3D Printing and its Impact on Society

January 23, 2014 by · 4 Comments
Filed under: Fellowship 

A few weeks ago I blogged about the social impact of mass ownership of drones.  Another area of technology that will be in homes and workplaces across the country in the not too distant future is 3D printers.  While the price used to be prohibitive, it is now dropping fast as their popularity rises.  I have a friend who bought a 3D printer for under a £1,000, though it can only print in white plastic, which is rather limiting once you get over the novelty.

3D printing is already in use widely for businesses and the RSA has been helping to set up hubs for designers, some of which will contain 3D printers.  Even ASDA has got in on the trend.

3D printer in action

3D printer in action

Home 3D printing will work in the following way: you need a collar for your dog, so you go online to one of the websites which has ready designed objects and choose a dog collar you like.  You personalise it, perhaps choosing the colour, putting your dog’s name on it and making it a bit larger because you’ve been overfeeding him.  Then you purchase the tailored design and it is downloaded to your printer on your kitchen table (via your computer) which immediately prints it out, ready to use.

Not all objects will be printable, there will be size limitations and complex objects like smart phones will be beyond home printers.  However, given that it is possible to already print in a huge variety of materials from glucose (i.e. sugar) to ceramic, including combining different materials in one object, the majority of everyday items will be printable.

What does mass 3D printer ownership mean for society?

While cheap 3D printers will bring huge changes in many areas, not least manufacturing, I’m focusing here on the relatively under discussed topic of the societal impact of mass 3D printer ownership.

3D printing hit the headlines last year with the printing of a working gun and will continue to make it increasingly difficult to stop the distribution of illegal objects.  It’s far easier to find and confiscate a physical object than a computer file.  When that file is finally turned into a physical object it only needs to happen immediately before it is used.  The game of cat-and-mouse between law enforcement and criminals will move further online.

It’s far easier to find and confiscate a physical object than a computer file.

Personal interaction will reduce, with fewer of those incidental chats and conversations that are so important in building strong communities.   I live in a town so when I go to my local high street I often bump into people I know. Using 3D printing I won’t be bumping into anyone.

Another implication is that it will take ‘mass personalisation’ to new levels.  This is where companies are able to personalise things for people without the huge cost of human intervention to do so, like the dog collar example above.  Indeed this will probably be the norm, turning us all into creatives, all able to personalise jewellery, watches, clothes, food, cutlery and so on before we buy.

This will put out of business organisations that don’t adapt to the world of mass personalisation, while also continuing the trend of the UK becoming a nation of small businesses as it reduces design and prototype costs, increases the ease of servicing customers and allows manufacturing to take place in a home office.

Personal interaction will reduce, with fewer of those incidental chats and conversations that are so important in building strong communities

Finally it will have a large positive effect on the environment.  Place of manufacture has become disassociated from place of consumption.  Planes, ships and trucks transport millions of goods around the world every day at huge environment cost.  If the two are brought together this would significantly reduce the environmental damage of goods transportation.

3D printing brings many benefits, along with some headline grabbing challenges.  What will probably fly under the radar, but is of significant concern and shared with mass drone ownership, is the gradual erosion of social interaction, accidental meetings and community cohesion.  One technological advance doesn’t cause a noticeable difference but a variety of them that are happening at the moment are adding up to significantly more atomised communities.  While Local Authorities already take steps to build community cohesion, they are fighting against the tide, and more needs to be done.

Universal 3D printer ownership won’t happen yet.  Few would put up with the white plastic spoons, cups, plates and other objects that are slowly taking over my friend’s house as he prints out what he needs, but it won’t be far off.

Oliver Reichardt is Director of Fellowship at the RSA, you can follow him @OliverReichardt

Finding out what Makers really want

October 21, 2013 by · 3 Comments
Filed under: Design and Society, Enterprise 

There’s been widespread interest in new digital fabrication opportunities for quite a while now – and I’m not just talking about 3D printing a gun or 3D printing your face in chocolate. There are Hackspace, Makespaces, Techshops and Fablabs popping up all over the world, and books about the implications of what is being termed the next Industrial revolution.

Activity around micro-manufacturing techniques is emerging in lots of different disciplines – from educators to individuals to entrepreneurs, to make-spaces to manufacturers – and we’ve been thinking for a while that it would be mutually beneficial to connect all these disparate parties. After our FutureMakers day back in June, people told us how inspiring and useful it had been to connect with communities that they wouldn’t normally have access to. It turned out that the network that we created by bringing people together was the thing that was most valued.

