Column: The Philosophy of 3D Printing

Part of Netopia’s upcoming report 3D Printing and Intellectual Property, to be released on 13 November 2013.

The Promise of Abundance

The promise of the internet revolution was to provide everyone with all knowledge. The promise of the 3d-printer revolution is to provide us with all material goods. Visions abound of limitless replication — printing machine components, clothes, musical instruments, and even body parts.

A 3d-printer can indeed be programmed to make several variations of a basic product. It is not necessary to retool an entire line of machines to change production. Complex designs can be made while wasting less materials. Chris Anderson, former editor at Wired magazine, sees printers democratising innovation. It is easier to invent something new when using powerful software, sharing designs over the internet and producing wherever convenient.

Nicholas Negroponte discussed the blurring of bits and atoms already in 1995 in his book Being Digital. All forms of information made up of atoms would eventually be transformed into bits. With information being fully transferrable, specialised device would converge into multipurpose tools. The smartphone is a good example of Negroponte’s thoughts, as it works as a computer, a video player, an MP3 player, a camera, a calculator, a notebook, and of course as a telephone. Negroponte also foresaw that bytes would bridge the divide to biology, the synthetic and the natural would converge. Printing flesh. Will we be able to print living humans?

Technological Determinism

The German philosopher Martin Heidegger stressed that humanity is not in charge of technology, technology shapes humanity through forming our worldview. The essence of technology is to enframe the world and to it make quantifiable, rationalised and destructively instrumental. It might seem strange that thoughts from such an anti-humanist philosopher filled with agrarian nostalgia as Heidegger have had such an impact on the philosophy of technology, but his technological determinism has remained.

3-d printing is getting increasingly productive, affordable and accessible, but it is not a particularly new line of technology. In manufacturing, Computer Numerical Control systems have been around since the 50s controlling lathes, milling machines and laser cutters. In modern CNC systems, end-to-end component design is highly automated, using computer-aided design (CAD) and computer-aided manufacturing (CAM) programs. The 3d-printer works on the same principle.

The best ability of 3d-printing is to make anything, regardless of the complexity of the form. Where 3d-printers can print the most intricate or simple shapes with equal ease, traditional techniques struggle with geometrical complexity.

Before the Apple II, a PC was an expensive calculator. Apple II was simpler to use, and added games. Nice, but computing still needed a ‘killer app’. VisiCalc was the first spreadsheet computer program, and turned home computing from a hobby to a business tool.

While 3-d printing may be unhindered by complexity; volume and speed are a constraint in manufacturing. Cost, time, and material need increase exponentially to the third power. The most important progress so far has been in reducing the cost of building prototypes for engineers. Now the technology needs to shift from printing prototypes to limited production.

Technology is not Neutral

Philosopher Michael Polanyi saw knowledge, creativity, and technology charged with strong personal sentiments and ideas. He argued against the position that technology is value-free. The use of technology is best seen as a process of negotiations, a ”marketplace of ideas”. In fact tacit knowledge as guesses, hunches and personal visions are as decisive as informed, committed actions in determining how a specific technology will be applied.

When microwave ovens got popular in the 80s they were predicted to replace all forms of cooking. A similar adoption of 3d-printing would not replace industrial manufacturing, it would rather be a complement. The choice of how technology will work is ours to make.

Waldemar Ingdahl
CEO, think tank Eudoxa