Buying Printers for Class


I am teaching a course on 3dprinting this semester (you can see the syllabus here if you are interested it is a mix between theory, history of information & communication, and praxis, printing stuff). It has been a difficult class to construct and think about, in large part because the desktop 3d printing market is so young and these things aren’t nearly as easy to use as computers or 2d printers.

The Issue

So one of the first “big” choices I faced in teaching a class about 3d printing was solving the hardware issue. Unlike say teaching a class that requires students to blog, I can’t expect them to have the hardware. Indeed, I am pretty much guaranteed that students will not have personal access to a printer so I needed to figure out a way to provide them. This creates a few issues. First, printers cost money. It would be nice to provide enough for each student to have one, but that isn’t probably economically feasible. Right now a printer cost anywhere between $300 and $3000 (okay they can actually cost a lot more than $3000 but for my purposes am playing in the $300 to $3k range). Second is ease of use. The easiest option is to go with Makerbot. It is really just plug and play. Makerbot comes with its own software and is really easy to use. Indeed its ease of use is probably what makes it so popular among educational institutions, especially the secondary ed market. But Makerbots are expensive $2,900 or so. It’s true you can purchase a Makerbot pull it out of the box, load software onto your computer and be printing in 10-15 minutes. And for the most part you can get fairly good quality prints out of the machine.

But …

Aside from cost there are two big issues here. First is that Makerbots are too easy.

Too easy?

Yes. Too easy. Part of what I want students to learn is the technology of these things, how they work, their ins and outs, to think about the way they work, along with how they work. By making the machine less easy, it seems less like “magic” and more like something students are capable of intervening in/modifying. Thinking with machines means understanding how to make interventions. The Makerbot’s principle advantage is the software, it is really easy to use, but that comes at a cost, not understanding how the software works.

Which brings me to the second problem with going the popular Makerbot route: lock-in. If you learn to use a Makerbot, you get really good at learning to use a Makerbot, but that knowledge doesn’t so easily transfer to other systems. Aside from the deplorable path they are taking in terms of Intellectual Property it seems the Makerbot system is likely to be one of a 3d printing ecosystem that is convenient to use but in which you are locked in, unable to transfer out (similar to say the way iOS works).

There are other options. If I wanted to go the expensive route and had all the money in the world, and wanted easy printing I would probably select Ultimakers.

Cost and Learning.

One of these, ready to use printers, cost in excess of $2000 though. True you can actually get a much cheaper one like the Davinci but they also require that you buy their plastic not just any plastic. Thus, you end up back at the 2d printer problem, where companies sell them at or below cost only to extract higher profits from buying the printer cartridges and ink. No thanks. So in the end I decided to purchase Printrbots. They are inexpensive, work well, you can tinker with them, and since they are built on the reprap platform aren’t going to be restricted to one kind of plastic. We got a mix of the Plus models and the Simple models. I’ll report back later …


Teaching a Class

So this semester I am teaching a class on 3d printing. One of the advantages of being a chair I guess is that the same person proposing a somewhat out there idea for a class is also the same person approving it. I have managed to track down a handful of classes that are focused on 3d printing, but all of them focus on the engineering aspect of this technology, its uses and applications, or as a way say to quickly model a product prototype. But I am more interested in the social aspect, the cultural side, if 3d printing is the medium what is the message?

But I also didn’t want to have a class that is just talking about 3dprinting. 3d printing has transformed the way I look at the world, in part this is because of all of the reading I do about printing, studying its trends, looking at what is being done in the field, and reading the academic research. But also in part this is because I spend a lot of time printing, actually doing the work of printing in 3 dimensions. Learning by doing. I want to replicate this experience with students. And finally because nothing I have seen students interact with recently has amazed them as much as 3d printing. Students I show this to are genuinely excited about giving it a try and I wanted to harnesses this “excitement” and wonder. You know the old saying about any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic …and that sense of magic is a nice starting place from which to begin a class.

I ended up designing a syllabus that tries to capture both of these tracks. You can see the schedule here. The way I designed the course is for Tuesdays to be “theory” days. We will do readings and discussions on these days. My hope is that students will come to appreciate the cultural questions here, but also to understand the longer history of the way that information and materiality are connected and constructed. Thursdays are print days in which early on, I plan to construct exercises to introduce them to printing and hopefully over the second half of the class to turn their creativity loose and see what they come up with.


