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Skip_intro: The Promise and Perils of 3D Printing


This edition of Underground University brings four speakers to the stage to confront what 3D printing is and could become in the very near future.

Curious how 3D printing will, like other new media innovations before it, become a part and parcel of the mainstream?
Think again – not everything is just what it seems.

Tijmen Schep from SETUP and The New Institute considered the disillusionment as well as the considerable hype surrounding 3D printing. It’s undeniable that the spread of 3D printing has brought new forms of creativity to the forefront, but there are downsides to its popularity as well. He discussed a number of examples that make it very easy for the average consumer to use the 3D printer as a copy machine in all sorts of dubious ways (like when hackers took a picture of Dutch handcuffs and used that picture to recreate a 3D key to unlock them). He showed how nowadays, making 3D prints is as easy as downloading an app, taking a few pictures, and then uploading those into the computer. Tijmen shared a few stories from SETUP’s Digital Art Robbery, which took place this past summer, where they did exactly that – printing Nijntje+Mickey Mouse mashups, sculptures from the Centraal Museum, and even euro coins. With this project they set out to raise important questions on culture, copyright and creative freedom.

Maarten Kip delivered a real-time 3D printing demonstration, using an Ultimaker he put together himself in about two days. He explained that printing can utilize a variety of materials such as plastics, metals, and even food. Models can be downloaded from the internet, or scanned in using an app or a device like a Kinect, and then manipulated to the user's liking using modeling software. Kip pointed out that the printing process is in fact slower than some might think; and that the faster the machine prints, the lower the quality. Yet, as compared to other ways of making, 3D printing is less expensive and produces far less waste material. While the machine was working, some examples of 3D printed objects circulated the audience, he enlightened the audience to some of the dangers of 3D printing, like what happens when someone actually uses a printed Liberator gun (which is as dangerous to the shooter as it is to the person being shot at). Despite these risks, its hard to deny the range of potentially useful applications in medicine, architecture, fashion, and even in space travel. In conclusion Maarten proposed that within the next ten years, every home would have a 3D printer.

Freyja van den Boom shared a presentation she titled ‘Dataplugs’. As an intellectual property and design law specialist, she challenged the audience to think of ways in which the data involved in these 3D printing transactions could potentially be misused. The concept of ‘the quantified self’ takes on a new creative context when 3D printed butt plugs are generated from personal data. She wondered if perhaps this type of practice will be the future of ‘selfies’. Naturally, these manners of data sharing carry with them privacy issues and other legal aspects, such as censorship. Sites like Thingiverse might claim to be open source, but in fact don’t allow models of pornographic shapes to be hosted there. Naturally, this prompts reflection on the debatable ownership of these designs. In a world where, as Freyja put it, “everything is a remix”, who is liable when something goes awry?

Mirko Tobias Schäfer continued on this front by examining maker culture in detail as well as the social changes fostered by 3D printing. Turning the world of software into tangible objects we can touch and use does sometimes have a ‘too enthusiastic’ undertone. Although it’s tempting to think that everyone will own a 3D printer in the future, Schäfer cautioned the audience to consider the pitfalls of mass adoption of 3D printing as well. Interpretation, integration and confrontation are the aspects around which these trends of maker culture are unfolding. He pointed out that whilst easy to use interfaces have lowered the threshold of engaging with 3D printing at home, this has implications for the viability of the business models that crop up. He predicts that a discussion of ownership and control will; determine, in part, the ways in which the expert maker culture will finally come to develop and extend the established manufacturing industry. These new practices are not only garnering media attention, but also challenging existing copyright laws. He furthermore thinks that 3D printing will result in a reconfiguration of production channels, a ‘de-globalization’ where craftsmanship moves closer to home.



Skip_intro is an initiative of Utrecht University and designed as an eleventh-hour underground house party – a place where academics gather and debate the hottest and most contentious issues. “The Promises and Perils of 3D Printing” skip_intro was co-organized by Karin van Es and SETUP. 


Oh yeah!

Also, special thanks to Imar de Vries for MC'ing this event.