All of the successful prints I've done so far

Egg cups, dice, chocolate molds and sundries

I’ve had an operational 3d printer (a Thing-o-matic) for 10 days now, and already it’s changed how I look at, and how I live with, the world.

That sounds like a needlessly dramatic statement, but it’s really very close to the truth.  Here’s how a 3d printer sneaks up on you, changes you, and gives you super-powers!

Stage 1: I Can Print Anything!

This first stage is when you make your first print.  You think the world is your oyster and you’ve stepped into a sci-fi story.  Sure – it may just be a test cube that you’ve printed, but you can do anything – anything at all!

Stage 2: I Have No Idea What To Print!

Very quickly afterwards, however, you realize that you’ve printed the two or three things you wanted to print, and you’ve run out of things to do.  It’s not surprising, really – your life was rolling along perfectly well without a 3d printer, so why would having one change it that much?  If you were trying to live without water, or food – then you could imagine ‘using’ water and food all the time afterwards.  Those are basic needs.  3d printing is not a basic need, it is not very essential according to the Maslow Hierarchy of Needs.

Stage 3: I Can’t Print That, Or That, Or That…

Then you learn the limitations of the printer – it doesn’t like overhangs in a certain way, it doesn’t do tall pointy shapes well, it curls up a little at the corners if you’re not careful, it leaves little plastic spider-webbing between isolated printed areas, and the textures on the base and the top are not as good as on the sides.  It won’t print tiny role-play miniatures very well, and it’s not the solution for printing a lot of text or fine detail on things.  You make a lot of mistakes at this point – you print a lot of ‘interesting’ artifacts with little practical use.

Stage 4: I’ll Just Print A New One.

This fourth stage is where I am just now, and it’s a breakthrough stage.  You won’t expect it – you can’t anticipate or force it.  You’ll be walking through the supermarket, looking at an cake icing piping bag and discounting it out of hand because the nozzles aren’t narrow enough, when you just blurt out the magic words “I’ll just print a new one.”

I’ll just print a new one.

It’s an incredibly liberating statement – a very empowering feeling.

  • It was my birthday today, so I printed a birthday badge for myself while I ate breakfast.
  • The 3d model of a TIE Interceptor I printed for a friend broke at the end of one of the wing tips – and I told him I’d just print a new one.
  • I’ve printed a 2-part chocolate mold to make chocolate hemispheres, but I’m not very happy with the un-molding process.  So I’ll just iterate on it and make it better next time.
  • I wanted an egg cup, so I just printed one.  It’s a little wobbly (and the first one was disastrous), but I’ll improve it when I want to make another.

All those  little problems, those little ‘not quite right’ objects in the world that you have learned to glumly accept as good enough – well, I now have very little excuse to let them pass.  And all of those limitations of the 3d printer I was talking about, just get absorbed into your subconscious like all the other limitations you instinctively know about other materials and processes – you wouldn’t try to blow a bike in glass, you wouldn’t try to make a balloon out of clay, you’d not get far trying to make a house out of sugar.

You even start to take joy in the quirks and artifacts of the 3d printing process – just as wabi-sabi ceramics value the thumb marks and imperfections of a hand-made bowl, so I have come to welcome the striated, faceted faces of my SketchUp modeled curved surfaces.  I could increase the polygon count of these models, but the soft-edged diamond-cut faces seem like hand-crafted objects from the Tron universe.  These objects are unique – and they have an honesty in their appearances that belies their process – they are obviously 3d printed.

In 30 years time, when 3d printing is everywhere and perfect, these objects will be imitated as a retro style – like old road signs on your living-room wall, or terrible [this-decade-minus-25]’s clothing coming back to the fore, or 2d pixel games suddenly being the best thing ever, again.  One day, not long from now, this weird, clumsy, faltering, mistake-ridden look, will bring back warm happy memories for a generation only now being born.  Their prints will be faster, stronger, better in all ways, and yet they’ll apply a ‘2011’ modifier to perfectly good models to get that wobbly-printed effect.

They’ll live in a world where they have no excuse for imperfect physical objects – except that they can afford to build in ugliness and flaws, and call it a style.