At-Home 3D Printing and the Return of a Craft Utopia: Part 2

LifeTrac Prototype II by Open Source Ecology (2009)

LifeTrac Prototype II by Open Source Ecology (2009)

In assuming that at-home 3D printing will upset and revolutionize the currently unsustainable corporate-driven marketplace, we are also assuming that those who use this technology will act counter to such forces. This is a big assumption. As we saw in Part 1, even well-known idealists like William Morris suffered from the dichotomy of market complicity.

An uncritical acceptance of capitalist models wrapped in revolutionary language is perhaps most pronounced in Chris Anderson’s “Atoms are the New Bits”. In it he describes his vision of an “age of democratized industry, (where) every garage is a potential micro-factory, every citizen a micro-entrepreneur.” Anderson is surprisingly transparent about the routes he suggests such citizen industrialists should take: outsourcing. As he says, “Anybody with an idea and a little expertise can set assembly lines in China into motion with nothing more than some keystrokes on their laptop” (Anderson 11). In outsourcing to China the actual implementation of this revolution falls prey to the same complicity to dubious labor and ecologic standards that centralized industry is responsible for. Individual manufacturing capacity thus necessitates individual responsibility for ethical action. Asking individual makers to take into account the ethical impact of their goods production may seem in some ways as difficult as it is to make multi-national corporations budge. The drive toward economic growth at any cost seems insatiable. But there are other more intractable limits to adopting an Industrial model. As Adrian Bowyer alludes to in his description of RepRap’s large-scale adoption: “Of course, any exponential growth must run up against resource limits….” (Bowyer 8).

Parametrized Lego Bricks on thingiverse.com by Wizard23 (2009)

Parametrized Lego Bricks on thingiverse.com by Wizard23 (2009)

In his shattering 2010 book Eaarth, Bill McKibben makes plain that we have thoroughly exhausted the limits of the systems that support our civilization and we must change. Not that we should change, but that we don’t have a choice anymore. As this next industrial revolution is in its infancy it must take this reality into account if it will be at all successful. According to McKibben this is no longer about utopian idealism or consumer revolutionaries, this is the sober reality. Interestingly, in McKibben’s view of our possible futures, the decentralization of services, such that Bowyer and Pettis predict, will be key. E.F. Schumacher in his 1973 book Small is Beautiful shares a similar prognosis to Eaarth, seeming to anticipate decentralized manufacture when he says “the poor of the world cannot be helped by mass production, only by production of the masses” (Schumacher 163). Schumacher ties decentralized production to both sustainability and Morrisian attitudes on machinery, saying: “The technology of production by the masses, making use of the best of modern knowledge and experience is conducive to decentralization, compatible with the laws of ecology, gentle in its use of scarce resources, and designed to serve the human person instead of making him the servant of machines” (Schumacher 163). Even Morris, in Factory Work, As It Is and Might Be shared this focus on adopting ecological standards as integral to a re-imagined industry: “…our factory must make no sordid litter, befoul no water, nor poison the air with smoke” (Morris 16), even going so far as to cite “Earth, the Common Mother” (Morris 13) as a material source. The proliferation of plastic parts that one now sees on 3D print file sharing sites like thingiverse.com exemplifies an unfortunate reliance on un-sustainable petrol-based materials. This 2nd industrial revolution will only be revolutionary if it deals head-on with our ecologic crisis and makes the development of ecologically sustainable materials-use a reality. If anything can do this perhaps the evolution of technologies via open source models on the Internet has a chance.

While the ideal results of an open innovation of ethical and ecological 3D printing models are still speculative, the decentralization of manufacture and skill-sharing precedes it. In some ways the decentralized industrial revolution that Bowyer and Pettis link to 3D printing prefaced that single innovation. The evidence can be found at instructables.com and makezine.com but also sites like Open Source Ecology’s openfarmtech.org as well as localharvest.org. One especially interesting example is found at afrigadget.com which is dedicated to “solving everyday problems with african ingenuity.” The site showcases such things as a plastic recycling press that transforms plastic waste into useful sheeting, lamps made from repurposed scrap and anaerobic digesters to produce methane gas.

