Crapjects

My last post, on the World Maker Faire (alas, too long ago, but many a project beckon), was largely commentary-free. In the intervening weeks, a number of articles have aligned into a constellation of push-back against the maker movement. Most center around the rise of 3-D printing: seductive as additive manufacturing may be, it is currently crippled by an inability to do much real work. ABS and PLA, the dominant printing materials, coupled with current common build volumes, represent real physical limits to what 3D printing can accomplish right now. These limits, coupled with radical open access to both software and print files, has slashed the brake lines that limit consumption. We are living in the dawn of the age of The Crapject. 

Coined by Scott Smith, of the Changeist, the term crapject refers to the uniquely useless stuff spawned by the rise of 3D printing. One of my favorite design writers, Allison Arieff, recently wrote an eloquent piece on this phenomenon on Medium, entitled Yes We Can. But Should We? Both Smith and Arieff question whether "desktop manufacturing" is a good thing, and with good reason. The history of manufacturing is a dirty, dark, dangerous thing. Raw materials were wrenched from the earth under great duress and transformed, often crudely, into consumables. Progress had a cost. That cost has fallen exponentially over the last five hundred years, and now we can summon object from the ether with the press of a button.

The cost of design, in both time and money, has fallen in parallel with the cost of manufacturing, but with different results. Long before formalized mathematical engineering calculations were even possible, builders were putting up cathedrals based on diagrams scratched into beds of plaster. Now, with 3D scanning apps and free modeling software, the transliteration of objects in scale and material is seamless. It takes very little knowledge, and just a little bit of money, to become a "designer". The results are writ large across the Cloud, threatening an endless plastic rain. 

 A sign of the end of empire, no?  Via 3D Print UK. 

A sign of the end of empire, no? Via 3D Print UK. 

All these points have been made before, by folks far more eloquent than myself. 3D printing is a portal to spiraling consumption, plastic pollution, and the dumbing-down of the design environment.  The radical democratization of the means of design and production has quickly been co-opted by (a subset of nihilist) libertarians eager to make unregulated firearms. Copyright and patent laws are more easily circumvented than ever before. Last, but not least, the whole critique also smacks of elitism -- who the hell are you to tell me what I can make? Or, in another sense, who the hell are you to tell me that only a designer can make things?

Then again, I have never printed a 3D object in my life. It is a demonstrably cutting-edge technology that is making rapid advances. At the Maker Faire a few weeks ago, I saw a working car (albeit more of a golf cart) that had a 3D-printed carbon-fiber body. The future is coming, and at least a portion of it will be made of ropy, extruded plastic. Perhaps that plastic itself, source of all the angst, is beside the point. It is just a dingy, matte mirror back on the "maker movement.".

 A 3D print project I can get behind -- George Washington bust crowd-sourced from distributed printers by Baltimore's own  We The Builders . Image via  BoingBoing . 

A 3D print project I can get behind -- George Washington bust crowd-sourced from distributed printers by Baltimore's own We The Builders. Image via BoingBoing

Perhaps the reason that 3D printing currently has a high crapject-to-design ratio has to do with those doing the printing. Surveys commissioned by Make Magazine of Maker Faire attendees, both in New York and San Francisco, find that the "maker movement" is overwhelmingly male, college-educated, and middle-aged, with a median income north of $100,000. Most identify their affiliation with the maker world as "hobbyist", and are largely employed as technical staff or engineers. While racial breakdowns are not identified, the confluence of education, income, and occupation suggest the crowd is also majority white. 

Full disclosure: I am also white, and college-educated in a technical profession. My intent is not to throw bombs at folks engaged in largely innocent hobbies. With consumer-grade printers costing well over a grand (not to mention computer and software), and the existence of some technical barriers, it makes sense that printers have found an audience of affluent, well-educated early adopters. The same story played out at the birth of personal computers in the early 1980s. The confluence of high-priced toys and demographics has also given us 170 variations of open-source Tardis replicas

At the Maker Faire, there was a whole "Printer's Row", lined with startups and established companies peddling their latest wares. Each boasted about build volume and software integration. The section was mobbed, so crowded that you could hardly approach the booths to grab a brochure. Later that afternoon, along a lonely stretch of exhibits, I met came across WoeLab, founded by Sename Koffi and featuring a 3D printer developed by Kodjo Afate Gnikou in Togo. Here was a 3D printer made of exported Western trash, cobbled together for less than $100 and running on free software. Nobody was printing Tardis replicas. 

Why were they off by themselves, stuck in a corner with their awkward-looking but unbelievably ingenious machine? Maybe because it didn't cost any money, and the plans are available for free. But they are the future of the maker movement if it is to become a durable enterprise.