SCOTUS, Tech, and 3d Printing

3d print from elindow

Last week the Supreme Court of the United States ruled on two significant technology cases. American Broadcasting vs Aereo and Riley v. California. I am not going to break down the implications of these cases here, or discuss them in depth, far better minds than I have already done this, but what is worth talking about is how given two different technology cases, the court approached the decision in two significantly different ways. In the Aereo case the court ruled by analogy, saying effectively Aereo looks like cable therefore it must be cable. In the Riley case however the court saw how the smart phone, is a different piece of technology, really nothing like opening a cigarette case that the state wanted to claim as precendence for searching a phone without a warrant.

In order to understand the differences between these two rulings you should read Margot Kaminski’s take. In her piece she argues that the court saw the cellphone as pardigm shifting, but Aereo as not. A lot has been made of the analogies and the ability of the court to understand tech based on what analogies they draw. Kaminski sums it up as:

In Riley, the Court created a clear rule to govern paradigm-shifting technology. In Aereo, the same Court punted to future decisions for a case-by-case determination of how new technology intersects with the law. As Justice Scalia pointed out in the dissent in Aereo, the majority opinion adopted “an improvised standard (“looks-like-cable-TV”) that will sow confusion for years to come.”

So the question as Kaminski points out is why would the court employ two very different approaches. Kaminski has her own take about how the court chooses to apply old or new standards, one with considering. But I want to add another: familarity with the technology.

It seems to me that in the cell phone case the justices understood the technology in question. This is easy to ascertain by the arguments put forward in the decision, references to how the phones work, amount of data stored. But its also just common sense. I couldn’t find any pictures of the justices using smartphones, but given their ubiquity its hard to imagine that most of them don’t have one. And that even if they don’t (let says one or two justices still use a fliphone) smartphones are so ubiqutous in modern life, from TV and movies to just watching friends and relatives use them, that its hard to imagine the justices do not understand this technology.

Not so with Aereo. Aereo is far less ubiqutous. Indeed when I talk to people about the case the first thing I usually have to do is explain to them what Aereo is (again not so with smartphones). How many of you know someone with an Aereo subscription? compare that to a smartphone? And it is clear from the oral arguments as well, that the justices just don’t quite grasp the tech here. Breyer asks about the phonograph and a record store, Scalia thinks HBO is broadcast over the airwaves. Now this is not to pick on the justices, or call them idiots, there is no doubt that they are brilliant legal minds, but questions of technology are substantially different from questions of law. Or more narrowly questions of law are only one part of the larger picture of techno-cultural questions. (I wonder if each justice shouldn’t have a legal clerk whose expertise is solely in technology.)

The Riley case benefits from not coming to the court until a moment at which the nature of the smartphone is widely understood, leading to the favorable, “get a warrant decision.” But in the Aereo case the technology has the misfortune of coming before the court before it is widely embedded within the culture, and broadly understood. This favors a conservative approach. Maybe at a later date I’ll do a longer analysis of this, looking at when transformative tech comes to the court and how it has been treated historically. But also my sense is that this is a particular problem of this moment or rapid technological change.

But what about 3dprinting

So what does this mean for 3d printing. There are likely to be many cases involving 3d printing in the coming years. From IP cases to gun control. When I think about the future of 3d printing I always think of Michael Weinberg’s great piece “It Will Be Awesome if We Don’t Screw it Up”. Its an important read, the tone of which is summed up in the clever title, as Weinberg notes all the ways that the legal regime, and specifically IP cartels might try to restrict the technology.

So what can be done. Ideally I would gift a 3d printer to each one of the justices so that they start to play with and understand the promise of the technology before they rule on it. Heck gift one to all members of their families, so they just start seeing 3d printers as part of their daily landscape. But that probably won’t happen. It would be nice if court battles over 3d printing were delayed, especially any of the significant ones, this would lead more towards a Riley ruling and away from an Aereo one. But that’s difficult to coordinate and organize. But I do think there is one advantage that 3d printing has, and that is in the battle of the analogy or metaphor. The name helps 3d printing, is just like printing, except you print objects instead of just paper. Of course the just here looms large and carries transformative potential, but keeping the frame as “printing” is probably fairly useful.


