The Popular Culture of 3D Printing: When the Digital Gets Physical

The Popular Culture of 3D Printing: When the Digital Gets Physical

James I. Novak, Paul Bardini
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-8491-9.ch012
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As 3D printing technology achieves mainstream adoption, people are forming new relationships with products as they shift from passive consumers to “prosumers” capable of both producing and consuming objects on demand. This is fueled by expanding online 3D printing communities, with new data within this chapter suggesting that prosumers are challenging existing understandings of popular culture as they bypass traditional mass manufacturing. With 3D digital files rapidly distributed through online platforms, this chapter argues that a new trend for “viral objects” is emerging, alongside the “3D selfie,” as digital bits spread via the internet are given physical form through 3D printing in ever increasing quantities. Analysis of these trends will provide academics, educators, and prosumers with a new perspective of 3D printing's socio-cultural impact, and further research directions are suggested to build a broader discourse around the opportunities and challenges of a cyberphysical future.
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Futuristic visions within popular culture have often portrayed the ability for a machine to materialize any desired object on-demand. According to Star Trek: The Next Generation Technical Manual’s description of a device on board the starship Enterprise:

Recent advances in transporter-based molecular synthesis have resulted in a number of significant spinoff technologies. Chief among these are transporter-based replicators. These devices permit replication of virtually any inanimate object with incredible fidelity and relatively low energy cost. (Okuda & Sternbach, 1991, p. 90)

This vision of a replicator system may have appeared futuristic several decades ago; however, the technology today known popularly as 3D printing has evolved over a relatively short period of time from being a specialist prototyping tool used by designers and engineers, to one of mainstream adoption within a society hungry for new and more personalized products and experiences. As a result, many of the technical aspects of replicator-inspired 3D printing systems are now widely disseminated through both academic and popular media sources, and 3D printers have even made their debut on board a real starship in the form of the International Space Station. Science fiction has become science. Despite the technical aspects of this technology being well investigated through engineering discourse, literature examining the popular cultural context of the technology has received little attention; this chapter will address the shortfall in knowledge by analyzing how the popular culture trends from the digital world are now migrating to the physical world through 3D printing.

Through this analysis it will be argued that consumers are empowered through 3D printing to both produce and consume their own products, no longer reliant on mass manufacturing to determine their choices. The rise of the so-called ‘prosumer’ is tightly coupled with broader shifts described by the fourth industrial revolution and a hyperconnected society that increasingly allows individuals to shape their personal experience of both the digital and physical worlds. With numerous facets of popular culture increasingly intertwined with 3D printing, this chapter will present new data to demonstrate the significance of growing online communities and appearance of ‘viral objects’ which spread through the physical world in similar fashion to digital viral media campaigns and videos. Digital bits allow the spread of viral objects, while 3D printers turn the bits into atoms, spreading them through the physical world in increasing numbers and permutations. Similarly, the selfie has also begun to leave the constraints of the digital world, benefiting from the growth of 3D scanning and facial recognition technology and shifting this phenomenon into the physical world. The ‘3D selfie’ raises new questions about user privacy and the emotional effects on individuals whose narcissistic tendencies may be reinforced by a 3D selfie culture.

This chapter will help researchers of popular culture, as well as academics, educators and prosumers utilizing 3D printing, to identify the relationships between 3D printing and broader socio-cultural factors that are transforming the way people consume products. Through this knowledge, emergent opportunities and challenges that will appear during the coming years, as 3D printing becomes increasingly ubiquitous, will be more readily examined with objectivity. This will be used to inform future research directions in academic, commercial and educational contexts. The chapter is a catalyst for a new research focus on 3D printing within popular culture, and is necessary to prepare for a future where the boundaries between the digital and physical worlds are increasingly blurred.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) or Fused Filament Fabrication (FFF): The most common form of extrusion-based 3D printing technology that works similar to a hot glue gun; plastic filament is fed through a heating element, where it softens and is extruded through a small nozzle, which can move in 3D space to deposit the plastic layer-by-layer as it builds up an object.

3D Selfie: Similar to the selfie phenomena, this is an emerging trend using 3D scanning technology, or software that converts one or more 2D photographs into a 3D model, to capture a person’s face or full body as a 3D file which can then be 3D printed.

Viral Object: Similar to viral videos and viral media campaigns, a viral object extends this concept into the physical world through 3D printing, being first spread rapidly through online file sharing communities, then turned into physical objects in their thousands despite each being made in a different location, by a different machine.

Computer-Aided Design: The use of computer systems to assist in the creation, modification, analysis, or optimization of a design in 2D or 3D.

Maker: A maker is part of modern do-it-yourself (DIY) culture, utilizing digital software and hardware as tools for making and hacking, closely intertwined with open source.

Prosumer: Empowered by digital fabrication technologies like 3D printing, people who are able to both pro- duce and con- sume products themselves are described as prosumers .

3D Printing (Additive Manufacturing): A digital fabrication technology that allows the production of an object by adding material layer-by-layer in three dimensions.

Open Source: Originally related to software, the term is increasingly related to hardware (open design), and is a principle whereby all aspects of a product or service are made freely available to the public for use and modification.

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