So… that got us thinking. How could we keep those connections going? Could we create a digital platform that supports all the amazing real world activity that’s out there? It made sense to us, but in order to check that we were on the right track, we needed to find out what was needed from our potential community itself.

Tom from Swarm summing up the day's activities

Tom from Swarm summing up the day’s activities

We gathered together representatives from as many different interests and age groups as possible, to start a process of co-creating a digital platform which will be the mainstay of a network to connect all those working in the making sphere.  We held the workshop last Monday at Makerversity, and the fabulous Tom and Dan at Swarm (who are also Good for Nothing), helped us run the event.

We asked participants to bring an image/photo/sketch of something they’d made and/or something they would like to make in the future. 35 people came and brought pictures of boats, sustainable phones, treehouses, crocheted turnips, hard drive cases and objects made from sparkly plastic.  

The ideas flowed thick and fast – we started making connections really quickly between people who needed advice about manufacturing, setting up a business, where and what to study, how to make a certain object; 9 times out of 10 there were people in the room who could directly help. Tom and Dan set group tasks which helped us work out what we would like to see from our ideal online network. Maps, profiles, sharing of work, giving of advice, discussion; we started seeing the value of this network before the morning was out.

Drawing one of the day's many diagrams

Drawing one of the day’s many diagrams

Hilary, Jim and I are now taking all the drawings, diagrams and questions from the first session and have begun to flesh out what a digital prototype might look like, before taking it back to the group in early November. We’re looking for a few more people with experience or interest in manufacturing to join us, so please get in touch if you would like to take part in helping us to co-create an incredibly useful tool for this exciting emerging community.


Follow me on Twitter: https://twitter.com/redfishnat






RSA FutureMakers

June 23, 2013 by · 2 Comments
Filed under: Design and Society, Enterprise 

We at the RSA believe in the power of making, especially when it involves newly emerging approaches; our intention is to help grow the infrastructure and opportunities for designing and making at a local level, both in London and around the country.

Our first venture into this arena was held at Somerset House last Wednesday, and was a resounding success. We introduced and connected the varied and rather fragmented groups interested in this agenda and showcased some of the great work already happening. 300 people came to this inaugural event and the basement of Somerset House’s west wing was filled with professional makers and designers, hobbyists, 3D printing companies, technologists, schools, educators and many more groups that defy easy categorisation. You can see the full list and links here.

Girls from the Ideas Foundation show their collaborative work

Girls from the Ideas Foundation show their collaborative work

One of the surprising and heartening things about this emerging area is that in terms of age it’s a level playing field: age is no barrier to entry at either end of the spectrum. The Ideas Foundation brought several groups of children from schools in the north west,  all of whom were collaborating across various subject areas: English, Art, DT, and ICT students had been working together to create award winning projects that they brought to the event. Many of these teenagers had never been on a train before, let alone to London, yet clearly had huge talent, and were more switched on to the possiblities of emerging technologies than some of the adults in the room.

Amy Mathers teaches conductive thread circuits

Amy Mathers teaches conductive thread circuits

For many, the most surprising speaker and workshop leader was 14 year old Amy Mather, a remarkable girl who held a workshop for 15 adults making conductive thread circuits after speaking about her adventures with Raspberry Pi.

1970s children play with Seymour Papert’s Mindstorms floor turtle

The confidence of all these young people around technology reminded me of Seymour Papert’s Mindstorms work at MIT which I first discovered when studying Human Computer Interface Psychology in the eighties. One of his theories about the power of computers which really struck me and has stayed with me throughout the years is that computers are non-judgemental; you program something and it either works or it doesn’t. If you’re struggling at school and feel misunderstood, technology can be your saviour. The picture above doesn’t look that different from what we saw this week – kids playing with robots. The difference is that with the invention of Arduino and Raspberry Pi, combined with the knowledge transfer powers of the internet, the technology is now available to many more of us.

Sophie Thomas at the Great Recovery stand

Sophie Thomas at the Great Recovery stand

However, the event wasn’t all about robots and new technology, exciting though both areas are. Sophie Thomas ran a Great Recovery teardown workshop taking apart electronic products, exposing the elements that we throw away so casually and looking at ways we could re-design them from scratch to re-use our valuable resources. The Restart Project showed us how to fix and repair products that we might previously have thought were destined for the dustbin. Technological innovation is always exciting: developing ways to deliver consumer electronics in a sustainable way is just as important and this conversation was at the heart of the event.