Decentralized forms of manufacture offer the possibility of a globally-connected, locally-minded and cooperative skill-sharing that can move the innovation of micro-manufacturing from entrepreneurial enterprise to a progressive re-imagination of what may still be possible in the material world. This 2nd industrial revolution may succeed where others have failed simply because it may be the most viable option in the failure of outmoded models of centralized industry. Paradoxically, it is industry that brought itself down by its abuse of power, resources, and labor; rather than by the emergence of a collective utopia. Perhaps the collective and pragmatic idealism that is exhibited by latter-day William Morrises who continue to strive for alternatives to centralized industry offers a way to a more hopeful future. The use of decentralized industry to model avenues through the detritus of the 1st industrial revolution may be its most progressive possibility. It now falls to the 3D modelers of thingiverse.com and other object file innovators to link their creations to this broader movement. If not they risk becoming a revolution cut short: just another source of plastic trinkets with an insular gee-whiz focus on what is effectively child’s play, in contrast to the magician’s toolbox they may now have their hands on.

Works Cited

Anderson, Chris. “In the Next Industrial Revolution, Atoms Are the New Bits.” Wired 25 January 2010. 28 April 2010 <http://www.wired.com/magazine/2010/01/ff_newrevolution/>.

Bowyer, Adrian. “Philosophy Page.” RepRapWiki 21 July 2006. 5 May 2010 <http://reprap.org/wiki/PhilosophyPage>.

McKibben, Bill. Eaarth. New York: Henry Holt & Company. 2010

Morris, William. Factory Work As It Is and Might Be. New York: New York Labor News Co., 1922

Schumacher, E.F.. Small is Beautiful, Economics as if People Mattered. London: Blond & Briggs Ltd., 1973

At-Home 3D Printing and the Return of a Craft Utopia: Part 1

Lasercut RepRap Mendel during assembly process, by stevew (2010)

Lasercut RepRap Mendel during assembly process, by stevew (2010)

“The Web was just the proof of concept. Now the revolution hits the real world” (Anderson 1). With these words Chris Anderson, editor of Wired magazine joins Makerbot and RepRap creators and countless breathless bloggers in heralding the dawn of a technology that promises to bring to bear the same force that upturned media industries to manufacturing industries. This technology is at-home desktop 3D printing which uses 3D object files created with computer-aided design (CAD) software to build up a physical object through the deposition of layers of raw material. It works on the same principles as a desktop paper printer, though instead of ink it prints plastic, ceramic slip, and other tactile materials. It is made accessible by the effect of open-source parts, plans and tutorials and priced low enough ($500-$1500) to make at-home factories a possibility for the avid hacker. Object files are shared the way music and other “old media” forms are now shared: as digital information. Given that the object data is easily exchanged, edited and endlessly vast, the potential for revolution seems only logical. The manufacturing industry is destabilized and individuals regain an agency lost since the first industrial revolution.

At this point it would be well to remember that we have heard these claims many times before. An especially interesting corollary can be found in the utopian project of craft-idealist William Morris. A connection between historical utopian-minded maker cultures offers a natural entry point given the language of DIY and craft that often surrounds discussions of at-home prototyping. By looking at this “next industrial revolution” through the lens of historic appeals for a utopian craft we can examine the critical potential of this technology at the outset. It turns out we have a lot to learn from the results of past calls for a new industrial revolution.

Detail of Unfolds l'Artisan Electronique installation (2009). These have been printed using a modified version of the RepRap 3D printer

Detail of Unfolds l'Artisan Electronique installation (2009). These have been printed using a modified version of the RepRap 3D printer