Making Guns

3d printed gun

Inevitably one of the first conversations I get in with people about 3d printers involves printing guns. In some sense this is understandable, typical of the trajectory of any technology where part of the hype cycle is imagining the worst possible use to which a technology can be put and then generating fear, almost always irrational, based on said scenario. Accordingly much of what is written in this regard is sensationalist and really not the type of nuanced careful thinking that is required here, to be sure there are exceptions but the, “ban 3d printers cause everyone will soon be making their own guns” is not really the useful place from which to begin the conversation.

To start with, we are not exactly at the point where the average desktop printer can actually just print off a working gun. Within the US context at least, there are much easier ways to acquire a firearm (although in Japan where gun laws are different this is not the case). And while not a problem at this particular moment, it is something worth legally, and philosophically thinking about, as a broader question: What happens when controlling manufacturing and distribution channels is no longer a sufficient strategy for controlling an objects distribution within the culture? When manufacturing is distributed control becomes much harder. For a good sense of some of the issues here, and a brief background on 3d printed guns in the US context its worth watching this Vice Video on Cody Wilson of Defense Distributed who is at the center of the 3d printing guns movement.

But more narrowly there is another legal question here, is it currently illegal to print a gun? and more importantly, again within the US context is it even constitutional to ban the printing of 3d guns. Last year Philadelphia became the first city to ban the printing of guns. Leave aside whether or not this is just political attention/headline grabbing, or even enforceable, there is another question: Would this law stand up to a constitutional challenge?

Now I am sure there are arguments on both sides, reasons legal scholars would argue that for and against the laws constitutionality. And I wouldn’t be surprised to see such a case in the not to distant future. So in my research on this question I ended up reading an article by Peter Jensen-Haxel, 3d printers, Obsolete Firearm Supply Controls, and the Right to Build Self-Defense Weapons Under Heller. Now I am not sure I am completely persuaded by this argument but Jensen-Haxel does make a strong case that the Supreme Court ruling in the Heller case would lend itself to a ruling that citizens have the right to print 3d guns that are otherwise not illegal to own.

The reasoning is that the 2nd Amendment is about a citizens right to acquire firearms, that we interpret that right to mean purchase from another manufacturer is just a particular historical anomaly. Indeed as the article points out “it appears American history supports a general right to make one’s own arms for personal use, without exception” (479). And what is more as the article points out, if you believe people have a right to arm themselves for self defense than it logically follows that people ought to have the right to manufacture their own weapons for this purpose, especially manufacture their own custom weapons to suit their own personal physical needs. Part of the ruling in Heller says that outlawing handguns is unfair because people who are incapable of holding a larger firearm (like a rifle) are disadvantaged. Colt made all men equal, not the rifle. So if you are someone who has the use of only one hand then a handgun is pretty much your only option for a firearm. By extension people ought to have the right, according to this train of thinking, to manufacture guns to meet their own particular physical requirements. A blanket outlaw of all firearm home manufacturing would affect citizens unequally.

Now lets leave aside for a moment whether this reasoning is sound, whether you agree with it or not, or whether or not you agree that the 2nd amendment even protects the right of ubiquitous firearm ownership. What is interesting here to me is the way that technology, in this case 3d printing creates a question of the law (or more accurately our social values) that was previously not available. Lessig calls these “latent ambiguities,” matters that were ambiguous in the law that didn’t have to be settled because the technology didn’t demand it. In his book Code 2.0 he raises a host of these. (For example would an automated system scanning emails that doesn’t involve human intervention and which did not interrupt or intrude on citizens conversations be unlawful search and seizure? It really depends on what you believe the law was designed to protect?). Now in Lessig’s work he almost exclusively focuses on the way that software/the internet raises a host of legal questions and latent ambiguities that we have to resolve. But with 3d printing I think we get a whole host of additional questions that have to be answered, and 3d printed guns become just one place where we see this clearly.

As the Jensen-Haxel article points out, there was a relatively common right to self manufacture weapons. Common law recognizes this right and one can see it prior to the rise of industrial manufacturing of weapons. With industrialization and mass manufacturing we tend to think of manufacturing and ownership of items as two distinct acts, often regulating the former far more than the later. Lots of things are illegal to sell or make with certain permits and/or licenses but not to own. This makes historical sense, if we want to prevent toys from ending up in the hands of kids who might choke on them, we make a law that says toys have to have a label that says choking hazard.

