Widespread media hype is obscuring digital fabrication’s socially transformative potential
3D printers are old news. The first fully operational one was built by Chuck Hull in 1984 and the technology was under discussion in the corridors of MIT years before then. The sudden explosion of interest in 3D printing stories played out in media has more to do with internet speeds finally being fast enough to support the rapid distribution of complex digital files than the mechanics of 3D printing technology.
Despite the mild hysteria surrounding 3D printing it is rare to hear of an application amounting to more than novelty appeal. British supermarket chain Asda recently announced plans to launch a 3D colour printing service across their stores where customers could print their own busts after sitting in a 3D scanner – a fun gimmick but of no intrinsic value. 3D converts often point to the eyebrow-raising assertion that in the future broken plastic gadgets will be easily repaired by printing replacement parts from the comfort of the home. This fanciful claim is, of course, nonsense. The reasons we constantly replace and upgrade our plastic gadgets are to do with a culture of obsolescence sustaining consumerist economy rather than any genuine need. To say we will use digital fabrication to make minor repairs to industrially produced goods is like arguing we’re likely reprint and bind in missing pages from torn books.
The Victoria and Albert museum jumped on the bandwagon acquiring two 3D printed guns to much media muttering. ‘The idea of freely available gun designs that anyone can manufacture at home is a monstrous perversion of democracy,’ fumed Jonathan Jones of the Guardian, apparently forgetting that an investigation by his newspaper in 2008 discovered that, despite tight gun laws, it is not only easy but cheap to obtain cheap firearms on British high streets. Again 3D printing provides an amusing, if sinister sounding, gimmick but thankfully little practical threat.
In this context of (often overblown) digital infatuation it is refreshing to discover a collection of genuinely impressive initiatives harnessing the potential of digital fabrication and technology in a new exhibition in London’s Lime Wharf. Adhocracy, adapted for the East End by Lime Wharf’s founder Thomas Ermacora, started life at the Istanbul Design Biennale. It presents a thesis that manufacturing is embroiled in a period of radical change, reinventing the methods and values of production in what amounts to a new industrial revolution. The exhibition’s third iteration presents a series of objects which each speak to a networked production process where the line between users and producers becomes blurred. On show are open source hardware, downloadable fabrication systems, and products that aim to encourage a DIY culture to making and repair, alongside key texts such as Charles Jencks and Nathan Silver’s Adhocism.
Cheap household appliances are thrown away, often fully functional except for one burnt out electrical element. Such unwanted electrical equipment is a rich source of perfectly operational complex components stuck in defunct arrangements. French practice Re-Do Studio seized this opportunity to harvest the electrics of discarded appliances and repurpose them in new products using CNC milled cork and standard chemistry equipment which feature in the show as an example of innovative recycling.
Part of the reason for so much electrical waste is that many of the appliances we use in our homes and offices are designed to appear harder to fix than they actually are. Vacuum-formed cases, warning labels covering tiny screws with unusual heads and perplexing acid etched circuit boards give a misleading impression of fragility and complexity.
Jesse Howard’s Transparent Tools are designed to be as obvious in their workings as possible, giving the user the confidence to attempt mending each item themselves, rather than replacing them. Using a combination of standard components and 3D printed augmentations her designs follow a formal logic that is legible and striking.
A recurring theme in the exhibition is the combining of 3D printing with widely available components in ways that are not merely novelties. One of the most compelling examples is Keystones by Dutch design studio Minale-Maeda. Their system of 3D printed junctions is designed to grip common timber battens, allowing the simple construction of robust furniture to sizes chosen by the users.
The junctions can be printed from a set of standard sizes or adapted on CAD to allow entirely new configurations of battens using the same strong joints design and screw-in fixings. A similar concept was developed for bicycles by Re-Do Studio, who realised only the junctions in a typical diamond frame were complex enough to demand specialist manufacture. Their Re-Done bike allows the cyclist to fit their own struts from a material they have to hand. If a strut breaks simply swap in a new one.
Adhocracy is not solely an exhibition about subverting industrial norms to functionalist ends. There is beauty and joy running throughout the exhibition. Glazed ceramic cups and vases by Unfold are beguiling and delicate speaking to 3D printing as a tool of sensitive craft rather than one of pure utility.
Meanwhile TWSU present a series of playful DIY kits aimed at teaching children basic electronics, including a ‘make your own synth’ kit and a DIY automated plant watering device.
Another TWSU creation, colour-coded electrical dough which carries low currents allows the sculpting of simple circuits by hand and provides an accessible starting block for learning programming. This final kit is representative of the exhibition as a whole which, although apparently celebrating a new era of digital fabrication, in fact returns again and again to hands-on ‘making’. There are some exhibits where an entirely mechanised process requires virtually no human input such as the crowd-pleasing Print Your Own Souvenir stand which delivers you a 1:20 model of yourself, but these feel out of place and forced in the context of the show at large’s tactility.
The true heart of Adhocracy lies in the spirit of creation with limited means. Digital fabrication is wielded, not as king of production in its own right but as servant to and accomplice of undervalued everyday materials. It is this invigoration of the mundane to create beautiful objects, empowering both maker and user, that is most exhilarating, proving that despite much nonsensical hype around mainstream 3D printing something genuinely game-changing may still be afoot.
Where: Lime Wharf, London
When: Until the 8th of November