The Digital Fellows program recently acquired a 3D printer. For those unfamiliar with the technology, think of a typical ink jet printer, but instead of printing with ink, they put out melted plastic. And instead of printing on a single sheet of printer, imagine printing hundreds of layers of paper, with each representing one sliver of an object, and then imagine away the paper, and what you’re left with is a solid plastic object printed one layer at a time. Here is a this time-lapse video of a 3D printer in action: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zkppg84hxZg
So why a 3D printer? Before addressing that question directly, indulge my long anecdotal interlude.
When I was in high school back in the 1990s, I was involved in what would later came to be known as the “Los Altos Academy of Engineering” (not to be confused with the school in Los Altos, CA). It was an extracurricular program funded almost exclusively through donation drives, candy bar sales, and prize money from design competitions. Under the tutelage of an overly ambitious (and overcommitted) computer science teacher and a handful of local professional engineers, we designed and built cool stuff like a human powered airplane, solar/electric powered vehicles, and computer-controlled battery cycling systems. All but the most complicated parts were fabricated by students. Since the shop classes at our school had long ago been defunded and dismantled in favor of other sorts of occupational prep classes, students took it upon themselves to teach each other how to do just about everything, from machining and welding, to working with composite materials, to acid etching circuit boards, to designing with CAD software, to writing funding proposals. It was transformative and empowering to discover we had the ability to follow through on our ideas all the way from design to racetrack. Furthermore, it was a space where students worked together to teach and learn in the process of making stuff.
This last point gets back to the question of why a 3D printer. The way I see things, it is one piece in moving the Digital Fellows program in the direction of fostering a “maker culture” within the GC. That is, a culture of designing, building, tinkering, repurposing, and hacking (by which I mean modifying someone else’s already existing thing). 3D printers make it pretty easy to create tangible objects either from an original design or by downloading and modifying someone else’s design files from the Internet. Although the types of things one can make with the type of 3D printer that the Digital Fellows acquired are limited to solid pieces made from a couple different types of plastic, it opens up the possibilities for making components for more complex assemblies, like the chassis and propellor for a homemade drone radio controlled helicopter. While there are plenty of silly things that people make with 3D printers, like figurines of their favorite comic book characters, there are also fantastic possibilities for quickly manufacturing other things like complex geometric shapes or artistic designs.
Similar to the high school program I described before, building a maker culture within the GC is an experiment in giving academics a space and a set of tools to learn, teach, and grow, and to see what sorts of wacky things we can come up with as a community that is immediately and necessarily connected to other digital communities via the Internet. And more than an end unto itself, I take the 3D printer to be part of the machinery that facilitates these communities of sharing and collaborative learning that make the world of Digital Humanities a powerful onto-epistemological framework for engaging with scholarship. And while the 3D printer is obviously quite limited in what it can actually produce or what sort of community or culture it can actually foster, the point is that it’s one more tool in the DH repertoire that opens possibilities for exploration and creativity in the otherwise staid ways of academia. And what do you know, nearly 15 years after I graduated, the engineering group at my alma mater recently raised the funds for their own 3D printer.