The Shape of Shaping Things to Come

(4)

A weird commotion outside wakes you up. You peer out the window to see the source of the music and revelry. A group of college kids from the engineering school are smashing all of their furniture in the street. The next day while walking the dog, you see them again. They’re sweeping up the pieces of broken housewares, and shoveling it into bags. The next day, it looks like they’re moving in again as they carry brand new designer furniture into their house. They do this every month or so.

You are shopping in Ikea, looking for a new end table, and perhaps a rug. Suddenly, uniformed security guards appear, and surround a young woman. She is escorted from the store, uneventfully. “Pocket scanner”, you hear an employee tell an inquiring couple.

With delighted expectation, your son unwraps his birthday gift. Awe is quickly replaced by disappointment. “Isn’t that the one you wanted?” you ask confused, certain that it was the new action figure, ordered directly from the TV show web site. “Yeah, it’s the one,” he says cautiously, not looking you in the eyes. “I just forgot that all the accessories would be un-modded on the store version.”

 



3D printed objects, or “physibles” are an incredible example of the mundane aspects of future-weird. They are glitchy-as-fuck, but their shapeshifting effect on our cultural space will inhabit the same metaphysics of street graffiti--appreciated by only a few, truly understood by even less.

A physible is simple. Download a file with information about the shape of an object, or components parts of an object. Use a 3D printing machine that squirts molten plastic, metal or other material to pour you that object, without needing a mold. Or, send the file to a company who will do that for you. These machines simplify the process of fabbing an object, by using a single machine to create parts of nearly anything. Previously, specific injection molds had to be created for each piece, or a welder had to attach pieces by reading a diagram. Now the machine can build the entire piece in one run, with basically zero set-up investment. The investment to produce a single object is nearly nothing--all it takes is the design, and one of these universal printing machines.

This technical evolution is interesting, but the real revolution will be in the changing distribution of fabrication shops that this production shift will create. Fabrication has been sourced wherever the set-up requirements are cheapest, with the run production runs made as large as possible. But the technology behind physibles will make short-run fabrication, anywhere, much more preferable. It will eventually be cheaper for a person to fab one object at home, than to buy one of five hundred thousand made in one place and shipped across the world. Physibles will decentralize the Pearl River, and bring China home. 

But the technology of physibles doesn’t mean much to the consumer. Not any more than the encoding of a MP3 file, or the precise stitch pattern of a handbag. It means something to the person who actually fabs the object, but as a consumer, you’ll get your things wherever is cheapest and easiest, just like always. You’ll still order things online. Rather than coming from China, perhaps a Chinese company will outsource the design to a fab shop down the street that will hand deliver it to your door. The means of production continue to mean nothing to the end-user: commodity cost is king. Most people want their stuff to just be stuff, and don’t care about how it works. Consider the frustration people experience trying to get a PDF to print correctly on a flat sheet of paper. These folks will be filling their cabinets, entertaining their children, and brushing their teeth with physibles every day of their lives without knowing how the object came into existence, or what that means for global distribution networks.

Most people. On the other hand, there will be a new set of object hackers, who will be spending all their free time online, discussing the precise interior dimension ratios of the new set of Target glassware ....

 

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