Sunday, July 14, 2013

Homicidal toys, dot matrix printers, and the 3D printing vanguard

Man with dot matrix printer and computer, circa 1985

Sometime in the late 1980s, I started taking writing seriously. Given my age (I was ten or eleven years old) and the content of my stories, I probably took it too seriously.

An avid reader of horror and fantasy novels, I wrote tales in those genres. Some of the printed copies survived the decades and I revisited one of them recently. From "Rubber Ducky," a short story about a death-dealing bath toy:
"One year later, Betsy Height had her two young children with her in the car. She was taking them to the big yard sale at their local community college. She turned into the parking area and parked. She took her children down the long rows of tables. She came to a table where there were lots of children's toys. She looked and looked, but didn't fine anything.

Then she saw it. It was perfect. A rubber duck.

'Look, kids! Just like Ernie's on Sesame Street!'

The duck grinned. He was going to like this family."
That's what too much Stephen King will do to a ten-year-old.

After I'd tired of writing stories about demon-inhabited wishing wells or lonely werewolf children who tore apart their elementary school tormentors (hello, catharsis), I began work on a science fiction novel. This larger undertaking called for a more committed writing schedule. On weekends and occasionally after school, I'd hunt-and-peck my way through hours of writing on my mom's computer. One of my favorite parts of the process, though, was printing what I'd written. My keyboard endeavors seemed much more substantial once the dot matrix print head had grated and pumped its way back-and-forth across the paper's surface, the printer's sprocket wheels guiding my manuscript, scroll-like, out of the machine. After tearing the perforated edges from the printed pages, I'd carry my opus around the house, feeling entirely too self-satisfied.

It's easy to deride those now primitive dot matrix printers; they even sound like dinosaurs! But today's home or small business 3D printers, the Maker Bot Replicators and Cubify Cubes, are, in at least one respect, similar to their dot matrix ancestors; just as the dot matrix printers were the vanguard of the home printing revolution -- their plain text fonts and awkward office party banners so soon passé -- so, too, are the 3D home printers on the market today just a taste of what is to come. A Maker Bot Replicator produces tchotchkes, tools, and prototypes that delight and sometimes astonish us, but we're generally reacting to the novelty of the technology; we have yet to see the home 3D printers produce anything truly revolutionary or captivating. Still, such things are being produced at the 3D Printing Service Bureaus, who have bigger, more expensive machines as well as the knowledge base and additional equipment to fabricate objects, tools, and parts that are already being used the world over. We're still at the advent of the additive manufacturing revolution, and our home units are bound to improve at a good clip. Replicators and Cubes will soon seem as quaint as the dot matrix.

Uh-oh. Is this rubber ducky THAT rubber ducky?
Still, the home and small-scale 3D options are very exciting, especially for artists and designers who have a knack for taking unrefined technologies and producing wonderful objects and applications. My friend and 3D printing guru Brian Palacios co-founded Fabricastl to serve as, in his words, "a magnet for 3D printing knowledge, ideas, community, and services." This is a much-needed role since so much of the 3D printing knowledge base is dispersed. One of Fabricastl's current offerings is a series of workshops designed to, in Brian's words, "get people past why 3D printing is important, and how it works, and what makes it so cool [… so they can get] closer to the REAL disruptive potential of 3D printing: making the everyday person the creator." I'm intrigued even though I'm an artist and writer who, working almost exclusively in the realm of words and 2D images, can't think of immediate applications for my practice. Curiosity rules the day, however; later this month, I'll be participating in Fabricastl's upcoming 3D printing workshop, "From Napkin Sketch to Printable Design: An Intro to 3D Printing."

If you're interested in participating yourself, visit the Fabricastl workshop site for details and to purchase tickets…then say 'hi' at the event. I'll be the guy making a bloody-billed rubber ducky sculpture. Mawhahaha!!

Image credits: Dot matrix printer user photo ripped from; Doc rubber duck, Christopher Reiger, 2013

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