Confessions of a Jealous Lover

Quinn Simpson | Originally published February 6, 2014

Why my relationship with 3D printing is complex.

Look at you … All smug, like you’re hot shit … Proudly glowing purple with your cheesey LEDs. Compensating? Shut up. That was rhetorical.

You sit next to Krystal as if you were just another designer in the UX pit. See that brilliance shining on our faces over here? Yeah, that’s right. Pure innovation, baby. Don’t think about it too much. You’ll short a circuit.

I hear you turn on a few times a week. You do your little dance and make your little artificial electronic noises. You’re not fooling me.

“You’re a fraud.” I whisper to you.

My face turns flush … Sweat appears on my forehead as you spread your wormy filament in your obnoxious layers. That noise again, it’s deafening. After your little victory dance, you reveal your “creation” — a bunny rabbit. Get it away from me, I swear I’ll tear its ears off.

It wasn’t always like this. Things were great before you showed up. Just the six of us down here in the pit, happily working away without a care in the world … Why couldn’t you just let us be? Why?? <cue sobbing>

The Confession

I’ve got to get this off my chest once and for all. The burden is just too great. I express my hate for you, but in reality, it’s pure jealousy. There. I’ve said it. I’m jealous of you, MakerBot.

While I’m here trapped in the digital world, creating digital experiences behind my glowing box and preaching “more show, less tell,” you’re there popping out friendship bracelets and laser kitties. All you do is “show;” you can’t “tell”. Hell, you’ve got Kevin going to after-hours woodworking classes and us begging Thane for industrial design stories, just to experience a little you. I’m envious of your life in the tangible, pixel-less world. I love what you’re doing for the rapid prototyping movement too, and your potential to decentralize the manufacturing process for so many products to reduce costs and increase personalization. Sure, those bunny rabbits you print are fun but joking aside, I know you’re capable of bio-printing human body parts and making tiny batteries. And don’t even get me started with 4D printed self-assembly. Oh Mr. Bot, so hot right now.

If I May…

I love you enough, dear friend, to give you a few words of advice, and it’s only because I care so much. Your work is so…permanent. You print such…physical things. Sure, I know that’s the appeal and as you get faster, you can scrap one thing and make something entirely new on the fly, or even print electronics yourself. Yes, “permanent” is a relative term here. Many of the objects you create are for human use though. We’re so fickle, so unpredictable, so complex. The experiences we designers create are digital, they’re dynamic. They’re made to adjust to solve constantly changing problems that users have, ultimately enhancing user behavior. There are some clear benefits to working in the digital fields. We’ve been using this digital medium to augment ourselves for decades now, primarily via computers that are becoming more and more an extension of our physical selves than ever before. We’ve recently begun to digitally augment our stuff too, with a little help from the Internet of Things.

3D Printing claims to be a disruptor for many industries in the near future. The auto industry is one. Auto manufacturing will be decentralized as 3D printers manufacture parts in locations that are cheaper and closer to other resources. Everything from engines to instrument panels to tail light housing can now be printed. The thing though, is that no amount of 3D printing, the way we know it today, can account for the type of innovation that is already occurring in this industry and others. There are many applications for which digital innovation wins out. Rather than focus on 3D printed manufacturing of automotive instrument panels, Volvo chooses to digitally represent speed and other measurements with a digital TFT instrument panel.

Sure, physical displays work just fine, but Volvo’s display uses progressive disclosure to dynamically deemphasize speeds that are not relevant to the driver at a particular moment. Do I really care about the other half of my speedometer when I’m cruising down the neighborhood at 25? This isn’t new, as many other OEMs are doing similar things.

Audi takes it a step further with their conceptual “Swarm” lighting technology that completely replaces the rear-end of a car with a digital display that dynamically shape-shifts to changing needs of other drivers and road conditions.

Audi could use 3D printing to manufacture physical tail lights, bumpers, sheet metal, etc., but they’ve chosen to conceptualize a much more dynamic solution that could, say, allow the tail lights to grow three times their normal size under heavy braking, or change the color of the car based on driver preference or weather conditions. Yes, 3D printing will be so much faster in the future, allowing drivers to quickly print out customized parts that suit the weather for the day, for example. But digital technologies are already doing this without the limitations of the physical world. Imagine digitally representing the Audi logo and the license plate. Automotive branding takes on a whole new life. What if music and technology companies had spent all their time focusing on how to print cassette tapes rather than focus on an entirely new digital format? In these instances, innovation is less about the ways we can recreate what already exists, and more about creating what doesn’t.

At Citizen, we’ve been experimenting with projection mapping for a little while now. I actually like to compare projection mapping to you, Mr. MakerBot, if you can imagine both yourselves as producers and creators. There are some insanely awesome things happening in 3D projection right now.

The mundane physical world has become virtually enhanced, though I’d argue we’re only beginning to realize its practical uses. The same could be said for augmented reality. Admittedly though, humans are still physical beings (that line is being blurred more everyday) and we still need physical objects to complement our physical existence. (Ford has learned this the hard way.) There are some industries for which printing purely physical objects will always win out, but I do wonder how digital technologies will enhance them.

No, I’m not mad at you, HAL. I mean…Don’t get me wrong. Your printed turtles are dumb, but I’m jealous of them, and of you, nonetheless. I’m jealous of your work in the physical world and your ability to truly deliver in the flesh. At the same time though, I’ve got some new respect for us old-school digitalists. I believe that true innovation lies somewhere in the “Phygital” world, the physical + digital one. Citizen has naturally freed itself from the mobile screen, branching out into the connected car, wearables (after all, the car is just another wearable), smart athletics, health, and the world of data. We’re becoming phygitalists, creating for users, for technology, and for industry. If I had to guess, I’d say your future lies somewhere here too.

Welcome to the family ;*

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