Back to the Future (in 3D)

Despite living my professional life on the bleeding edge of digital advancement (ahem) I’m a bit of an amateur tech historian/enthusiast with a healthy collection of old bobbins; from the obvious Sinclair ZX Spectrums (all hail Sir Clive) to the slightly more obscure valve-driven reel-to-reel recorders and other long-extinct hifi formats.

Gratuitous synth pic

This is helped, in no small way, by my love of vintage synthesisers, many of which rely on some pretty ancient tech (I recently spent an afternoon trying to resurrect a 5 1/4” drive on this beastie – the mighty Howard Jones was the previous owner and I’m not sure he really looked after it!)

But as a very clever chap once said “study the past if you would define the future”.

As discussed in my previous blog, things in tech do have a habit of coming back around (and around) and there are few tech movements that so neatly encompass this than the old/new world of 3D printing.

Where we’re going we don’t need, er, factories

It often comes as a surprise to people I meet in a professional capacity that my world includes a corporate print facility in addition to the user-centrically designed digital goodness that is my bread and butter.

Cute robots come as standard

In fact they are often quick to glaze over at the very mention of what they perceive to be old — and, therefore, uninteresting — tech.

That is until I mention our 3D printer, when suddenly a child-like excitement springs forth, often with the near-whispered request “can I see it?”, as if it is all just a little bit naughty.

Of course 3D printers are emerging from the inevitable hype cycle that most truly groundbreaking tech endures, and even stories of clandestine firearms production are beginning to lose their impact.

Yup, we’re on the sunny road to ubiquitousness… schools, libraries, supermarkets, heck even councils (at least the more forward thinking ones) are investing in this amazing ‘new’ tech, only it isn’t new of course. Its old. Very old in IT terms.

I finally invent something that works!

Like many great tech movements 3D printing started with some wonderfully non-conformist, marginally bonkers types noodling about with some existing tech in order to make it do things it wasn’t design for.

Basically they took the then new inkjet printers (this is the 70s folks), heated them up and pushed plastic through them or strapped a laser to them and pointed it at some liquid polymer. Kind of. It became known as Additive Manufacture (AM), with the first commercial version catchingly dubbed Stereolithographic Apparatus (SLA).

These morphed into Rapid Prototyping (RP) devices in the early 80s, sold by some pretty specialist manufacturers to some pretty specialist buyers.

This meant that, unlike many tech inventions, there weren’t the usual well-heeled corporate types waiting at the door with a fat cheque and all manner of non-competition/disclosure agreements stuffed under their arm.

Instead they were kind of left to their own devices (geddit?).

You’ll have to forgive the crudeness of this model

Print me!

This is a very good thing; the clever people got on with innovating, culminating, for our purposes with Dr. Adrian Bowyer and his RepRap, a open source and moreover, ‘self-replicating’ device (no doubt getting a lot of Trekkies very excited).

Additive Manufacture (que?) became 3D printing (aha!) and people started to take notice.

Ultimately some of these clever people became manufacturers themselves, but very much in the spirit of their early work — community-driven, collaborative and often open-source.

Hurrah for (most) 3D printer manufactures!

Are you sure about this storm?

Arriving at the zeitgeist of 3D printing has involved an even more circuitous route than most other tech explosions and as usual there’s already been a few false dawns.

But with it has come some pretty cool values, chief amongst which is the open-source approach. In the hugely-proprietary, non-user-serviceable, built-in-obsolesce world of modern manufacture the thought of someone not just servicing but actually improving their device (and using that very device to do it) is anathema.

defiant radio
DC mains anyone?

It wasn’t always of course. Some of the oldest ‘tech’ in my eclectic collection of nonsense has quite clear indications that they expect you to get inside and have a good rummage. No sign of the dreaded ‘no serviceable parts’ message here!

All of which means our latest 3D printing opportunity really got me quite excited…

Doc, about the future…

It probably comes as no surprise by now that I L*O*V*E archives. The thought of ancient things sat just waiting to be rediscovered by some hapless researcher with a nicely polished magnifying glass is unfeasibly gratifying.

Plot spoiler alert!

So when one of our clever educational people, Jayne, came to me with the idea of 3D printing things to represent the students of an adult English course she runs, and putting them in the city archive I was, to coin a phrase, all over it.

The lovely people on the course, Carl, Danny, Liam, Peggy, Sakila, Stephen and Thomas picked items that were close to their heart and wrote a short piece around each. We 3D printed their ‘icons’ and later today it will all be packaged up in a nice archival box and be filed away for ever. For ever ever.

And that’s when you came up with the idea for the flux capacitor

(Warning I’m going a bit arty here: always dangerous ground for a geek…)

For me the power of this lies in capturing a technology that is in its ascendancy and expressing this as something truly human and real-world, instead of merely a set of technical specifications and meaningless metrics.

It speaks more of the true value of technology; its impact on how we live our lives and express ourselves as a species.


And of course the thought of someone in 100 years time —when they’ll be routinely ‘printing’ everything from replacement body parts to buildings — opening that archival box and seeing what will, by then, seem a positively primitive tech fills my heart with untold joy.

Who knows what it might inspire for the future.


[Header quotes courtesy of the awesome Back to the Future trilogy, if you hadn’t guessed.]

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