What I found most exciting about the event was the amount of cross cultural connections that were being made as the day went on. On the face of it, we followed a standard trade show format of stands, talks and workshops, but what was different about this event was that everyone was meeting people from beyond their usual networks who were interested in the same subject as they were, but from a different angle. We had educationalists connecting with design innovators to inject a new way of thinking into schools, product designers hatching plans for research papers with RSA Fellows, RSA Student Design Awards winners (see video above) talking to chemists and finding out that there were less harmful chemicals that they could be using, and many more people connecting over their passion for this area. The excitement in the room was palpable all day long and everyone left having had their brains “rewired” in an unexpected and powerful way.

We are currently developing plans for an ambitious and innovative project in the areas of making and education, which will be rolled out both in London and around the country. Also look out for the RSA FutureMaker Premium; a prize for innovation in this area.

Thank you to all stallholders, speakers and workshop hosts for your fantastic contributions, to the Comino Foundation who initiated and funded the event, to everyone who attended the event and to Somerset House for kindly letting us use the recently vacated HMRC mailroom to host the event.

The event was a collaboration between the Design and Enterprise strands of the Action and Research Centre at the RSA.

Nat Hunter is Co-Director of Design at the RSA

You can follow her @redfish66

The Big Idea: New Approaches to Making

May 29, 2013 by · 3 Comments
Filed under: Fellowship 

The Big Idea: Using new technologies to bring manufacturing and making into the public sphere.

Bruce Newlands FRSA, Director of MAKLab, writes:

“We are at an exciting moment in the history of ‘making’. New approaches to manufacturing are set to take hold over the coming decade. Technologies like CNC Routing and Cutting & Drilling have been around for decades in industry but it’s only now that young people, creative start-ups and ‘ordinary’ people are getting access to these technologies.

These technologies have been steadily transferring from centralised industry to the garden shed with a burgeoning tech shop scene in the United States and the development of a making culture through hackspaces, fablabs and other institutions dedicated to nurturing making in the UK. The emergence of affordable 3D printers offer the prospect of mass customisation and potentially the democratisation of design that breaks free from traditional assumptions of designer and client and perhaps introduces new ethical dilemmas about design responsibility and originators.

The technologies however are only the platform on which this paradigm shift is based on.

A new generation of small makers promises to bring these sophisticated means of production into the home, applying it to everything from making furniture to printing jewellery; from making toys to ‘printing’ whole houses.

MAKLab image

It is this sophisticated networked ‘making culture’ that is at the heart of the change. This is a culture sustained through social media networking, swapping, sharing, co-operating and collaborating. Their practices and techniques are embedded in the powerful concept of a global village of local makers, an aspect of the circular economy that is increasingly attracting interest from government and educators.

Notions of intellectual property are being challenged through approaches such as the ‘open source’ movement, where you can build on someone else’s work in return for publishing your work under the same license and sharing back any changes. ‘Hacking’ clubs that encourage people to dismantle, understand and ‘mod’ existing products with new and additive functions offer shared environments for innovation. These are ideas that suit the nimbleness of being innovative and small, of embracing the power of a network whilst demonstrating a healthy ‘autodidactism’ that challenges our current linear economies. They offer opportunities for technology to be taken in new directions, as different makers in different contexts find different ways of utilising the resources available to them.

MAKLab is Scotland’s first open access digital fabrication workshop looking to address some of these issues. We are open to the public and designers alike to access these technologies and for them to be trained on how to use them to turn their ideas and concepts into reality. We were recently awarded £100,000 by Google in their Global Impact Challenge that will enable us to expand this concept to other UK cities in partnership with others.

We’re excited by the prospect of developing a decentralised network of fabrication facilities that with the assistance of local creative networks will provide the platform to explore 21st century entrepreneurialism with tangible local and global community benefits. Learning from this decentralised experience of making and doing will have value for the future of collaborative working, helping to create vibrant innovative communities finding solutions to shared challenges.”

Get Involved

MAKLab are working closely with RSA Scotland, and the wider RSA, to develop and deliver a programme of events and projects around the topics of manufacturing and making.  Details for the events, which will hopefully include a programme around support young people into enterprise and work connecting older people to new technologies, will be shared with Fellows in Scotland in the near future.  If you are outside Scotland and would like to know more, please contact Jamie Cooke.

At its core, MAKLab is about open access to the technology and skills, so if you are in Glasgow take the chance to visit their facility at the Lighthouse, meet the team and see the equipment in action!  It is open to the public, with specific activities available at the weekend, and they will be delighted to see you.  MAKLab are also exploring opportunities to develop bases in other parts of the country, so there will be plenty of opportunities for Fellows to engage with this innovative work.


