How a 3D Printer Changed My World

Artefact’s Paul Hoover records his 3D printing experiments

Jun 4, 2013 · 9 min read

When a new technology emerges, I always like to immerse myself in it to learn what it is good for. So five months ago a $500 Solidoodle 3D printer was delivered to Artefact. Little did I know how that printer would change my perspective on the world around me.

My first generative design

While waiting for our 3D printer to arrive, I got introduced to Makerbot’s Thingiverse, “The Universe of Things”. It is an open site for the 3D printer community. People share the source for their creations and you can download, remix, and publish back to the site. It opened my eyes to 3D generative design geniuses like Nervous System and I found new tools like Structure Synth, with which I could create amazingly complex 3D objects with a few lines of code, or the 3D modeling tool Rhino, which unbelievably is free for Mac. It also reinforced my belief in the enormous power of the Internet to create peer networks of like-minded people to accelerate learning and innovation. Sharing the studio with Artefact’s talented industrial designers was an amazing resource for learning as well. When we got the printer working I tried printing this tree.

Amazingly, the recursive algorithm for the tree is only 12 lines of code. Randomness and simple rules can be a beautiful combination.

Takeaway: We often look for and resort to new shapes, but biomimicry can be a powerful tool for the designer. Study of natural laws and the algorithms of nature can produce unexpectedly beautiful and functional forms.

The first thing I didn’t buy

My wife and I needed some door hangers for our bathrobes and towels and purchased a set of metal ones. When I saw the simple shapes and with my already vivid 3D imagination, I thought I could easily build them. I started measuring my door, but when I checked Thingiverse sure enough I found the door hanger of my dreams. The next day I printed two and returned the metal ones to the store. Now I am in the habit of searching Thingiverse before I buy products. Sometimes I’ll make them myself if I can.

Takeaway: For designers like myself it is liberating to be able to create anything you can think of. It definitely changes my buying habits and choices and is an interesting alternative to collaborative consumption.

The first thing I replaced

I was at SxSW in March and running madly between all the amazing talks, I jumped over a fence for a shortcut. My aluminum water bottle rolled out of my bag and slammed on the ground, cracking its plastic top. Instead of trying to order a replacement, I decided to take on the challenge to make one myself. My industrial designer colleagues were skeptical about making a watertight seal with the low fidelity of the printer, but they did show me how to make threads in SolidWorks. I printed the lid in two pieces, glued it together, cleaned it up, and I had a watertight seal. I only had to re-print it once because I had the treads in backwards. Now I’m working on a version made from corn starch, so it will be a little more environmentally friendly.

Takeaway: 3D printing may be a great way to make sustainable products with easy to produce replacement parts. Companies like Teenage Engineering are already embracing this opportunity and posting the designs for 3D printed parts so consumers, or local 3D enthusiasts can print them for true on-demand manufacturing. A positive outcome is less wasted warehouse space, lower shipment costs and, hopefully, a longer product life. Adapt or die.

The first thing I sold

My dad was a bit of an inventor. He mostly made keychain products and sold them to REI, Eddie Bauer and the like. One of my favorites was the pocket hanger. You hang it on the inside of your pants and your keys won’t lay at the bottom of your pocket. One day I lost my pocket hanger and I freaked out. I had to have one. So thanks to the help of one of our awesome industrial designers, I created a new pocket hanger on the 3D printer. I published it on Thingiverse and within days three people had made it and it had been downloaded 270 times. Someone even remixed it to make it hang more securely and attach to different objects. Then at SxSW I found out about Shapeways, an amazing on-demand printing service. I uploaded the pocket hanger to Shapeways and after a few days someone ordered it in stainless steel. I made a whole 99 cents. I don’t think I’ll quit my day job, but nevertheless it is rewarding to make something people value enough to buy.

Takeaway: The industrial revolution 3.0 is upon us. Ideas can be sent all around the world and materialize locally without anything being shipped. Industrial design is being decentralized. Companies are emerging to different parts of this process and giving kickbacks along the way.Shapeways is charging for the printing and shipping and kicking back to the designers. Azavy is decentralizing the printing, designing, and shipping process and paying out to individuals with printers as well as the designers. These new business models present new opportunities for designers and innovators.

