A couple of days ago I listened to a design research talk at the 12th Annual Conference of the German Society for Design Theory and Research (DGTF) while I decided to write this post. The title of the conference was: „Reassembling Relationships: People, Systems, Things“. All the talks were mostly in the context of the „Internet of Things“ (IoT). The topic of the talk which got me to write this post was „digital-analog / analog-digital, post-industrial production machines and their influence on the structure of the design process“. During the presentation the referent not only talked about the influence to the structure of the design process. The referent beside the main topic pointed out that the rise of three dimensional printing machines lead to a post-industry where everyone is going to become a maker.
I would heavily disagree with this, but let me explain.
For me the rise of the 3d printers is comparable with the affordance of dot-matrix, laser and ink printing machines in the nineties, which enabled non professionals to print things on paper at home. Before these printers were affordable for home use, in most cases print only one piece or a small amount wasn’t necessary because of the high costs. Moreover the techniques (e.g. offset printing and many others) used by professional printing facilities are different, related to the use-case of the printed material and amount of copies.
This means to me that the development in the field of paper printing is comparable to the one we can see today in the field of three dimensional printing. The classic techniques used to produce three dimensional pieces are different to the three dimensional printing techniques used by home printers and usually more cost- and time-effectively for the production of several pieces. Furthermore there is also a need of professional craftsmanship and material knowledge for the production with techniques excluded three dimensional printing.
What does this mean to the wide spread misperception that with the affordance and arriving of three dimensional printers in everybody’s homes everybody will become a maker and produce their stuff on their own? Well let me bring up an example to understand why I call this a misperception.
As said before, I compare this to the development that happened to regular paper printing. Imagine your mom or any other regular person (non-technical geeky guy) sitting in front of an computer, opening Google type in a search word e.g. „birthday cake“, click on pictures, flick through a bunch of them and finally decide to download the worst picture of an birthday cake you could imagine (something like this).
Next she or he probably opens Microsoft Word or any other picture or word processing software application they are used to. He or she is gonna put in the picture and underlined it with some nice words in Comic Sans. In conclusion everything except the letters typed and the words written are not made by her- or himself. Even the styling of the written letters is owned by Microsoft and replicated in the ugliest font on the planet (you know her name). This leads to the question where to find the making, the act of actually making? The on which makes the person to the maker of this birthday wish card?
Oh he forgot the printing process where things come to life, right? But will this change something? Will your mom become the over all maker of more than the letters her fingers typed on to the keyboard by hitting the print button? The answer is: NO!
To truly be the maker of this birthday wish card, she would have had to pick up a blank piece of paper and a pen and start drawing and writing on her own. Because of the fact that she copied a picture already existing which has been created by some other person and printing it out in another context and constellation will not make her be the maker.
I think the same could be transferred to the three dimensional printing in private environment. This technic is just another method to do things we already could achieve and need a deep understanding of the technology. Imagine your mom using a three dimensional modeling software application designing her next cup polygon by polygon.
Sounds impossible? That’s the fact!
This technic needs exact the same professional knowledge than any other classic technic to manually creating this cup by hand or in an industrial environment. So the only thing we could achieve in the future will be the same kind of making process like in regular paper printing. Giving people the possibility to print things on their own for special occasion will not enable them to become makers which could build their stuff on their own. Only a few who understand the technic and own the knowledge will be the makers. The others will remain copying things and the 3D printer will remain the same as a person or facility you could go to with your request for production. Or do you print your own hard cover book or toothbrush package on your own at home just because you could do so? Probably not.
So put down three dimensional printing as it is today from the top edge of the Gartner Hype Cycle and see it the way it will become. No superhero, no maker in all of us, no world saving technic, it is just a new way to produce things we already could produce through other methods with more or less the same effort to earn professionality to truly become the overall maker of things.