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3D printing as blogging

Here is a short (under four minutes) video, of a designer and exhibition curator Tom Dixon talking about the changes being brought to the world by 3D printing.

Whenever something new comes along, people typically describe it with a noun which says what it is like, but also with an adjective attached to explain how it is different from that. Think “horseless carriage”. (What will “driverless cars” be called twenty years from now?)

So it has been with 3D printing. This is “printing”, sort of, but not printing as we know it.

Listening to Dixon makes me think is that “3D printing” is actually less like printing, and more like blogging. The crucial difference it makes is in enabling people with opinions about how a … 3D thing … should or could be, but who has not been able or who could not be bothered to interest a Big Manufacturer (think Mainstream Media for bloggers) can now just go ahead and make it (just like a blogger publishing his hitherto ignored opinions). And this new-style designer can sell his new design on the internet too, because distribution has also, already, been taken out of the hands of old school Big Distributors (unless you count Amazon and eBay as Big Distributors). Not all such new designers will do as well as they hope, in fact almost all of them will not. But a few will surely succeed spectacularly, and many will presumably be making lives and livings that could not have been made before.

Dixon uses the phrase “taking matters into their own hands”. These words were my first version of the title of this posting.

13 comments to 3D printing as blogging

  • Blooged long version below, but I don’t think of 3d printing as blogging. I think of it as “factories.” And the idea that any random schmoe can own a factory is something I find deeply disruptive, though, as discussed here, we’re not yet ready for prime-time. Wrote an assay on that recently: bloviating to follow via link if interested.

    ( http://happycrow.wordpress.com/2013/08/01/everything-you-know-is-nearly-obsolete/ )

  • Brian Micklethwait (London)


    From the point of view of the designer fraternity, most of whom are people for whom the look and shape of things is what it is all about, 3D printing is indeed rather like blogging. For those looking at the world from the point of view of the making of things that have to work well rather than merely look nice, less so. Much more like everyone having a factory. And I agree that this moment isn’t yet here, because making a sparking plug or whatever that really works well is a lot harder than making a cool piece of jewelry or a cute looking light fitting. The latter is what Dixon is mostly talking about, I think.

  • llamas

    What did I do with my 3D printers today?

    I did three things:

    - I made a holding fixture for placing a peculiarly-shaped object (a Medeco key) in a press for marking serial numbers. Number of these I will ever make – maybe – is 2. And that’s only if they break the first one. A moderately-trained chimp could have done the design work, the only reason to use a 3D printer is that it’s quick and easy and cheaper than machining the part from plastic or metal.

    - I set up a run of a dozen service parts for an obsolete machine. This is a matter of calling up a file I canned a year ago, and telling the machine to build it. Parts-on-demand.

    - I designed a new part from scratch, that will need ~ $12K of mold tooling. I’ll gorw a couple and we’ll test the design to get 90% confidence before committing the tooling $$$.

    Of the three, only #3 is even remotely-like blogging – and since it’s a complex part for a machine that only 3 or 4 people in the world understand in detail – it’s more like a conversation among a very small group of people who already know 93% of everything they need to know about this.

    So I don’t see the analogy at all.



  • Rob

    @llamas: I think I see your problem with seeing 3d as blogging. You appear to manufacture things for a living, therefore you are one of those with the skills and equipment to be able to “publish” already. You possess a pre-3d printing press and are part of the established “media”. A blogger in this context is someone more like me, with curiosity, but without the training or tools to build cool stuff unless aided by digital design and additive manufacturing.

    You’re Hemingway, I’m an amateur hack.

  • Nick (nice-guy) Gray

    As an inventor, I do not fear 3D printing. Fixed-mold mass manufacturing will always be more economical than repeatedly using a printer for one design.
    I believe that, in the near future, people will simply ‘call’ into a storehouse of designs, pay a copying fee to have the design temporarily downloaded into their computer, and then will delete the pattern once they have 3D-printed a copy, freeing up the memory for other downloaded designs, like temporarily borrowing library books now.

  • Google the Ubuntu Edge smartphone. This is a device that many people wanted, but not quite enough to raise 35 million that the company behind it say was needed to make 40,000 phones.

    A large part of what made the device desirable was its physical construction. I imagine a time when people can choose from a wide library of smartphone physical designs and customise them with a choice of materials, colours and shape modifications. Those with the skills will contribute new designs to the library.

    Similarly, smartphone innards are increasingly boiling down to two or three interchangeable chips. Why not select the system-on-chip you prefer ; add some RAM and flash storage ; and pick the screen you want. Placement of these parts is then just physical design.

    So we build a one – off smartphone. The chassis may be 3D printed or cut from a metal block with some sort of robotic machinist. The circuit boards and final assembly will be robotic.

    Look at how Foxconn is replacing its “slave” human labourers with robots.

    So what, really, is the difference between today, when a new design for a run of 40,000 gadgets costs $35m, and my world, where a single unique device can be assembled for $800?

    It’s partly logistics, which 3D printing is part of the answer to. Some entrepreneurial soul will surely eventually build the factory to solve the rest of the logistical problems.

    The rest of the answer is the dispersal of the required knowledge. In the same way that making new software is largely a matter of combining libraries written previously by domain experts with a smidgen of new ideas, so the physical design of gadgets will eventually become a matter of combining standard parts with a touch of customisation.

    It’s largely a software problem, too. If you imagine a Web site that lets you design your own phone in the way I have described, a lot of the problem is systematising smartphone design and putting a usable user interface on that system.

    So, to make my own analogy, if the world I have just imagined of making your own gadgets is blogging, 3D printing is the web. Small, automated factories that can cheaply produce one off items using 3D printing and robots are the Internet. And some clever software to make it easier to enter one’s designs is WordPress.

  • That was brilliant, Rob Fisher:-)

  • Nick,

    It will always be cheaper. It won’t always be more economical. Once you actually start including the long tail of supply and logistics, slapping a file on the printer while you’re playing volleyball can be more economical than driving to the store, even if the monetary cost of production is higher.

  • Bob Grahame

    That should be “taking matter into their own hands”, surely…? :-)

  • Nick (nice-guy) Gray

    Russ, I still feel that, for an example, it’ll be cheaper to buy a Dyson vacuum cleaner from a store than to download the plans and then have your printer build one from the ground up.
    And my own idea needs a working bolt and moveable nut for the button to work (I have a range of items which I call The self-hooking button, for clothing.). Can a 3Dprinter assemble a bolt and nut so the nut can rise up the bolt smoothly, instead of them becoming one part?

  • Thanks Alisa. That was written during baby-induced insomnia, too!

  • llamas

    @ Nick Gray, who wrote:

    ‘Can a 3Dprinter assemble a bolt and nut so the nut can rise up the bolt smoothly, instead of them becoming one part?’

    Yes, for threads larger than ~ 10mm (3/8) and for an acceptable value of ‘smoothly’. Best available clearances right now are in the 0.1mm (0.004″) range, so threads will always be looser than what you can get by machining.



  • Nick (nice-guy) Gray

    That might improve in future, but I am using 3mm wide bolts now, and a tight fit is essential. Maybe that means my buttons will remain a mass-production monopoly!