My first featured thing

My daughter has a problem with dresses — she has more dresses than closet space. My wife, who can empathize with such a problem, asked me to make a dress hanger that could hold five dresses. Inspired by barrels of monkeys, I made the hanger chain. Hang the hook and link as many hangers you can handle. The tagline, “It hangs as it chains,” was inspired by my great-great-grandfather Hoover (of the Hoover vacuuming fame). Back then it was “It beats… as it sweeps… as it cleans.”

When it was featured on the Thingiverse homepage one day, it gave me a great feeling of recognition. I also loved this comment, “I love it when people make real useful stuff. Thumbs up for shifting, if even a little, the paradigm.”

Takeaway:Whether you are building something new or flexing your inventor’s muscle by improving an existing design, peer recognition can be as powerful a motivator as money. Peer network sites like Thingiverse run on it.

The first design that spread like weeds

For the last two years I’ve been planting veggies in my garden and marking them with Sharpie-drawn signs. The Sharpie always comes off in the rain. So I made these handy little signs that should last forever.

I posted them on Thingiverse and that same day someone said, “You should make a customizer version”. Thingiverse Customizer is an app for Thingiverse that lets you change parameters of an existing 3D object and download it to print yourself. I didn’t know how to create Customizer code yet, but I said I was interested in learning. The next day, The New Hobbyist uploaded a surprise to Thingiverse, a Customizer version of my design. One day later! And the first three customized versions are, “weeds”, “dance”, and “onion”. I particularly like the “weeds” one.

Takeaway: The power of the peer network is the ability to accelerate innovation by combining the ideas of many people into something new. This only happens in places, where sharing is open and immediate. Patents, secret projects within companies, and scientific data hoarding can’t benefit from this accelerated innovation. Artefact projects like Civic IQ and the HIV Collaborative Data Space try to bring peer network accelerated innovation to the wicked problems of AIDS and open government. But face-to-face learning cannot be replaced. Many of my projects required the insights and help of industrial designers or other 3D inventors. After all, as the Apprenticeship Patterns book suggests, face-to-face mentoring and teaching is still key for perpetual learning.

My first product designed in a day

When I watch TV on my iPad I constantly hold my hand behind the speaker so I can actually hear it. On the bus into work one day I designed this sound reflector. I made it magnetically connect to my iPad 3. That night I uploaded it onto Shapeways, so people could buy it if they wanted. My goal was to design and get a product ready for sale all in one day. No sales yet…

Takeaway: Through rapid prototyping and digital distribution, it is possible to design, test, iterate, and distribute a product in a day. Hack-a-thons around the world run by companies like Enabled by Design are picking a problem and locking groups of people in a room for a day to quickly find solutions using rapid ideation and prototyping.

My current project

At my house we are lucky enough to have a skylight in the kitchen. Unfortunately it is on the north side of the house and there is a long space between the roofline and the kitchen ceiling, not letting a ton of light in. A couple years back I had the idea of mounting a mirror to reflect the light down, but I couldn’t figure out a good mounting solution. After we got our 3D I decided to take another crack at it. I decided to use multiple mirrored strips rather than one big mirror, putting each strip at a different angle to reflect the light at different times of day. This evolved into a fan design. Then, on sunny days, I would go up on my roof at different times of day with a mirror to measure what angle the light reflected down into my kitchen. I put this all into Rhino and made mounting brackets for the mirrors. I have four mirrors up right now that reflect light between 11 and 1. It looks pretty beautiful and all for $20 of parts from Home Depot.

Takeaway: 3D printing allows for truly custom products at low volume and low cost. This product cannot work for another house the way it was created for my house. The angle of the sun in relationship to the skylight is unique. Just think of the possibilities to create low cost niche products to address the needs of unique groups like the disabled community.

Innovation, accelerated

In order for innovation to keep up with the changing world, we all need to be perpetually learning. As new technologies like 3D printing emerge, we, the inventors, innovators and designers, need to immerse ourselves in them and through trial and error, find out what they are good for. One of the best ways to do that, as Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown recommend in the The New Culture of Learning, is to find a mentor to help you with your projects. At the same time, peer networks like Thingiverse, Processing, Github allow you share you work and get inspired, and act as accelerators for good ideas.

Will 3D printing go mainstream and solve all our problems? I doubt it. But would it open new opportunities to explore, build on and improve? It already does.

This article originally appeared on the Artefact Website.

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