So in many ways 3d printing (or home manufacturing more broadly speaking) hearkens back to an older time, before industrial/mass manufacturing, where things are individually produced for use or consumption by the people who will be using them, but in another sense represents a new moment where this individual manufacturing is also massively automated and distributed. Our current paradigm of thinking, and the law is just one section of this, isn’t really equipped to deal with the range of questions and issues this shift will bring about. Look beyond guns, what about all the things we restrict in manufacturing and selling that people will now just be able to individually produce, again back to the toys that are choking hazards. In some ways the current licensing and legal system will work, you will probably still need an inspection for your 3d printed house, or your printed car will still need a license and inspection to be on the road, but in many ways we will have to rethink our organizational regimes which rely on the difference between information and objects. (And even in the housing case there will still be problems as parts and pieces are often labeled as having passed a certain manufacturing standard and thus rated for use in a particular instance.)

Going back to the guns to see how this is a bigger problem, what constitutes selling a gun? If someone sells you the blueprints to make a gun is that selling you a gun? Right now no, the information itself isn’t regulated. We just regulate the selling. The right to keep and bear arms is interpreted as the right to purchase a manufactured weapon from a licensed seller, but that’s about the object not the information, which in the very near future is going to be far more important. (Similarly making Moonshine is illegal, but I can find all the information online on how to do it, even buy all the parts, just the manufacturing is illegal. Which really doesn’t prevent anyone from making their own Moonshine at home.) So when people talk about the revolutionary potential of 3d printing or the Maker movement I think what we are really talking about is the rise of the importance of information and the decreasing importance of materiality. Legislating, licensing, restricting material isn’t going to be do effective, information, the plans, the details, the how tos are where the real purchase is at. And that is a much harder thing with which to deal.

Or, to make the point with one interesting example: What will the NRA do? You might think that they would be all for 3d printing guns, more guns for the people. But really since the NRA is an organization that represents and protects the gun manufacturing industry, at home printing, which would be fewer gun sales might not be so attractive. Sure they could sell ammunition, or plans, or kits or something, but I am guessing if the practice became common they wouldn’t be too happy about decreased revenue. The NRA’s interest isn’t in gun information becoming common, but rather gun objects, only if they sell them though, becoming common.

Image: Flickr: 3d printed gun parts alexpb


Makerbot. Raiding the Commons.



Over the last couple of weeks various individuals in the 3dprinting community have been significantly angered by Makerbot. You can read more about the controversoy at Hackaday and Fabbaloo. But the essence of the story here is that Makerbot filed for a cluster of patents on 3dprinting. Interestingly enough the patents seem to at the very least be based on the work of others (not Makerbot), so understandably so quite a few folks were outraged about this.

Is this theft?

This isn’t theft. First of all because one cannot steal intellectual property. If you illegal download a CD or copy another company’s patent it isn’t theft. As much as the RIAA and the MPAA would like you to believe that you are stealing, the law doesn’t read that way, at most you have violated someone’s patent or copyright rights. (It isn’t stealing, how could it be, the person still has what you stole you just copied it.) Look I have no love of what Makerbot did here, but I think we have to understand the particulars of what is going on. Indeed, for what it is worth I would argue what they are doing is worth than theft …

What did they do?

Stories will differ here, and even some notable Open Source advocates such as Cory Doctorow are defedning Makerbot. The rationale here goes that Makerbot as a company built on the designs of others, but what they have made is something new, a novel and unique invention that is built on the work of others, much of which was freely created and uploaded to Makerbot’s own design website, Thingiverse. So to some it seems as if Makerbot is claiming patent rights over stuff other people invented and then uploaded to the site. If you read the patent filing this doesn’t precisely (at least in one instance) seem to be the case. They disclose the other objects (the ones uploaded to the site) as prior art, and posit that their patnet is a specific new invention. In others though as OpenBeam covers there appears to be more direct filing for patents on something others were at the very least simultaneously developing, the auto-leveling design in particular looks suspicious, given that others were demonstrating it before Makerbot even filed for the patent. At the best they are moving quick to be first to file, to claim dominion over what many poeple are working on, at worst they are waiting to see what the community makes and then selecting the best ideas and patenting them. In this sense Makerbot views the entire reprap community as part of their R & D department. This might sound crazy but the job listing for an IP lawyer posted by Makerbot hints at just this. Makerbot is looking to hire an IP lawyer to shore up their patent interests.

This is a Business Strategy

Make no mistake about it this is a coordinated business strategy. Makerbot was recently acquired by Stratasys. Stratasys has historically been one of the largest players in the industrial 3dprinting landscape but for the most part ignored the home market. Indeed as many would tell the narrative it was the big industrial players like Stratasys who held 3d patents and wouldn’t use them to develop a desktop market that prevented the market from developing. Only once the initial patents expired did a home market of tinkers develop (out of which Makerbot arose, more on this later).

