing on Newsnight, 29th October 2012, I and many other designers and engineers were irritated at his crass remarks during the interview about this revolutionary technology. Ignorance of complex technical matters can be forgiven, but the kind of ill-informed dismissiveness displayed by Mr. Paxman is inexcusable. 

Anyway, I myself was rendered quite skeptical about the predictions being made of 3D printing – that soon we will be able to ‘manufacture’ products in our own homes. But as the idea started to sink in and more importantly the benefits started becoming more apparent, I realised that this emerging new technology really does have the potential to reshape the way we think about manufacturing, consumerism, and humanity as a whole. So if nothing else, by annoying me, Mr Paxman certainly made me think. 

A series of exhibitions running at the moment such as, “The Future is Here: A New Industrial Revolution” at the Design Museum (24 July 2013 – 29 October 2013) and, “3D: Printing The Future” at the Science Museum (9 October 2013 - 1 July 2014), are fuelling the debate around the fascinating possibilities of this emergent technology. And all it takes for fantastical predictions to turn to reality is for people in sufficient numbers to grasp whatever benefits they perceive. It soon becomes a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. 

Then the economies of scale start to kick in and before you know it 3D printers become affordable to everyone. 

I for one am sold on the benefits – or at least one particular aspect. I don’t see myself downloading a complete kit of parts to then assemble as complex products myself - it seems like an awful lot of hard work, except perhaps for the simplest of items. And then there are the finishing aspects in order to achieve some of the qualities of mass-produced products.

What I do think would be a game changer is the ability to fix or even customise things that we already possess. I cant think how often I have wept at having to throw away a perfectly good product because of a broken or damaged part that can’t be obtained, or the requirement to buy a complete sub assembly which can be as expensive as replacing the whole thing. 

Sometimes it can be a case of a customised part that we ‘imagine’ would achieve the repair or improvement to a product we are after, but for which no amount of string or coat hangers ingeniously fabricated would do the job. Where you literally need to ‘fashion’ something 3D using solid geometry in order to achieve the desired mechanical outcome. For me, the ability to download the smallest of individual parts or realise my own fanciful solutions would be transformative. Forget up-cycling, this is simply a case of continuous cycling in order to further the value of objects that may otherwise have become useless. This may be for reasons of sentiment – not wanting to part with an object of emotional significance and therefore extending its normal service life, or simply a case of actually achieving an expected service life which would otherwise be cut short by the malfunction of an individual component part rather than the whole item.

I think the approach of ‘continued functionalising’  - of extending the service life of things and even being able to upgrade and evolve products rather than throwing them away and starting again presents some interesting opportunities; both in terms of sustainability and a healthier relationship between our objects and ourselves. A relationship where we value more and engage more creatively with those objects, without remaining static and frozen in time.

So whilst discussions around feasibility, protection of intellectual property rights, or the risk of dangerous or illicit objects being available (and a whole separate discussion around individual freedom and liberty), I prefer to embrace a future where the value of ‘things’ has been completely recalibrated. Where the inventiveness of people in the poorer parts of the world becomes the everyday norm even in the affluent parts of the world. Where the concept of built in obsolescence itself becomes obsolescent. Where everyday objects aren’t just for life but for infinite lives. Where our relationship with objects is no longer stop start, marriage and breakup, consuming unnecessary energy and generating senseless waste along the way but one of continuity and evolution.

These and countless other important implications of 3D printing were completely overlooked by Mr Paxman which is a shame because that kind of reporting only serves to close minds, rather than open them to new opportunities and to new ways of thinking that can be beneficial to individuals and to mankind as a whole.

With thanks to the Science Museum & Luke Hayes at the Design Museum for providing the Photography.