Virtual Objects – A quick and philosophic take on 3D Printing 1

by David Kreps

In the last few years a revolution in machining has been taking place, introducing a new approach to the fabrication of objects, newly termed ‘additive’ manufacturing, relegating traditional methods to a newly termed ‘subtractive’ method.  Filing, turning, milling and grinding raw materials down to the desired shape is to be replaced by information technology driven modelling that can take finer raw materials – such as plastic, or even sand – and using an inorganic binding substance print objects of increasing size and complexity.

This revolution in manufacturing is producing not just innovative production methods, but promises a revolution in logistics, operations management, supply-chain management, and commodities acquisition and distribution.  For a glimpse of the scale of the possibilities of this innovation, one only need glance at the European Space Agency’s plan to send a 3D printer and a digger to the Moon.  The digger will feed the printer with moon rock, which will print out the components of a moon base.  ESA can then send some astronauts to finish the assembly and live in it.  Monolite UK Ltd are working on the project, providing the ‘D-Shape’ building printer.  As the ESA Press Release explains, “3D ‘printouts’ are built up layer by layer – the company more typically uses its printer to create sculptures and is working on artificial coral reefs to help preserve beaches from energetic sea waves.”

The recent 2012 Istanbul Design Biennale included a glimpse into this future, and into the potential new global template for distribution and digital manufacturing implied by this revolutionary technology.  Identical files were used to print porcelain bowls in Turkey, Israel and the UK incorporating personal and local influences.  This is a vision of the future of the High Street where shops become showcases for goods rather than places for actual transactions, where buying takes place in transit, via smartphones and tablets, and goods are printed on demand and delivered locally, rather than nationally, regionally, or globally.

Happy already with our Star Trek Communicators in our hands – the almost ubiquitous smartphone – we are now witnessing the birth of the Star Trek ‘Replicator’ – the name of the latest 3D printer from US company MakerBot.   As Campbell describes in his Dec 2012 New Scientist article, “These printers — currently costing in the region of $2000 — create objects with an inkjet-like nozzle that squirts droplets of molten plastic or liquid resin in horizontal layers. These then cool, harden or are cured by exposure to ultraviolet light. A baseplate gradually drops the model away from the nozzle to allow new layers to be deposited on top of the previous ones, building the object, slice-by-slice. The plastic materials cost $50 to $100 per kilogram, and, like string, come on a spool. As a guide, 1 kilogram can make 392 chess pieces, according to a demonstration by a team at Makerbot.” (Campbell 2012)  Campbell stresses that printing in more than one or two materials, and printing things such as circuitry and batteries, are still in the conceptual stage, and printing personalised smartphones some way off yet into the future!

But clearly the technology has arrived, and in the coming decade or so will be making great strides into our lives, and having a significant impact upon the haulage industry if nothing else – and this at a time when the ecological impact of mass transport of goods in our global consumer economy is increasingly more and more of a concern.

So what – returning to our title – are the philosophical implications of such ‘virtual’ objects, computer files capable of instantiation in localised form, with localised materials, and even personalised casings and other options?  Is such a virtual object conceptually different say, from a book?  Even when hand copied by monks across Europe such books were personalised, localised versions of originals composed sometimes centuries in the past in distant countries.  In today’s publishing world books are often printed on demand, in response to your click on the bookshop’s website, and arrive in the post the following day hot off the press.  It is a virtual file that you view and pay for, long before it reaches ‘instantiation’ as paper and ink.  Or are such ‘virtual’ objects as spray-printed lunar igloos made from moon-rock really, in fact, something different in kind, as well as, or rather than, in degree, from a printed-on-demand book?

Certainly the implications for our relation with our bodies opens up extraordinary possibilities – and potential concerns.  What, one imagines, would a Performance Artist with 30 years history of exploring our relations with our bodies such as Stelarc make of 3D printing?  As Johnson describes in another New Scientist article, “Biofabrication is also being combined with 3D printing to produce artificial bones. Sangeeta Bhatia, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who has created tissue that can be used to bioprint human livers, knows what she is hoping for: ‘Someday, personalised organs on demand.’ Combined with other tissue culture methods, this could reduce possible complications by producing organs that are tailored to fit the recipient’s needs precisely. No more using adult organs for children, for instance.” (Johnson 2011)  It turns out, of course, that Stelarc is indeed experimenting with this technology, for example in his recent work, Partial Head – “a partial portrait of the artist, which was partially living.” Certainly it would seem that a (previously science fiction) wound-healing skin-gun might not be beyond the realms of possibility in the near future.

The prospect of beginning to relate to the physical environment in which we live in much the same way as we are already relating to one another with and through the virtual spaces digital technologies have brought us promises both an exciting and potentially unsettling range of possible futures.  As Candela (2012) asserts – the aesthetics of 3D printing enables us to concentrate in new ways upon the possibilities of touch – something the printed-on-demand book only achieves in respect of the traditional comfort of handling the object from which one reads.   As she says, “Touch takes us into domains that are difficult to access through vision alone – those of material and process.” The ability to print objects that have never existed before – or only ever once before – designed (or captured) on the screen, and for reasons perhaps unimagined, or at least impractical, in the past, suggests a range of even potentially disturbing possibilities – for example for dildo production in the sex industry, or strange and visceral new forms of taxidermy.

Yet the recreation of ancient artefacts (Rahman et al 2012) and even of ancient teeth (Gough et al 2011) point the way toward a fascinating revolution in education and learning (Colgrove 2012), for, as Turkle recently reminded us, “objects carry both ideas and passions.” (2007)


Campbell, M (2012) Absolutely fabricated. New Scientist, 12/15/2012, Vol. 216, Issue 2895

Candela, E (2012) Assembling an aesthetic, Current Opinion in Chemical Biology, Volume 16, Issues 5–6, December 2012, Pages 564–568 Available at

Colegrove, T (2012) 3D Printing Is Just the Beginning: The Future of Makerspaces within Academic Libraries Association of College & Research Libraries (ACRL) Webcast Nov 2012 Available at

Gough H and Gamble J. (2011) 3D imaging: enhanced record preservation of archaeological dental remains and a potential tool for otherwise complex dental measurements. Podium Presentation at the 40th Annual Conference for the Canadian Association for Physical Anthropology, Montreal, Canada (October 2011)

Johnson, B (2011) 3D PRINTING. New Scientist, 5/14/2011, Vol. 210, Issue 2812

Rahman, I., Adcock, K., and Garwood, R. (2012) Virtual Fossils: a New Resource for Science Communication in Paleontology, Evolution: Education and Outreach Volume 5, Issue 4 , pp 635-641

Turkle, S. (2007) Evocative Objects: Things We Think With MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass.

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