It is now clear to most anaylsts that the desktop 3d printing industry promises to be lucrative. Whether this develops into home machines that we all have next to our toasters and blenders (what I would guess) or just distributed manufacturing centers where these smaller machines are easily available to anyone (imagine something like FedEx, Kinkos or UPS installing these). There is a lot of bank to be made here. The corporate powers that be know this, and Makerbot is now part of that corporate nexus.

Now Makerbot Stratasys can make money off selling individual desktop machines but that is a limited market, one can only sell so many printers when there are many companies manufacturing them at lower and lower prices. (A Makerbot while it looks snazzy, is about twice as expensive as comporable printers.) If one really wants to make money on printers you do this thru two ways 1. Controlling the design files people are printing and selling those to people (similar to an app based economy like iTunes). This is clearly the move Makerbot is making with Thingiverse looking to become the online marketplace for selling 3d print files, not the place for sharing files. Snufalafgus is just the tip of the plastic fabricated iceberg. 2. Is controlling the patents which would allow them to extract “rent” from every desktop machine. That is, for each of their patents, for 20 years, they would be able to extract “rent” and/or prevent a competitor from making a similar or competiting product. This is exactly what the Afina patent lawsuit is about. Makerbot Stratasys is looking to corner the market on 3d printing. You either block competitors from making 3dprinters, or you get a share of the revenue for every home 3d printer sold. The goal in either case isn’t really improving the 3d printing space, but rather maximizing profits and controlling marketshare.

Copyright’s aren’t Patents

This might seem like a tangent, but its a really important point, actually it is probably the central deeper issue here, the one that 3d printing as a technology is going to produce many legal questions around. Currently the law treats copyright and patents as two separate things, that is while rhetorically we might think of them as belonging to the same class of good, Intellectual Property, they are actually very different things, legally speaking. Copyright primarily covers creative works, think books, films, music etc. while patents cover inventions. You can’t patent a book, and you can’t copyright a new jet engine. (Confusingly a few things like software overlap.) The important difference here though is that copyright is just granted, you write something it is copyrighted, while patents require regsitration. In other words just because you invent something doesn’t mean you get a patent on it, you have to register it with the patent office.

Now there are lots of reasons for these differences, and lots of analysis as to why its useful to differentiate between the two classes of goods. But two points are worth making here. 1. 3d printing would tend to collapse this difference, rendering even fuzzier the justification for differentiating between the two (but lets table this issue as it would take much longer to discuss) and 2. Patents thus favor corporations and large players. While in both cases, copyright and patent, victory often goes to the one with the most lawyers, the person or corporation who can pay the most to defend their intersts, in patent law you have to pay to register your invention. This makes it really cost prohibitive to the end users on Thingiverse to be patenting all of their files, but not to a company like Stratasys who can look thru all of the files, find the best, slightly improve on them and then patent them.

Right now users are uploading files to Thingiverse and labeling them with a Creative Commons license. Now I am not a lawyer, so this isn’t an expert legal opinion but it is not at all clear to me that this is an effective strategy for licensincing design files. Now sure, in the case of “creative works” i.e. something like this you can probably protect it with a copyright, where the design elements can be separated from its use function. But with many of the “things” we are talking about copyright wouldn’t apply so well, you need a patent. And unlike copyright you don’t automatically have that just by publishing it. This gives significant advantage to the larger players. (Notice how this cartoon that is making the rounds confuses Patents and Copyrights.

Commons Based Production

So initially in theorizing about commons based peer production scholars looked at collaborative production that was mostly if not entirely based on non material production. That is what was being produced in the “new internet commons” of peer production where goods were information based. Mostly this turns around software production but also platforms where individuals collaboratively produced information, Wikipedia being the uber example often used. But even smaller things, like Clay Shirky’s example of Flickr, are information based not material object based. This makes sense as peer production for material goods is a much harder thing to pull off. In an information object freeriders don’t reduce the commons when freeriding, reading Wikipedia (taking from the commons) without contributing to it doesn’t actually harm the resource. Indeed in many cases as Doctorow observed this type of commons can actually create value off freeriding, overgrazing isn’t a problem, the Internet is the “sheep that shits grass.”

