Bored of “3D Printers”

12 September 2011

I’m really bored of the term “3D printer”.

It’s begun to make me squirm when I hear it. For many such devices, it’s a reasonable explanation of the process – layers of extruded material “printed”, a layer at time, building an object up from nothing.

My problem is with the “3D” part of it. Or rather: the idea that a “3D printer” prints… 3Ds? I read an article explaining the technology in a mainstream newspaper; it explained that at the end of the process, you’d remove your “3D artefact” from the machine.

Or, you know, object. Thing. Or even call it by the name of what you’ve printed: “when the printer finished, I removed my ashtray/cog/bottle opener/toy.”

I’ve just finished Charlie Stross’ Rule 34, which was fun. One of my favourite pieces of futurethinking in it was his exploration of the domestication of “fabbers”. They’re not things owned only by geeks and early adopters; Stross’ fabbers are bought in John Lewis, made by mainstream companies. Of course, like Nespresso machines or inkjet printers, they’re artificially hobbled to only use ‘official’ feedstock, and perhaps even to not make certain plans (ie, forcing you into a “thing store” to download official plans). So the opportunity for hackers are to take the off-the-shelf machines and rewire them to use illicit feedstock, to make dangerous things. But the fabber is very much just like a coffee machine in this universe, and I liked some of his explorations of what it was like to have an off-the-shelf object printer in the house.

A name like “object printer” or “thing printer” feels so much more honest and less clumsy. And: eventually we’re going to get over the magic of the “3D” part of the printing, and instead just focus on the variety of things we can get out, the varieties of materials we can print in, the affordability of such devices. The 3Dness will be taken as given.

(If you pushed me, and I had to coin a neologism, though, I’d choose artefactory.)