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3-D Printing Digital Fabrication Unleashes Creativity

A closup image of a Jeff Koons dog sculpture in miniature with someone's hand and arm writing on a piece of paper
Mini homage to Jeff Koons printed during a Fab Lab at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry.

3-D printing is the closest we’ve come so far to making real-life versions of the “replicators” from Star Trek. 2012 was the breakout year for this technology, as it spread from the home workshops of Makers to new public “hackerspaces” and (soon) your neighborhood Kinko’s. At least four museums held “hackathons” or “scanathons” that encouraged artists and technology geeks to play with digital data, making replicas or adaptations of museum collections. On the larger stage, experts speculate that 3-D printing may stem the collapse of American manufacturing, as tailored, local, on-demand, small-scale production recaptures business from large, cheap foreign factories.

For decades, computer-controlled machines have been able to carve complex objects from solid blocks of material. By contrast, 3-D printing is an example of “additive manufacturing”—instead of removing excess stuff, you build an object bit by bit, either by extruding materials from a nozzle or solidifying particles of organic or inorganic raw materials. Whatever the specific printing technology, digital information is translated into a series of physical cross-sections, which the printer lays down in successive layers of liquid or powder and fuses to form a solid object. They can be used to print engineering prototypes, spare parts and all kinds of widgets, even objects with moving parts. (They can also be used to print food, artworks and replicas of artifacts, even body parts—but more on that below.)

Industrial-grade 3-D printers have been around for more than a decade, and most 3-D printers are still designed and scaled for industrial use, but within the last few years innovators have been perfecting tabletop printers suitable for use at home or in a small business. The rapid decrease in cost and increase in quality of these models is shaping a revolution in manufacturing and design that Chris Anderson (former editor of WIRED magazine and the leading evangelist of 3-D printing) says will be even bigger and more profound than the Internet, because it’s taking place in the “Real World of Places and Stuff.”

Distributed production on table-top printers could eliminate traditional economies of scale and make mass customization possible and affordable. Small 3-D printers can be moved easily, and the digital information that makes them work moves at the speed of the Internet. Now everyone can be a manufacturer; anyone can be a designer or a least a tinkerer with existing designs. Already we see a proliferation of digital data that can be used as printing templates, distributed via open-source communities like Thingiverse and commercial intermediaries like Shapeways and Kraftwurx. At least one manufacturer has made the specs for replacement parts for its products available online so you can print your own rather than ordering by mail.

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Because designs can easily be created and modified, 3-D printers are great for prototyping, fueling small-scale innovation and invention. This makes 3-D printing a natural extension of the Maker Culture and a tremendous boon to the cultural trend towards personalizing commodities. Personal design can be aesthetic or it can be functional, as when doctors designed and printed a customized exoskeleton that helped a little girl use her congenitally weakened arms; soon she’ll probably be able to print her own replacement parts at home.

Just as you don’t have to know programming language to create a Web page, you don’t have to be a software specialist to create functional designs. As a result, 3-D printers make great teaching tools, as demonstrated in dozens of Maker Spaces or “Fab Labs” (“Fab” for both “fabrication” and “fabulous”) around the world, many of them located at museums. Software systems are being developed to encourage and enable people to design without specialized CAD (Computer-Assisted Design) skills, including software that detects and corrects structural weaknesses in amateur designs.

There’s something about what happens to your relationship to an object, after you’ve spent some time photographing, hacking and printing it, that makes [it] feel like it’s “yours.” —Don Undeen, Manager of Media Lab, Metropolitan Museum of Art.