To be sure there are examples of collaborative peer production around material objects, communities coming together to clean up a park, build a playground, etc. but these are usually far more local and far smaller in scope.

The Reprap Commons

3dprinting though is a different model entirely, or at least within the Reprap community that is largely responsible for the growth in the at home/desktop market for 3dprinting. It is very much interested in material production, a 3d printer is an object whose end design is production of materiality. But the design and invention has very much followed a commons based peer production model. When I describe the Reprap community to people who don’t follow 3d printing, I often say imagine Wikipedia or Linux, but instead of building an encyclopedia or an OS the community is focused on building 3d printers. It’s a sharing economy/community. Yes there are monetary transactions that take place, but the overall goal is to produce open design plans that enable anyone to copy them, independent of licensing and legal restrictions. That is the community exists largely outside the patent structure, it isn’t invested in developing and patenting ideas, rather its interested in building 3d printers, and patents quite frankly get in the way of this goal. (If you want a sense of the Reprap community you can start by checking out their forum.

Raiding the Commons

Makerbot started as part of the open source hardware community. Indeed according to Zachary Smith one of the founders of Makerbot, this was one of the underling, founding principles, MakerBot was built on a foundation of open hardware projects such as RepRap and Arduino, as well as using many open software projects for development of our own software.. So initially Makerbot was a company that participated in this commons based peer production, an open hardware movement, in the spirit of the open software movements. Note this didn’t preclude Makerbot from being a business or making money of selling the printers. Many companies exist around the Reprap community selling the hardware, supplies, and kits to build these machines. It’s just that it is all still “open” as in a commons which any of the participants are free to take, and supposed to contribute. The Reprap community has an ethos and Makerbot was participating in that ethos.

Fastforward, to the present and 3dprinting now promises to be a lucrative business, especially for those who can capture a large market share, i.e. be the first movers. In Doctorow’s narrative, and I think this probably follows the Makerbot company line, Makerbot is largely an open company that has made the move to become more closed and thus is being critiqued. Companies are critiqued based on their relative moves not their absolute position.

But I think this misses the point. Its not as if Makerbot is just becoming more closed, they are, apparently the new Replicators won’t even run alternative open source software, purchasing a Makerbot locks you entriely into their system. Imagine by analogy if for years Britannica had participated in Wikipedia helping to build it into a rich resource, engaging in peer production, developing a rich commons of an encyclopedia, but then decided to start using the stuff created, building on it, but creating a new encyclopedia that was copyrighted, and that prevented Wikipedia from further evolving. Or if IBM suddenly forked the Linux distribution and started copyrighting parts of the code. In both cases these scenarios can’t happen because of the copyright licensing. But here’s the rub, Makerbot isn’t playing in copyright territory they are playing in patent territory.

Prehaps the designs Makerbot has come up with are “new” “novel” and sufficiently different as to warrant a patent, and in this case pointing to the designs that are prior art might not matter. Maybe Makerbot has developed something unique, invented something orginal, rather than just copy the designs of others, lets give them the benefit of the doubt here (although it looks worse than this, especially in the case of the bed leveling patent). Even in this best reading Makerbot is only capable of establishing this position because they freely built on, borrowed from, and benefited from the commons production of others. Imagine for a moment if any of the inventions that were open, like the extruder Makerbot seems to have based theirs on, was patented, effectively blocking Makerbot from inventing their new one. Or consider all the patents that could be here, that aren’t, or that are here that are preventing future development.

As James Boyle outlines in The Public Domain engaging in Creative Commons, Peer Production, or Open Source removes ones ability to invoke monopoly priveleges (copyrights) but comes with the benefit of being able to harness the strength of a community of diverse creators, in many scenarios its worth the trade off. But in this case Makerbot is trying to have its cake, eat it, and prevent others from making another without first paying them. This isn’t a case of a company becoming slightly more closed, or a tech company growing up and needing to satisfy investors by protecting IP interests. This is a case of a company wholesale raiding the commons, taking what was open, and trying to close it up. They are using Thingiverse as a giant R&D department encouraging a “sharing” economy which they than can use to turn into a “patent and selling economy.” Makerbot is doing what Disney did, borrow from the commons to create a host of products than changing the rules of the game so no one else can borrow. Taking what was common and fencing it in. In this respect, even if Makerbot hasn’t wholesale copied from others, the ire they are receiving is totally justified. Indeed, I would argue this is worse, copying one person’s work is one thing, but building up fences around what was common to all is an entirely other.


