3D printing is becoming more accessible, more versatile, and is beginning to be marketed as a domestic product. There is even a 3D printer for kids set for release in Oct 2016. It seems like 3D printing is becoming a new household appliance, but really, how many people are using this technology and what are they using it for? Researchers from the Melbourne Networked Society Institute at the University of Melbourne are finding out.
Recently I attended the launch of a new research paper titled 3D Printing: Civic Practices and Regulatory Challenges. Such events can often be pretty dry but this was energetic and enlightening.
Speakers Robbie Fordyce and Luke Heemsbergen covered the history of 3D printing dating back over a century and littered with sci-fi references. Yes, of course Star Trek was mentioned. Frequently.
From there they moved to the current day where we see a sharing economy culture forming around this technology. Their research has mapped a really grass roots movement where people move from beginner to expert without any formal institutional training. Designs are often shared freely rather than bought and sold – and people gather around makerspaces that seem to have a rather egalitarian culture. Not exactly good news for corporate institutes like Bank of Melbourne that are trying to tap into the maker culture. They did make this beautiful video ad though.
Yet for all the information sharing and technological advances, perhaps the most interesting discovery was that most 3D printing users didn’t actually know the purpose of the technology they are using. There were varied answers around what 3D printing is for – and that makes it a really fascinating technology to watch.
Sure there are lots of medical uses like 3D printed arteries, prosthetic limbs, and even ears. There are local print shops that can 3D print a version of you in figurine form and there are fashion designers creating 3D printed haute couture. Is any of that enough to have such an appliance in you home? No one is going to be printing their own prosthetics and one can only have so many figurines.
3D printing involves more than the action of creating a physical object from a three-dimensional digital model by means of additive manufacture. It is an innovative and interactive social practice of learning, sharing, and economy.
There is still more to be explored and understood around 3D printing culture, technology and uses. While brands like Mattel, Makerbot, and a host of others try to climb aboard this gravy train, I’m not quite convinced the tracks have even been laid yet. People need to know how 3D printing works and what it is for before such products become household objects.
The full research paper can be read and downloaded here. It goes much wider and deeper than I’ve had the chance to go in this blog, plus it’s a pretty easy read – just how good research writing should be. Let me know your thoughts and perhaps how you would/do use 3D printing.