  • Some people, like Anderson, predict that the development of 3-D printing will be as profoundly disruptive as the introduction of the factory, revitalizing American manufacturing through local, low-cost, highly specialized, on-demand production and mass-customization.This may cause the loss of some traditional manufacturing jobs, but also create new jobs and perhaps reverse the flow of outsourcing.
  • We are still waiting to assess the economic ripple effect of new products and skills developed by do-it-yourself printers, or the community impact of shared printing resources at centralized locations like Fab Labs, museums and libraries (with 3-D printers right next to the photocopiers), printing stores modeled on the neighborhood Kinko’s, or adopting of 3-D printing by existing chains such as Staples.
  • 3-D printing is already spurring a minor renaissance in homebrew inventing and personalized design, as it makes prototyping and testing designs cheap and easy. People are already printing sunglasses, bikinis, burritos, shoes, lamps, cars, even functional kidneys! On a larger scale, architects and builders are exploring the potential for 3-D printing to support green design by printing components on-site from recycled plastic or sand, dust and gravel.
  • Like other data-sharing technologies, however, 3-D printing poses challenges to the existing doctrines of intellectual property, especially copyright and fair use, as it becomes ever easier to scan, replicate and modify designs. Patent fights, lawsuits for copyright infringement and battles over DRM (digital rights management) technologies are almost a certainty, with a chilling effect on creative innovation.
  • By bypassing existing channels of production, distribution and control, 3-D printing may disrupt everything from health care (with printable drugs) to law enforcement (with printable guns).
  • Finally, the proliferation of 3-D printers will add fuel to the ongoing debate about whether Americans simply have too much stuff.
  • 3-D printing affords opportunities for the public to make use of digital data derived from museum collections, creating new ways for artists and other Makers to interact with museum resources.
  • 3-D printing is a valuable tool for museum fabrication, especially when museums need unique mounts for exhibits or replicas of
    fragile/rare material for display or programming. It can also enhance the interpretation of collections. For example, digitally printed replicas of fossils not only reproduce interior details but can be scaled up in size for easier examination.
  • Fab Labs and other Maker Spaces open new opportunities for community engagement and museum education. As a bonus, the focus on tangible stuff may spur renewed interest in the physical collections held by museums.
  • This form of small-scale, in-house manufacturing even opens up new possibilities for museum stores, allowing them to test designs based on museum collections before committing to commercial production. Or a museum store could create the ultimate in personalized memorabilia: Choose the specifications for your favorite object and have it printed on demand. (Proof of concept: A pop-up gallery in Japan has already introduced a 21st-century version of the photo booth, turning scans of visitors into portrait statuettes at more than $250 a pop.)


  • In April 2012, the Metropolitan Museum of Art hosted what we believe was the first 3-D scanning and printing museum “hackathon.” For #Met3D, the Met invited artists and technical staff from MakerBot Industries, a leading manufacturer of small 3-D printers, to join museum staff in assessing the potential of the technology to engage artists and visitors with the museum’s collections. The Met has also made digital data for some of its objects available at MakerBot’s first retail store.
  • The Walters Art Museum in Baltimore also invited hackers into the museum in September 2012 for Art Bytes, challenging them to create applications “to enhance museum programs or address challenges related to art education and accessibility,” with $5,000 in prizes at stake. One contestant brought his own MakerBot Replicator and teamed with a 14-year-old and the teen’s father to scan and print 3-D miniatures of a statue in the collection.
  • The Art Institute of Chicago decided to focus on familiarizing staff with additive manufacturing, while also holding demos for the public. They made the happy discovery that the 360° digital photos of collection objects they already had on hand (created for an iPad app highlighting the European decorative arts collection) could easily be converted into a 3D-printable archive.
  • Digital design templates can be made from digital photos, which may up the ante on debates over whether to allow or encourage photography in museum galleries.
  • Encourage staff (exhibit designers, educators, everyone else) to evaluate how 3-D printing could be applied to their own work. Provide training and support to experiment with this emerging technology. Think about borrowing or buying a small 3-D printer.
  • Incorporate the creation and sharing of 3-D scans of objects into your digital strategy: What data will be collected and stored on which objects, shared with whom, at what cost (if any) and with what permissions?
  • Reach out to local communities of hackers, Makers, artists and educators and ask them how they would use 3-D printing to engage with your collections.
  • Consider opening a Fab Lab/Maker Space or hosting a “hackathon” (see above for examples).

Chris Anderson, Makers: The New Industrial Revolution (Crown Business, 2012).

Neil Gershenfeld, “How to Make Almost Anything: The Digital Fabrication Revolution,” Foreign Affairs (November/December 2012).

David Rejeski, “The Next Industrial Revolution: How We Will Make Things in the 21st Century and Why It Matters,” Wilson Center Policy Brief (Wilson Center, November 2012).

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