If you are interested here is a brief list of places I have seen individuals expressing anger/frustration/hate at Makerbot about this:


Changing Possibilities

Different Forms

One of the things I have been interested in with 3d printing is the way that it makes new forms possible. Because objects are more or less “grown” from raw materials, layer by layer, rather than carved out of raw material, or produced by injection modeling, different types of forms are possible. This makes possible an aesthetics connected to 3d printing. If we think about modernism as being shaped by clean lines and sharp edges which was in part influenced by using and working with industrial materials like steel and glass, working with materials in a new way migth influence a new aesthetic.

I think you can already start to see this taking shape in many of the designs on Thingiverse which have a much more “organic” feel to them, where straight clean lines are eschewed for curves and a structure that looks far more like something out of nature.

images images

Above are two examples of what I am talking about. The first is the 2 layer ring, available on Shapeways with many similar variations. The second is a cellular lamp from Thingiverse. Again many other objects with similar looks are available on Thingiverse.

So I started printing things that are only possible to make if you have a 3d printer, i.e. can’t be done with traditional manufacturing techniques.

The first is a relatively popular print on Thingiverse, a Julia Vase. Because of how it is constructed there would be no way to get a mold out of the vase once you made it. Sure you could do something similar by casting it (lost wax) or hand blown, but this is plastic. It also reflects the aesthetic qualities that I was talking about above.

Second I printed a ball inside a box. Yes this was printed as all one object.

A Ball in a Box

Third I printed a ship inside a bottle, a take on the ship in a glass bottle.

A Ship in a Bottle

Finally, I printed a bolt and a nut. Except the bolt has a head on both ends, i.e. the nut spins up and down but can’t come off.

A Nut and Bolt


Plastic Wood

Plastic Wood

One of my lines of thinking about 3d printing is that it isn’t about plastic, or not strictly about plastic. Desktop machines, now, mostly print in plastic, but the variety of materials with which we can print is surely going to expand. Already big industrial machines exists for printing in metal, there is of course the 3d printing in chocolate thing, and perhaps most interesting, 3d printing biological material. But plastic is important here, not because we will only print in plastic, rather it seems to me that one of the conceptual shifts of 3d printing is starting to treat all material as plastic. Plastic in the adjective sense not the noun sense. The material anything is made of is flexible, recyclable, reuseable, moldable into a variety of shapes.

This is a long way of saying that I acquired some laywood the other day and started printing with it. Some folks have been really sucessful in getting high quality prints using laywoo. Printing off stuff whose finsihed product looks and feels like wood. Yes printing in wood. Wood seems to me even more odd a substance to print in than say metal, because of its organic nature. But then in another sense I guess it isn’t that strange, for 3d printing is a lot about “growing” objects, additive manufacturing, versus taking a chunk of raw material and carving it down, subtractive manufacutring.

Anyway this is my first “wood” print. It took me longer to get it configured than plastic, and to me it feels more like particle board or MDF than say hardwood. But it definitely has a “woody” feel to it, much different than the plastic. Laywood isn’t all wood though it is actually a composite of PLA and sawdust, which probably explains why it feels like MDF.

Wooden Box

The box is small, but you can sand it as if it is wood, and it certainly smells like wood while it is printing, or while you are sanding. I think you could also finish it with something like Danish Oil as long as whatever you were using wouldn’t eat away at the plastic.


A Change in Our Very Notion

“For the last twenty years neither matter nor space nor time has been what it was from time immemorial. We must expect great innovations to transform the entire technique of the arts, thereby affecting artistic invention itself and perhaps even bringing about an amazing change in our very notion of art.” -Paul Valery (1928)

Ordering a Printer

After a couple of months of research I finally decided on what 3dprinter I wanted to purchase. Given the diversity and the expansion of the market there really is no shortage of choices out there. And while in the past year the entry price on ready to print out of the box machines has fallen sharply, the price variation between models and companies is still rather significant, with higher end home models like the Makerbot and UltiMaker costing just over $2k, but other machines with slightly less build perform and usability coming in at under $1k. The printrbot simple is $399, or $299 if you are willing to assemble yourself, granted the size of the print is fairly limited but for less than $500 it looks impressive and lots of people have positive reviews. Luckily there are a lot of resources out there that helped me make the decision. The two most important were Make Magazine’s Guide (although they really don’t cover repraps) and the Reddit guide complete with a handy buying chart.

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