When Did 3D Printing Become the New Jargon Term?

Somewhere in the last five years, 3D printing has become the hot new jargon term. And now every English major out there who wants to build a following is flinging the term about with mad abandon and no real understanding that not every 3-dimensional object out there is created with 3D printing.

I was first exposed to the concept of 3D printing at an exhibit at the FIT museum space (~2004?). They had just mounted an exhibit about new designers coming out of Amsterdam (an aside here – I’m not sure what all those designers in the Netherlands are smoking but their creativity is astonishing!).  The exhibit included a number of really interesting artifacts including furniture and jewelry created through a process called ‘laser sintering‘. One piece in particular made a big impact on me; it was a necklace that had been created in situ inside its carrying case.

Laser sintering is a type of manufacturing that uses laser energy passing through a container of special powdered substrate. A special software program creates a design file of ‘layers’ of the desired 3D object. The design file layers are the guides for the laser beam to create the 3D object.

Being naturally curious I loved the whole idea, but laser sintering devices were certainly not cheap and not common. Even during my most recent degree program at FIT, where I studied accessories design, we did not have access to any sort of 3D printers. They were just too expensive.

Moving ahead to 2008, and a nifty small business called Desktop Factory. Desktop Factory had a functional prototype of a true desktop sized 3D printer. It had a speed of about 1 cubic inch/1-3 hours, and a consumable cost of $1/cubic inch. They were planning to launch it at $4,995/unit. Unfortunately, 2008 was a wintery year for venture capital, Desktop Factory was unable to close funding (they came so close, so many times, but the venture capitalists out there, being the visionary sorts they are, rolled a one. Yes, suits, I’m talking to you.) and ultimately this technology was sold to another company.

Fast forward to February 2010, Fashion Bar Camp, and the guys from MakerBot were demoing a Thing-O-Matic. (I think it was this one shown in Wiki, in fact). Fascinating? You bet. Useful to John Q. Public, not so much, unless you were also into DIY making. MakerBot was sold as a kit, for a little under $1,000. You had the ultimate DIY project to create your very own 3D printer.  I thought about getting one (hey, I’m a technical designer. I make stuff all the time. How hard could it be, really?) but ultimately that $1,000 price tag for a bunch of parts put me off. Still, it was intriguing enough that they sold 3,500 units. It was also interesting that initial cost and consumable costs were starting to converge to cheap.

Two and a half years later, ‘suddenly’ there’s a $2,500 desktop printer out there; costs of consumables are plummeting, and everyone is on the 3D bandwagon. It’s gotten so bad that I actually ran across a blog post claiming that biotechnology used to create muscle fibers was ‘3D printing of steak’.

So let’s set the record straight here. 3D printing is not ‘everything that uses a machine that ends up with a 3 dimensional product.’ It’s quite specific:

Additive manufacturing (AM) also known as 3D printing is defined by ASTM as the “process of joining materials to make objects from 3D model data, usually layer upon layer, as opposed to subtractive manufacturing methodologies, such as traditional machining. Synonyms include additive fabrication, additive processes, additive techniques, additive layer manufacturing, layer manufacturing, and freeform fabrication“.

I did not make up this definition. It’s the ASTM International’s (American Society for Testing and Materials).

If you played very fast and loose with all of the words in the definition, and stretched the actual meaning to the breaking point, you could conceivably say that all forms of making stuff are ‘3D Printing.’ I mean, when I make samples, it is technically accurate to say I take layers of materials and join them together in a process that results in a 3D object.  But I really think it would be much too hard a stretch to say that creating a prototype sample with my sewing machine is 3D printing, even if every step of the process up to actually stitching the sample has been touched by technology. (And yes, I do start from a 3D model and end up with a 3D model).

Given my science background (at the University of Michigan I doubled-majored in scientific illustration and botanical biotechnology back when Murashige-Skoog was the hot new jargon term) I think it’s stretching to call culturing muscle fiber in vitro ‘3D printing’.

There’s also a ton of other crap being dumped into the 3D bin, because 3D printing is the latest jargon. Unfortunately, as any good technical designer can tell you, methodology matters, materials matter, and so does technique. Making sure you have the right words to describe how you want something made is as important as the sketch you send along, or you get back a sample that is the factory’s best guess.

This is not to say that companies out there aren’t using 3D printing. Nike, Adidas and UnderArmour are companies that are all known for their high standards in development. Increasingly it seems that fashion designers are going to need to take their ability to think in 3D and use it to develop their design files in 3D packages so we can send them to 3D printers (which will be things, not people).

So let’s get it right with 3D printing, and not just use it as a jargon term. It means something a lot more specific than that.