Dreaming in 3-D

Dreaming in 3-D

Matt Ratto of the University of Toronto’s Critical Making Lab brings 3-D printing down to earth
December 11, 2013

While 3-D printing is not a new technology, the development of smaller, and cheaper, machines now allows people to buy a compact consumer version at Staples. And while the spectre of criminals potentially using the technology to print untraceable handguns has the 3-D printer very much in the news these days, that’s obviously not how most buyers are fantasizing about using this invention. From printed food to printed fashion, the media is overflowing with ideas for the brave new world of 3-D printing. Matt Ratto brings us back to reality with a more level-headed look at where the technology is now, and where it might be headed. An assistant professor and director of the Critical Making Lab (which experiments with the pragmatic as well as social and cultural implications of new digital technologies) in the faculty of information at the University of Toronto, Ratto is involved in a whole host of studies that explore how 3-D printing might change our business and social interactions in the future.

Q: I can already buy a 3-D printer at Staples. Is this technology about to revolutionize my life?

A: I’m not comfortable with academics making predictions such as tomorrow, we will be 3-D printing our own Tupperware. I don’t think of myself as a futurist in that sense. Technologies like the 3-D printer are made to serve particular ends — but when they go out into the world, all kinds of emergent possibilities come up.

Q: So no Star Trek replicator in every home?

A: Enthusiasts tend to say 3-D printing is like the starship replicator. In the movie, crew members could tell it what they wanted, and the items would miraculously appear. Captain Jean-Luc Picard would famously go up to the replicator and order “tea, Earl Grey, hot.” This is often talked about as a model of how 3-D printing works. But that’s a completely false model.

Printing a cup of tea would involve all sorts of substances, and most 3-D printers print in only one material at a time. So although a 3-D printer could print a cup, that’s not the same as a cup of hot tea.

The other issue is the amount of work that has to be done. There’s the mistaken idea that the machine does all the work. So you say you’d like a toy car and — boom — the printer prints a toy car. In fact, there’s a huge amount of labour involved in creating the digital files that the 3-D printer operates on.

Q: Will we be printing simple everyday objects in our homes in the near future?

A: This technology is not about printing your own Tupperware. Why would you ever do that when it’s cheaper to pick up a piece of mass-produced Tupperware at Canadian Tire?

I believe that in the long run, or the short run, or both, we’ll be 3-D printing items that are really specific to a particular material context — things that are custom-designed and have to be specific to work.

Q: Could you give me an example?

A: We are currently working on a project with a large not-for-profit organization that operates hospitals in Africa to determine whether the 3-D printing and scanning of custom prosthetic sockets could help underserved kids with below-the-knee prosthetics.

Prosthetic technicians are very specialized — they are both technicians and craftspeople — and there are not enough working in Africa. We’re hoping that 3-D printing can reach about 80 percent of the quality of what a trained prosthetic technician can do. This would at least create something better than is now available to these kids. And the 3-D printer could hopefully do it faster and more reliably.

So that’s an example of how the customizability of 3-D printing is a benefit. It’s not about producing Tupperware; it’s about producing an object for an individual with a high need for customization.

Q: What about the idea that I could repair my own washing machine or toaster by simply 3-D printing the broken part at home?

A: We have a research project looking at current practices on repair — what people are now doing — and imagining a system that would facilitate that.

If you want to print a replacement piece for your Whirlpool washing machine, for example, it would have to be very specific — a piece made for this model, in this market, in this year and even down to the month. And Whirlpool would have to post the design for the part — or ask you to pay for that in your purchase plan. In other words, the company would have to build that contingency into its business model. Then printing replacement parts at home becomes a possibility.

Q: So turning 3-D printers into effective tools is both a technical and a social issue?

A: Totally. Technically, there are all sorts of possibilities available with 3-D printing. The problem is not with the technical side; it’s the social side. It’s the development of new business models, new ways of relating between customers and producers, new models for getting paid for the digital labour.

In a lot of ways, we’re waiting on the social developments, not just the technological ones.

Q: How would you describe the current consumer-grade 3-D printers?

A: It will be a number of years before they’re as reliable as, say, an ink-jet printer.

And, in the near future, they will print only in plastic and ceramic.

Q: So I won’t be printing up a dress for an event this evening?

A: Most people don’t realize that at the current state of technology, 3-D printing takes a lot of time. If I were to print a coffee cup on my 3-D printer from Staples, it would take about 12 hours. And the materials are quite expensive — so again, you would print only things that you couldn’t get otherwise.

Q: Who’s buying 3-D printers right now?

A: Supergeeks. I liken today’s 3-D printer to where the personal computer was at the beginning. You had your Commodore 64 and Apple II, but it wasn’t until VisiCalc [the first spreadsheet computer program] was developed that the computer became popular on a mass level. 

We’re still waiting for that with 3-D printing. It’s not a tech problem; it’s an idea problem. That’s what we’re waiting on.

Main image photo credit: Makerbot®