Jamie Cooke is Deputy Head of Fellowship, with responsibility for the Specialist Programme team.  You can follow him @JamieACooke or connect with him on LinkedIn.

We are all made of stars… and so is our stuff

February 14, 2013 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Design and Society 

Moby famously sang that we are all made of stars. And yesterday evening at the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET), Professor John Wormersley, Chief Executive of the Science and Technology Facilities Council, echoed Moby’s mantra (okay, maybe that’s a bit of stretch). Professor Wormersley spoke about how the search for black holes and the higgs boson impacts society and the economy.

Professor Wormersley’s talk was engrossing for a number of reasons, not the least of which was the fact that he emphasised the link between ‘big science’ (think of the discovery of the Higgs boson at CERN last year) and the implications for our daily lives, society and the economy.

While for many people (me included), our knowledge of theoretical physics may come mostly from reruns of The Big Bang Theory on E4, Professor Wormersley noted that we rely on the numerous outcomes and chain reaction results from ‘big science’ in our daily lives: the internet (originally Tim Berners-Lee’s method for information management for scientists at CERN), wifi (which was enabled through Hawking radiation), and MRI scanning (which comes from knowledge of superconductors). In short, we need theoretical physics to help develop and improve our economy, our health, and the environment.

Yet ‘big science’ is often viewed as a risk because it is in an investment in the unknown, the unexpected and can often fail. But, as Professor Wormersley pointed out, we must be willing to take that risk.

So, Professor Wormersley’s thesis got me thinking about design. Just as Wormersley emphasised the need for and the link between theoretical and applied science, I think we need both theoretical and applied design.

But how can we teach and understand and then reap the benefits of theoretical design?

We can interrogate the design brief. Instead of just applying our knowledge of design and the design process (observing, analysing, prototyping, etc. ), we should use design to question our motives and why things are the way they are, without necessarily expecting a certain outcome.

This is where projects like The Great Recovery come in. The RSA’s Great Recovery project is about how we can promote and foster a circular economy and for now, we’re focusing on making connections between science, design, manufacturing and policy. But, we don’t necessarily know what the end result will be – though there actually is some ‘small, medium and big science’ going on in our workshops related to the project) as we don’t know necessarily what the end result will be.

You might even call it ‘big design.’


Infinity Loop

April 26, 2012 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Design and Society 

In Monday’s Guardian Aditya Chakrabortty asks why Apple don’t shift their manufacturing base to the US. He argues that although the costs would rise (apparently from $178.45 to $337.01 for an iPhone 4G according to CRESC analysis), Apple would still make a 46.5% margin on each iPhone. He notes this move would also create social benefits for the US in the form of hundreds of thousands of manufacturing jobs, and suggests it would represent ‘enlightened self-interest’ on Apple’s part.

While it would certainly be an example of ‘think different’, I can’t see shareholders supporting a move to knock 25% profit off each iPhone sold. But it might just become viable if they combined it with another idea: adopt a ‘closed loop’ manufacturing model.

My six year old Apple laptop is on its last legs, not so much because the parts are wearing out, but because software moves at a tremendous pace. So the latest version of the Firefox browser no longer supports my system, and Flash video player is discontinued for my type of processor. People don’t expect computers to last forever, in the same way that they expect their mobile phones to become out-dated after a couple of years. But unlike my phone, I own my laptop outright – why can’t I sell it back to Apple, or even rent it from my local Apple store in the first place?

There could be a real financial incentive here (perhaps even sufficient to offset the cost of manufacturing in the US). A recent report from the Ellen Macarthur Foundation estimates that ‘the cost of remanufacturing mobile phones could be reduced by 50% per device’ if manufacturers adopt a more ‘circular’ model, in which the resources are re-used at the end of the phone’s working life.

Apple will recycle your spent goods, but rather than blend those lovingly designed, assembled and used products into piles of scrap, couldn’t they design for disassembly instead? I was struck with the video (seven minutes long but worth it) that accomplished the launch of Apple’s CNC-milled MacBook a few years ago – I’d love to see a factory that un-makes their old products so beautifully.

Growth data: UK still operating on New Labour economic model (sort of).

April 27, 2011 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Adam Lent, Enterprise 

The fascinating thing about today’s growth data is what it tells us about the rather painful birth of a new type of UK economy.  Before the Crash of 2008, growth in the UK was largely driven by public spending, construction and business and financial services.  New Labour Governments lived with this quite happily by skimming off the tax revenues from the buoyant economic activity in these sectors and directing it into public services and tax credits.

