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3D printing and getting back in touch with our stuff

I went off to visit our future last month not really understanding how a sub-$1000 3D printer could revolutionize our relationship with our stuff.

When, on a recent trip to New York, my husband told me we just had to visit some open-source 3D printer company in Brooklyn, I honed in the first part of the description- probably since I’d recently been lectured by my husband on how open-source hardware could help save the world- and somehow ignored the 3D element. I figured the guys at MakerBot were cutting edge because they gave anyone access to their design files, board files, and schematics, in hopes that all this openness would allow people to make their product better.

So on my way to the converted brewery in Brooklyn, home of MakerBot Industries, I had an image in my head of a bunch of hackers working on making a better printer, like that printer/scanner/faxer I had at home. Useful, I’m sure, but boring. Somehow the 3D part of the description had gotten watered down in my head to a printer that made holograms or something… okay, that part was fuzzy.

The “Next Industrial Revolution”

It turns out I was missing the crucial link in what Chris Anderson (“The Long Tail”, Wired) has called the “Next Industrial Revolution”. “The Internet democratized publishing, broadcasting, and communications, and the consequence was a massive increase in the range of both participation and participants in everything digital — the long tail of bits. Now the same is happening to manufacturing — the long tail of things.”

What he’s getting at was immediately obvious when I stepped inside the “botcave” (MakerBot Industries headquarters). MakerBot co-founder Pre Bettis was explaining that their Cupcake CNC printer was “a machine that could make just about anything”, but it wasn’t until he gestured to a jumble of parts and flashing lights resembling a miniature teleporter that things started to click.

All that activity was the Cupcake “printing”, or rather growing an object using a thin filament of plastic that was slowly being built up into what resembled, in this case, a horseshoe. I never did find out exactly what it was creating, but I was soon being shown the range of things that had been “makerbotted” in the office recently: a bottle opener, a tripod mount, a replica of Bre’s head.

A future where you manifest your stuff

“The time from a thought to a thing is short. You can just manifest something,” explains Bre, with his unwavering enthusiasm for the topic (he does, after all, call what they’re doing in the botcave, “the future”). “That’s really a change in the way you think when you get a MakerBot. You think oh could I make that instead of buy it. I call it MakerBot goggles, you look at something and you think, could I MakerBot that?”

Given that I’ve spent the past four years nearly singlemindedly focused on issues of environmental sustainability- and more particularly, the idea that we manufacture, use and dispose of too much stuff-, my first reaction to this stuff-printer was “do we really need more plastic nicknacks?”.

Why we all can become tinkerers

Then Bre’s colleague pulled out a plastic disk and asked what type of tripod I used. It turns out he’d MakerBotted a replacement part for a tripod mount, which was exactly what my father was missing from his tripod, rendering it nearly useless in this day-and-age when it’s easier to buy new than to swap out parts.

I asked Bre if this wasn’t part of the idea, that perhaps his tool that allowed us to fix things could help cure us of seeing our stuff as disposable. He agreed and brought up another example of someone who had recently lost his camera lens cover and found that it was not sold separately and so he simply MakerBotted one. 

With a quick perusal of the MakerBot website Thingiverse- a site where people share their ideas so you can “shop” for stuff to download and printout- I found replacement parts I hadn’t even considered, like shower curtain hooks and backpack buckles. 

On youtube, I watched a video of someone customizing the light in their kitchen by scanning and printing a new hook for it. Could this be the beginning of a new customizable future: less trashing our broken items and more tinkering to make them new again?

Print with recycled milk bottles

Granted, all of this stuff is being created in plastic, but this is where the open source part of MakerBot becomes useful. Because all their files and schematics are public knowledge, hackers around the world are constantly trying to improve, or customize, the design. 

So I figured I’d google MakerBot and recycled plastic. Sure enough, up popped a website for a team in New Zealand working on a RecycleBot, an attachment for the MakerBot that would allow it to print using recycled milk bottles (HDPE plastic).

Getting in touch with our stuff pathways

As we wound down our interview, it suddenly struck me that there was something similar about what Bre and his team were doing and what I’d been hearing so much about lately in the sustainable food movement. The push to buy local and grow our own is ultimately a push to get back in touch with where our food comes from- our food pathways. I asked Bre if perhaps a MakerBot might put people back in touch with their “stuff pathways”. He got it right away.

“There are people who are growing their own food, there are people who are creating their own electric cars, all sorts of different ways of doing things yourself that puts the person who needs something in control of what they get and a MakerBot is part of that… By making your own stuff it changes your relationship with stuff.”