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3D Printing Will Destroy The World Unless it Tackles the Issue of Materiality

Urgent rethinking is required to avoid the revolutionary potential of 3D printing being lost in a sea of pointless plastic products

Norman Foster plans to print moon bases using an array of mobile printing nozzles on a 6 metre frame to squirt out sequential layers of lunar soil that will be set with a binding solution. The current system can work at a rate of 2 metres per hour, but next generations of printers are expected to reach 3.5 metres per hour or more, and be able to finish an entire building in a week.

Back on Earth, firms are using Contour Crafting to structurally match building design with their environments by combining 3-D printers and Geographic Information Systems (GIS). This experimental technology may one day design entire ports to withstand future earthquakes that devastate places like Haiti, at a fraction of the cost of a traditional construction company. And more 3-D magic is on the way.

Stratasys has just announced its new revolutionary 3-D printer that can produce multiple material types in a single print run, reducing the price of complex prototypes by around 50 per cent, while Skylar Tibbits promises us a phase of 4-D printing where strange geometries become even weirder when they encounter activating solutions.

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Foster + Partners’ designs for a moonbase constructed using 3D printing on an industrial scale

But is 3-D printing really as wonderful as it’s made out to be?

Over the last few years, it has certainly excited many designers and architects through its dexterity in handling large data files and translating marvellous CAD geometries into material form. Yet, it seems a tall order to claim that a process can actually be ‘efficient’ compared with modern industrial processes, when it slowly and laboriously squeezes matter out of a tube at a snail’s pace, to produce objects in studio units that have the look and feel of delivery wards and appear to be just as resource and time intensive. Such systems can also only deal with relatively small volumes of matter when compared with industrial processes, where substrates include cheap plastics, costly metals and incredibly expensive tissue culture.

I’m also yet to see a full supply chain analysis on the energy and resource requirements of 3-D printing – over and above a comparison with producing a specific object using subtractive processes. It is even more extraordinary for a practice whose material platform is largely based on plastics, compounds that do not do well in ecosystems, to propose to be ‘ecological’. But perhaps the most vexing aspect of 3-D printing is that squirting plastics into funny digital shapes says absolutely nothing about matter – which as Timothy Morton reminds us, is the essence of Nature. And, it is the very issue of the translation of geometric plots into a material expression that, in the longer term, will distinguish between whether 3-D printing in specific circumstances is simply a ‘better’ form of industrialisation – or whether it will deserve its early acclaim as a revolution in making heralded by Forbes, Harvard Business Review and the BBC.

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Most 3D printing requires non-recyclable, oil-based plastics and energy intensive processes

Undoubtedly 3-D printing appears to be an antidote to some aspects of industrial processes, with human centred benefits, where designers and information technology literate end-users are given more personal freedom through customisable processes. 3-D printing can also process locally sourced materials, reducing the expense of transport and distribution systems and has even been proposed to improve employment conditions.

But amid all the hype, 3-D printing needs urgent interrogation with respect to its relationship with the biggest challenges of our time. This stems from the impacts of global scale material shifts that we culturally recognise as climate change – a phenomenon that we have contributed to through our global-scale industrial manufacturing processes. Climate change may be evidenced empirically in specific events – such as rising sea levels and escalating concentrations of atmospheric carbon dioxide – but it is also experienced through bizarre encounters with matter such as the covert continents of particulate plastics causing the painful death of marine wildlife and entering our own food chain. In other words, in the 21st century, matter is lively, strange and unpredictable – and is a force to be reckoned with.

So, despite its growling list of glowing attributes, 3-D printing is not a revolution in making until it addresses the fundamental issue of 21st-century materiality. Yet, if it does so then this technology may actually have an even greater potential for a paradigm shift in production than it is already expected to be.

Currently, 3-D printing suffers from the same issues that bedevilled nanotech, which promised us a new era of materials where programmable specks of matter could behave like tiny robots and bring world-changing innovation through the advent of ‘smart’ materials. Yet, like 3-D printing, nanotech is constrained by industrial paradigms. So while we anticipated highly wilful materials, caricatured in dystopian scenarios as grey goo,1 the reality is that nanotechnology ‘actually’ gave us slightly shinier objects, or ones with new properties, such as electrical conductivity. Indeed, since nanotechnology cannot ‘act’ without human design and because of the scales involved, Andrew Ellington observes that the platform poses an insurmountable hardware and software challenge - that would consign designers to a Willard Wiggin-style existence. In fact, a quip made by Tom Knight that biology is the ‘nanotechnology that works’ actually addresses Ellington’s predicament, as there is a fundamental difference between the matter in mechanical systems and natural ones – machines are designed at equilibrium, and Nature exists at far from equilibrium states.2 

Artist Williard Wiggin sculpts such tiny objects that he has to time his breathing with his work

So, if 3-D printing is genuinely going to take us beyond yet another version of ‘less damaging’ industrial practices – that are cheaper, faster, better – into a space where working with these systems could shift our values and, for example, produce objects that are genuinely life-promoting, then it needs to respond to this emerging cultural concern and practically engage in establishing a practice of 21st-century materialism. Currently, 3-D printing is an artisan practice for an oligarchy of enthusiastic designers who alongside marketing gurus are extolling the virtues of ‘organic-looking’ shapes.

We could start by properly critiquing the impacts of this technology beginning with a much deeper analysis of the materials used, the energy and resource requirements, and the supply chains that result in printed objects. Fully characterising the current production systems may help us to understand how they could be developed into ecosystems of exchange where the coveted objects can be meaningfully recycled by our biosphere. But it is also vital that 3-D printing becomes the champion of research into dynamic systems and lifelike materials – which may not yet have a mature market – so that we can produce objects that in themselves forge positive environmental relationships such as carbon recycling or soil generating systems.

If 3-D printing does not fully take on this responsibility then the sustainability of our current highly ‘customised’ objects is likely to be under scrutiny, as the unit cost of printers falls and hobbyists make legions of white elephants out of toxic plastics and when our landfills are chock-a-block with yesterday’s badly made fashionable shapes. And while some – such as ultrasound embryo portraits – may have enduring sentimental value, it is likely that most will simply clutter up our rubbish dumps and precipitate our plastic marine continents as indestructible rubbish icebergs. Yet, 3-D printing could be a revolution in the making – but it’s not there yet. A lot more work needs to be done on its ecological profile so that it truly ruptures the conventions of industrial practices – and to do this, it must first urgently tackle the weighty issue of 21st-century materiality.

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A 3D Printed Fetus. An example of the novelty product the majority of 3D printing is being used to create

Footnotes

1.Grey goo is a nanotech dystopia where out-of-control, self-replicating nanorobots consume all terrestrial matter in an act called ‘ecophagy’.

2. While machines spring from imagining a world at equilibrium, living things are continually engaged in active processes. In other words, they are continually forged by non-equilibrium systems, which have a completely different rule set. While philosophical discussions of a world in continual flux have raged since the time of Heraclitus, contemporary thinkers drawing from systems theory and quantum physics have begun to articulate the strange nature of 21st-century matter in ways that recognise its innate creativity and power. The texts of Bruno Latour (actor network theory), Karen Barad (agential realism), Graham Harman (object oriented ontology/carnal phenomenology), Timothy Morton (ecology without Nature) and Jane Bennett (vibrant matter) create an understanding of a material realm that is not only lively but also participatory in design processes and shapes our life-supporting ecologies.

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