While I have been aware of 3D printing it’s just been a cursory interest – I haven’t paid it too much attention. So when I was shoulder tapped to help out with some field interviews at a 3D print expo in London I thought I’d go along as it might be interesting, though not because I thought it’d be particularly relevant to my own research. I was wrong.
The 3D Printshow is an expo organised in cities around the world – London, Paris, New York, Berlin, Dubai, Mexico and others – to showcase applications and developments in 3D printing, or additive manufacturing as it is also known. The one in London just happened to be on while I was there doing some fieldwork of my own. The show ran over three days at the beginning of September, catering to everyone from your simple back-room tinkerer to your industry heavyweight. Held in a large display space in the heart of the City of London, the show was packed with stands, exhibits and talks that ran throughout the three days.
The reason for being there was part of an exploratory project funded by University of Wollongong’s Global Challenges Program investigating the potential of 3D printing in reenergising manufacturing in the Illawarra, being undertaken by Thomas Birtchnell, Robert Gorkin and Chantel Carr.
Thomas had arrived in London with a Global Challenges pull-up banner and a stack of leaflets. I met him at the start of day one at our booth (thankfully we’d been upgraded from a lowly ‘table’ by the organisers) to help set up. We were sharing the booth with another organisation – techfortrade – which focuses its efforts on ‘bridging the divide between emerging technology and international trade and economic development’. Thomas had done some work with William Hoyle, director of the organisation and together they have written a book – 3D Printing for Development in the Global South – which is soon to be published, so there was also an opportunity to promote this. techfortrade were also promoting one of their initiatives, the Ethical Filament Foundation, which had been working on producing filament – the (usually) plastic that is used in the printing process – made from recycled materials. With the assistance of Indian fair trade startup Protoprint, the plastic is sourced from waste-pickers in Pune, India and converted on-site into 3D printing wire. Unsurprisingly there was a lot of interest in this from visitors to the stand.
Over the show’s three-day run, many thousands of people came through. The floor always seemed busy. Our task for the Global Challenges research was to simply strike up conversations with people about their thoughts and interests on 3D printing. That was not difficult as people were generally enthusiastic to chat.
There was a surprisingly wide range of people visiting the show. For example I spoke with people from industry – people investigating how they might use 3D printing, as well as those already using it but looking for new developments. One guy was from the largest plastics supplier in China, investigating the implications for their supply business.There were also a number people from small and medium businesses also doing investigative research, and a couple of investors looking for opportunities to fund emerging startups. I also spoke to a number of enthusiasts who had been experimenting with the technology for a number of years and finding ways to apply it to smaller-scale projects, whether that was in developing a product of their own, or using it at a community level to introduce kids to computers and programming. Then there were the people ‘off the street’ – people who didn’t know much about it but were just curious. There was a retired doctor and his wife just “checking it out”; a physiotherapist who was just curious to find out what it was all about; a pair of students who were looking for a reasonably priced printer to play around with.
What struck me about the show over the three days was the positive buzz that permeated the room. People seemed genuinely excited about 3D printing and its application. I spoke with one guy who was a regular visitor to the events and he admitted that this one was bigger than the last and the vibe better. As Thomas and I discussed the show we imagined it was a bit like the early days of computers, or perhaps the internet, infused with a feeling of emergent potential – though no one was quite sure exactly what that was. And this was a question I put to people as I talked with them: what do you think we’ll be able to do with 3D printing? The answers were all similar: you can design and print your own customised things, or make replacement parts for broken equipment. These kinds of responses weren’t surprising as it’s how the technology is commonly promoted. But while those are obvious starting points it was difficult to tease out much more than this from people.
With any emerging technology it can be difficult to actually imagine both the applications and implications of its use. And that is where 3D printing seems to be at the moment. Certainly there were scores of small brightly coloured plastic knick-knacks (like cracker toys, Thomas and I joked) that had been 3D printed: phone cases, figurines, busts, 3D puzzles. But these seemed a tad gimmicky. Going to a couple of the industry talks dug a little deeper into the production potential. These showed more imaginative application to more real-world situations: customised production of therapeutic devices such as splints, braces, artificial limbs, or production of fashion designs not able to be produced by traditional processes. Still, these were only experimental projects, and expensive to produce. But the experimentation continues, and there were examples of 3D printing being applied across all scales, from architecture, earth, metals, food, right down to the biological cellular-level.
What struck me from a more theoretical standpoint is how 3D printing allows us to manipulate matter in a way we haven’t been able to do so before. As Chris Anderson (ex WIRED magazine editor) has said, ‘atoms are the new bits’. He was commenting more on industrial innovation, but this idea translates more broadly. What 3D printing allows is for us to transfer ideas between a computational, virtual space and the material world. This gives us the ability to use more complex processes to compute and model objects and then give them form in almost any material. This opens up a range of possibility in what can be produced – we can create objects that, previously, we’ve not been able to produce, let alone imagine. In that sense 3D printing both allows us and indeed invites us to extend our imagination as to the types of things we are able to produce. For those of us with interests in understanding the implications of ‘post-naturalness’ 3D printing appears to both allow us to materialise post-natural forms but also respond to conditions of post-nature. For me that’s the real takeaway, and something to follow up.
But as to the more practical applications of additive manufacturing, it appears that we don’t yet quite know what we can do with it. As the expo showed us, there are a range of innovators and startups trying new things across a wide range of application but only time will tell what ideas ‘have legs’. However, as Thomas and William’s work shows, the larger-scale implications of technology – broader social, political, economic impacts – require examination. And this is the idea for the Global Challenges research project – bringing together broader thinking about how this emergent manufacturing technology could support our own regional development back home in Australia.
For updates, check out the Global Challenges projects page Manufacturing Innovation: Re-energising the Illawara through additive manufacturing
Thomas and William’s book is well worth checking out, for consdering the implications of additive manufacturing in the global south.
Justin Westgate is a PhD Candidate with the Australian Centre for Cultural Environmental Research exploring imaginative practices and post-natural futures. You can follow him on Twitter @justin_westgate.