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 by Wizard23 (2009)

Parametrized Lego Bricks on 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 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 and but also sites like Open Source Ecology’s as well as One especially interesting example is found at 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 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 <>.

Bowyer, Adrian. “Philosophy Page.” RepRapWiki 21 July 2006. 5 May 2010 <>.

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

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

  1. Great article Stacy Jo! I think your last paragraph hits the nail on the head. Part of my criticism with the DIY movement and sites like is that it begs the question are DIY individuals now just putting more things into the world that albeit while not mass produced, are still produced, and are they truly considered objects or just a way to make money? How much is the DIY movement now just the latest marketing fad and is an ill-considered DIY object any better or worse than an ill-considered mass produced object? With more and more tools available for individuals to be able to “design” objects that can be produced (kind of like paint by numbers) how carefully are these objects being considered and thought-out in regards to design and their impact or is it just a way for individuals to put something else into the world with their name or idea behind it? I think people are searching for meaningful objects that are unique and perhaps are a way of showing self-expression/taste but these need to be carefully considered.

    Keep up the great work!!

  2. Thanks for the two-part article.

    Decentralisation of means of production certainly raises hopes of alternative means of thinking about craft skills, sustainability and a closer relationship to the product of a man’s labour. However, if the means of making objects through CAD modeling and easy-to-use 3-D printing are available to a wider audience we cannot expect each maker to use the new technology to make ethically responsible products, or production that critiques ‘centralised industry’. There has to be a much wider acceptance of the plurality of responses that arise from the consumer realising himself as maker. The most probable response (as mentioned by Dan above) is that such technology will be used for personal gratification of having made something in the world, rather than anything that would make William Morris happy.

    As pointed out in the article (with reference to William Morris) is that it is hard for decentralised methods of production to resist being subsumed by the market. But then as the market provides these materials in the first place – the 3-D printers, wizardly gadgets and handyman sets – which can then be used to challenge centralised production, perhaps DIY movements could be more grateful to the hand that fed it. The relationship between DIY homecraft and mass produced commodities perhaps could be better understood if we were to avoid placing them as antagonistic opposites.

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