While in opposition, George Osborne made a great deal of how this economic approach was now defunct and it was time to create a new “British Economic Model” based on a wider base of high growth sectors, an active but more constrained finance sector and much less public spending.

While the Treasury is making much of how buoyant manufacturing is and suggesting that this shows the UK is beginning to rebalance in the way Osborne wants, the data suggests something far more complex and less certain is happening. 

The story of the first quarter of 2011 is, in fact, one of a reasonable contribution to growth from manufacturing (0.1%) but a much more significant contribution from public spending (0.2%) and business and financial services (0.2%).  Over the last year, public spending and business and finance have contributed 0.3% each, while manufacturing has contributed 0.4%. 

The other big driver of the New Labour era was construction.  This is still the case currently with the building sector contributing 0.4% to growth in 2010.  But what is striking is the extraordinary volatility in this sector.  Construction has gone from boom in the second and third quarters of 2010 to recession with major shrinkage in the fourth quarter of last year and the first quarter of this.

So we cannot yet say that there is any sign of a really significant break from the New Labour approach yet.  What growth there is in the UK economy is still coming from business and finance, public spending and construction.  What is new is that manufacturing is making more of a contribution than it has historically but will probably need to do much more to suggest a real shift to Osborne’s vision. And construction is highly volatile and, as such, deeply unpredictable.

The truth is the economic jigsaw pieces were jumbled up massively by 2008.  The data suggests we may have to wait quite a lot longer to see how they fall but for the moment signs of a completely new picture emerging are limited.

Hacking together a project

January 21, 2011 by · 4 Comments
Filed under: Design and Society, Enterprise, Social Economy 

In a blog a couple of weeks ago, Matthew Taylor called for ideas for a new RSA project on manufacturing. Given the RSA’s commitment to practical project work, he suggested that heavy industrial projects would be impractical for us and that worthy reports on the future of manufacturing in the UK are two-a-penny.

The rise of hacking (see this paper published by the RSA’s Design team in 2009) provides food for thought, but the practical project isn’t yet clear… Anyway rather than go over the same ground again, I thought I’d do something more constructive, like make a map of the Hackspaces that are springing up around the UK. This one (click on it to go to the actual map) shows the Hackspaces listed on the Hackspace Foundation website as of today.

I’d be interested to know what factors contribute to the forming of a hackspace. Is it a university near by? More diverse or tolerant communities? Concentration of creative or high-tech industry? What do you think?

Map of UK Hackspaces - data taken from http://hackspace.org.uk/

Mending, making & manufacture: can we redesign the sock?

March 20, 2009 by · 8 Comments
Filed under: Education Matters 

In a VoxPop for Design week last week I proposed making a spectacle of myself on the Fourth Plinth by running up samples on my sewing machine in full view of the public; and to their benefit, since I propsoed giving away the fruits of my labour. My stated reason was that we have become distanced from production; our competence to invent or improvise solutions to the practical problems that beset us is diminished in proportion to the increasing quantity of solutions we buy. Jonathan Glancey wrote stirringly about this growing incompetence to make in the Guardian last summer.

I’ve  commissioned an essay for the RSA about the renewed interest in making and manufacturing after a period when business and policy have tended to concentrate on knowledge and services. I’m asking for a fresh account of why we stopped making things (if we did stop); what the benefits of making things are; and how making things might become easier. What conditions would foster small, local, manufacturing entrepreneurship? And what are the implications for improvisation and innovation among ordinary citizens who, while they may be making to save money or resources, are not making to make money? 

Our understanding of services became rich and metaphysical as the last century turned and the internet came to define so much of business. But Mark Adams, Director of Vitsoe and one of Britain’s most resolute and articulate design-led manufacturers, reminded me that products and services are not an either/or. In a new dawn of manufacturing, on a planet where sense tells us to make and buy for longevity, and in a society with today’s level of personal expectation and individualism, goods and services are critically interdependent.

The service aspect of goods brings us to repair. An obvious symptom of our remoteness from making is our disinclination to repair. In gathering an interest group around making, manufacturing and repair I discovered that my Dutch friends at Premsela are involved with Platform.21 in a Repair project in full swing. In true Dutch style, it emphasises the surprising beauty and surreality of repaired objects; hybrids of style and substance; relocations of meaning and memory; repair as a creative project under artistic direction. Our RSA repair project will be less self-expression and more self-reliance.

Among my own repairs, I confess to darning socks. There’s a design problem: while manufacturers frequently advertise a “reinforced heel”, they don’t address the real stress point which is not the heel but the tendon area above the heel where the edge of your shoe wears the yarn away.