Pithily defined, “3D printing is the social use of an industrial process” which brands the contemporary lab scene.8 As part of the contemporary lab’s bundle of prototyping, experimenting and testing techniques, the 3D printer is a boundary object that mediates between different disciplinary attachments to the technology, while opening up a space to consider the relation of technique and method.9 As a boundary object, it also performs one of the major functions of the hybrid lab: bringing people, expertise, and interests together around one site, whether that is a physical corner in the space or a more narrative site of projected uses, ideas, and potentials.
3D printing is a compelling case study of lab techniques because it contains all the components of the contemporary hybrid lab in miniature. It is based on designing, distributing and sharing ideas through code (STL files); it takes the form of other essential lab apparatus (the printer); it requires a relatively complex infrastructural supply chain to sustain the local application of technique (plastic filament and other consumable materials); it generates affects and collective situations (imaginaries) that bind people into temporary affiliations around projects; and it creates a long trail of documents in terms of research outputs, popular press and grey literature.
In the early 21st century, the 3D printer and its earlier professional iterations, such Computer Numerical Control (CNC) machines, moved swiftly from the military-industrial sphere to the counterculture, and from there were integrated into contemporary design and humanities institutions’ curricula. Now, the 3D printer and related devices are a central part of the imaginary of the 21st century hybrid lab—almost a cliché—and one of the drivers of discussions about materiality, design and infrastructure. As such, 3D printing is part of lab apparatus, technique, and method. Expectations of what it can accomplish are in constant “excess to what additive manufacturing reasonably achieves,” illustrating how deeply it is embedded in lab values and opportunities.10
It is worth spending some time considering the role that 3D printing plays in the contemporary lab imaginary. Discourse about 3D printers positions them as disruptive to the contemporary ecosystem of production, but not always in the same ways; these devices have been articulated to a wide range of points on the spectrum of political affiliations. From far-right hate groups to contemporary art activism to national space laboratories, 3D printing carves out a niche of multiple overlapping, contradictory potentials in ways that make it more than an object and more akin to an infrastructure of desire: 3-D printing circulates and assembles, conveys and catalyzes. Moreshin Allahyari and Daniel Rourke’s “The 3D Additivist Manifesto” summons the imaginaries, infrastructures, and open potentials of 3D printing as part of a call for activist engagement that both recognizes history of technologies and opens up collective use: “To mobilise this entanglement we propose a collective: one figured not only on the resolution of particular objects, but on the change those objects enable as instruments of revolution and systemic disintegration. Just as the printing press, radio, photocopier and modem were saturated with unintended affects, so we seek to express the potential encoded into every one of the 3D printer’s gears.”11 The call for collective use for 3D printing is the key aspect here, as a home usage case for 3D printing has yet to emerge, despite considerable hyperbole about their value, and in part because of growing evidence about carcinogenic emissions during the printing process12. If 3D printing is to aid in the battle for technological sustainability rather than flooding the landscape with even more disposable toxic plastic trinkets, their place will be in shared spaces for the time being.
The Humanities Maker Lab (Mlab) at the University of Victoria is a compelling example of a hybrid lab that employs rapid prototyping as an integral, infrastructural part of their methods but in ways that are not “just” digital, because the Mlab produces a range of material models and kits for media scholarship. Integrating contemporary design technologies with material media historical methodologies produces a set of spatial practices, which effectively expand the scope of several academic fields. As Jentery Sayers explains, “the Kits for Cultural History (“Kits”) project remakes technologies from the past, packages them in bespoke containers, contextualizes them with historical materials, and encourages people to disassemble and reassemble them in numerous ways.”13 These Kits help researchers to pose a range of methodological questions that interrogate past technologies in terms of their uses, materials, intentions and cultural contexts.