In “Atoms are the New Bits,” Wired magazine editor Chris Anderson suggests that with the rise of decentralized modes of production “Everybody’s garage is a potential high tech factory” (Anderson 8). For Bre Pettis, the face of Makerbot Industries which fabricates open source 3D printers for purchase, the possibility of toppling paternalistic systems of manufacture with hacker pluck and ingenuity is key. “Its absurd that we need a revolution to bring personally fabricated objects to the marketplace. We are humans with hands…. Somehow the first industrial revolution took that away from us” (Pettis 1). Adrian Bowyer who leads the team that developed RepRap, a self-replicating 3D printer has an equally idealistic end-point in mind for RepRap. He proposes RepRap as “Darwinian Marxism”. “Darwinian” because RepRap is made to self-replicate and rapidly evolve in the open source habitat, “Marxism” because the maker/worker will gain control of the means of production, as Bowyer says, “without all that messy and dangerous revolution stuff” (Bowyer 8). William Morris likewise called for this type of gentleman’s revolution. A prominent Marxist, he posited the “Revival of Handicraft” as the path to the liberation of the worker from dehumanizing divisions of labor in industrial work. He sees the revival of handicraft as a “token of the change which is transforming civilization into socialism” (ed. Adamson 150). This focus on makers shaping culture is no less than what many proponents envision as open source hardware follows the route of open source software. Past maker revolutions relied on state control and violent revolution, but the most profound check to industry now may be open source and decentralized manufacture.

What we have learned from past calls for utopian design should give us pause. Perhaps one of the most instructive lessons of William Morris’ Arts and Crafts movement is how easily the force of capitalism subsumed any vestige of revolutionary power. Tanya Harrod, in her article “Paradise Postponed: William Morris in the 20th Century”, describes the irony between Morris as a business man, selling elite handmade goods through his company Morris & Co. and the anti-capitalist rhetoric one finds in his writing. As Harrod describes, “Morris as a sound businessman, kept practice and philosophy separate apparently believing that only after a full-blooded revolution would it be possible for a new art to develop” (Harrod 7). This focus on commodity production before idealistic models has only increased since Morris. Indeed as Harrod points out, “The practitioners of the crafts have gradually shed their utopian ambitions as they have come to occupy a small but acknowledged niche in the world of goods” (Harrod 23). This might be seen to correlate with the subsumption of today’s revolutionary-minded DIY movement into the world of the market via sites like etsy.com. While this decentralization of the marketplace may itself be seen as revolutionary it must be remembered that early proponents of the current DIY ethos saw it as a critique of the capitalist system of which etsy.com plays a part. While the success of Morris & Co. is often cited as evidence of the ultimate failure of Morris’ utopian vision, might it be possible to negotiate a better balance between the force of the market and the force of idealism?

In part 2 of “At-Home 3D Printing and the Return of a Craft UtopiaI’ll consider some ethical and ecological hurdles this technology must navigate in its path to revolution.

Designguide.tv interview from Unfold on Vimeo.

Works Cited

Adamson, Glenn ed. The Craft Reader. Oxford: Berg, 2010

Anderson, Chris. “In the Next Industrial Revolution, Atoms Are the New Bits.” Wired 25 January 2010. 28 April 2010 <http://www.wired.com/magazine/2010/01/ff_newrevolution/>.

Bowyer, Adrian. “Philosophy Page.” RepRapWiki 21 July 2006. 5 May 2010 <http://reprap.org/wiki/PhilosophyPage>.

Harrod, Tanya. “Paradise Postponed: William Morris in the 20th Century.” William Morris Revisited. Ed. Jennifer Harris. London: Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, 1996. 6-32.

Pettis, Bre. “Industrial Revolution 2.” Bre Pettis Blog 24 Sept. 2009. 20 May 2010. <http://www.brepettis.com/blog/2009/9/24/industrial-revolution-2.html>

Does craft want to be free?

Photo of impressed gable by Don Shall, creative commons license

Photo of impressed gable by Don Shall, creative commons license

Traditionally, craft evolved in guilds that limit access to technical knowledge and controlled prices. Today there is talk of ‘digital guilds’ that use open platforms to freely share information. Yet, the modern design industry depends on the notion of intellectual property to encourage investment in innovation. How do current systems like Creative Commons relate to the spirit of craft – past, present and future?

Read feature article Virtual Guilds: Collective Intelligence and the Future of Craft by Leonardo Bonanni and Amanda Parkes from issue 3.2

Join our guest bloggers to consider the role of intellectual property in the ongoing craft movement.