3D Printing and the Future of Beauty

While “3D printing” technology is still in its early stages, many commentators are already discussing how it will usher in a third industrial revolution during the coming century. The technology allows for cheap, customized, small-scale manufacturing: simply create a three-dimensional design (or download it from the internet), press print, and — voilà — out comes an bracelet, a wrench, an engine part — or a sculpture.

The technology is already becoming a reality for everyday people through companies such as Shapeways and Quirky, which allow anyone to upload and sell designs online. If you are relatively unfamiliar with the technology, you may find the following video as fascinating as I did:

As I said earlier, commentary about 3D printing tends to center around its potential economic effects, but I am likewise intrigued by how it may affect the world of art and design. Though as an economist by training I admire the many benefits of the original industrial revolution and the advent of mass production, which allowed for an unprecedented increase in standards of living across the world as goods were made available at ever-more-accessible prices, as a lover of beauty I’ve been much less of a fan. As factories killed the craftsman, design became increasingly utilitarian and lacking in charm. Uniformity became the norm. Detail, inventiveness, and imagination faded from our everyday lives. While some think that a simple return to a more craft-centered way of life and production is the solution, I’ve never been satisfied with such an answer for the simple reason that such labor-intensive work is too costly to be available the mass of humanity. Only the relatively well-off (and by world standards, that includes most Americans) can afford to sneer at the soullessness of the products one might find at the local Walmart; I think it is fair to say that most others would just be delighted to find what they need to furnish a home at a price they can afford. For detail and charm to return on a massive scale they simply have to become affordable.

And this is why 3D printing intrigues me so much. The potential it has for feasibly producing small-scale, detailed, skillfully-designed, and inexpensive goods could transform the aesthetics of our everyday lives. Think, for example, how this could affect architecture. A person could design a structure as full of detail as a Gothic cathedral, each sculpture and ornament entirely unique to the building, and then simply print the relevant parts at a relatively low cost. While, of course, this can never quite match the charm and dignity of an item crafted by hand, there would still be, I think, an element of uniqueness and authenticity.

I’m curious to read what others think. Could this “third industrial revolution” mark a turn away from utilitarianism and usher in a renaissance in forms of design that are more detail-oriented and humanizing? Or could it, perhaps, have the opposite effect by turning even the craftsman into just another desk-worker staring at a screen, one more step removed from the physical world? (I can already imagine the craftsman of the future sitting in a cubicle in some nameless office building, working 9 to 5 [if he's lucky], never even touching the fruits of his labor.)

So what will it be: utopia or dystopia? I suppose the truth will lie somewhere in between.


  1. says

    I am, in particular, interested to hear how artist, designers, architects, etc., think they might hypothetically put this technology to use.

  2. MGC says

    I’m not a communist, but here’s a quote from the Communist Manifesto that I think is very relevant here: “Owing to the extensive use of machinery, and to the division of labour, the work of the proletarians has lost all individual character, and, consequently, all charm for the workman. He becomes an appendage of the machine, and it is only the most simple, most monotonous, and most easily acquired knack, that is required of him.”

    What you say here does seem quite sensible. Any “craftsman” with access to one of these machines could become a factory onto himself, and if this work could be done by the printer at at least as cheap a cost as a mass produced item, then the work of individuals could realize not only more beauty for the society, but more meaning or interest for the individual. Yeah, this could be pretty revolutionary. That is, assuming that they can continue improving the technology.