Design-for-3D Printing as community organizing

Weekend before last I went along to the London 3D print show to see the cutting edge of this emerging field. Very Interesting. There was a 3D printed car, along with other 3D printed items such as shoes, toys, medical models, equipment for international development, and even Thor’s hammer, as used in the feature film.

But to get back on topic here, 3D printing, in my view, facilitates the activist tactic of community organizing. In the book Architecture & Design versus Consumerism I write that “At its core, organizing involves working with people so that they develop a capacity to solve their own problems across a range of issues such as neighborhood renewal, education, employment and social networks.”

3D-printed jack

A professor at Michigan Technological University was converted to open source 3D printing of lab equipment when he realized he could “print” this $1,000 lab jack for five bucks.

Shortly after visiting the London 3D Print show I came across this article about how a university academic, Joshua Pearce, is using 3D printing to produce simple lab equipment that costs a fortune.

Not only is he using a cheap 3D printer to print out lab eqipment, but he’s also making his knowledge available through an open source effort and his new book, Open-Source Lab: How to Build Your Own Hardware and Reduce Research Costs.

Saving money is just the half of it. ‘This lets faculty have total control over their laboratory,’ he said. Because designs are fluid, ‘devices can evolve with your lab rather than become obsolete.’

As this example suggests, an important way that community organizing manifests in design is through do-it-yourself, self build, and “maker” projects where technology and skills are transferred, at least in part, to community groups.

This type of “design-based” organizing occurs in prayer spaces, school rooms, portable urban gardens and the lab equipment mentioned above. Once the community can fabricate, assemble, adjust and disassemble the necessary structures and tools, there’s no longer reliance on a central authority to control the process. Organizing disrupts typical, centralized systems of power, shifting decision making and fabrication from the hands of experts to the hands of regular people.

In the case of lab equipment, the decentralization of power and authority becomes more clear with Pearce’s vision for open source equipment. Not only are scientists from all over the world helping each other develop and modify lab equipment, but also scientists in China, India and Africa have the potential to build themselves top-notch, but affordable labs, creating a truly global scientific community.


Find this blog interesting? Share it with a friend. If you’re involved in sustainable design, check out my Thursday post on new guidance on teaching “sustainable development (and design).”


4 Responses to Design-for-3D Printing as community organizing

  1. Very interesting article. Such a simple way to reduce costs, but still effective!

  2. Matt Kiem says:

    A couple of things concern me with the ubiquitous enthusiasm over 3D printing.

    The first relates to the kind of waste this technology is going to produce. It looks like we’re heading to a situation where these things will be marketed as ordinary office and domestic items, as with digital printing. This will produce a similar effect in terms of wastage, one of which is the lack of care in production and use (‘its ok, we can just print another, and another etc.’). This is particularly concerning giving the toxicity of plastics and resin. Unless there is a challenge to this our world will become even more rapidly filled with ill considered, short use-span, and broken bits of plastic. That’s not good news.

    The other relates to the hidden social cost of cheap. Why do things cost so much? Often because they embody a lot of labour. What usually happens when you automate something? People lose their jobs. If workers get to pocket the savings in labour time through automation that’s cool, but under capitalism they don’t. Additionally, losing a job can also mean losing practical know-how. It means making populations of people more materially stupid.

    People may be able to point to short term benefits of 3D printing, but its heralding as a solution to social ills, is in my view, dangerously short sighted. A much more critical engagement is needed.

    • Ann Thorpe says:

      Thanks for these thoughtful comments. I agree that waste is a concern, but wonder if it will be possible to create circular systems where waste from 3D printers becomes food for 3D printers. Also as with other sectors, my hope would be that the eco-qualities of materials improve over time. I know these circular systems are always harder to achieve in practice, but in the 3D printer scenario, people are much more aware of production waste than they would otherwise be because it is right before their eyes.

      I don’t share your view that 3D printing is the equivalent of automated systems of the mass production era when people lost jobs to machines. Although I guess it’s possible people will loose jobs, other people will gain jobs, and in new places, because of the way 3D printing can distribute fabrication more widely, catering to much more specific (as in the case of scientific lab equipment) and/or local circumstances. It might also change the nature of work in terms of the skills needed to convert ideas into form through the computer modeling process.

      In the end 3D printing won’t take over all manufacturing, but will be part of a bigger ecosystem of fabrication. You’re right that we must consider this ecosystem critically if we want it to contribute to a sustainable/reslient society across environmental and social goals.

      • Matt Kiem says:

        Thanks for the response Ann, I appreciate the dialogue.

        I think a more serious confrontation with waste is warranted, especially when the materials are toxic. We have a problem with plastics right now that we are failing to deal with, and in this light I think it is irresponsible to justify an accelerating force on the basis of a promise. We are talking about a systemic problem of course – the ability to take responsibility for waste has been designed out of our technical systems – but at some point we have to be able to say ‘no, no more until you deal with the mess you have already created’. The crux of the problem is that the agency to subordinate productivity to sustainment doesn’t exist. It has to be built in the form of a socio-technical-political project. My point is that it won’t be built unless we posit responsibility for what we create/destroy as the highest priority.

        On the question of jobs, think the most significant impact here is not on jobs per se but on cultures of making. 3D printers represents the displacement of embodied know-how with automation. It means undermining the making and repair skills that can take generations to cultivate. The 3D printer is only the latest in a long line of technologies to do this, but the effects of this, in terms of the skills it undermines, needs to be taken into account.

        I should note that these comments are directed at what I think will be some of the more systemic impacts of 3D printing. I’m not necessarily trying to undermine what you claim about your specific examples, but I don’t think that they will necessarily be representative of how the 3D printer will be used. I also think there are a lot of limitations to placing a technology at the centre of claims to positive social change, particularly if the foremost consideration is cost. Reducing monetary costs as such is not a progressive political goal. It is entirely consistent with what causes many of the problems we face.

        In short I think the enthusiasm over 3D printers needs to be tempered and placed under much more critical examination. I think the work of Chris Jordan provides some useful perspective on why we have to confront productivism as a serious political challenge.×24

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