MakerBot seeks to undo the industrial revolution

I hand a new acquaintance my business card. She reads it, looks at me blankly, and asks, “What is design anthropology?”

The person asking this question is often a non-academic. So I describe how I look at the values people have (security or democracy, for example), how design translates those values into something we can see, touch, feel – and then how people experience those values through the designs. I sum it up as how “design translates values into tangible experiences”. Of course, I am required to provide an elaborate example of what I mean.

Every two weeks, this column will provide an elaborate example of what I mean when I talk about design anthropology in relation to global culture.

I call the column Un-Design, because the heart of what I seek to discuss is what Richard Tabor Greene in his paper, the Culture Work of Innovating (2012), describes as the tendency of what we popularly know as design to “undo prior designs and undo cultures”.

Through examples of my own work and colleagues, I will unpack the value assumptions that underlie existing designs, and then speculate on alternative designs or values that might exist, that would not “undo cultures”.

This week, I will examine the values, design, and experience of Maker-Bot Industries, the affordable desktop 3D printers. Established in 2009 in New York City, Maker-Bot Industries is the industry leader in desktop 3D printing, with more than 13,000 units sold and multiple industry innovation awards.

What are the values of MakerBot Industries as reflected in its products? In the company’s History of MakerBot video, co-founder Bre Pettis makes three key statements about the products.

First, he says that he and the two other co-founders were interested in “making robots that make things,” how “one person can do anything with this,” and today “how we want to change the world together?”.

The values reflected in these statements are: reverence for high technology, a do-it-yourself ethos based on ease of use and affordability, and collective revolution. Reading through their marketing literature, other values expressed through the products include efficiency and open participation.

The culture that MakerBot is seeking to undo is that of the Industrial Revolution, particularly the large scale manufacturing of machine tools. MakerBot envisions a world in which the manufacturing of machine tools is done on individual people’s desktops.

The designs of MakerBot products reflect these values. The original product was the MakerBot Cupcake CNC, with a retail price of US$750. As part of the DIY ethos, a community of weekend tinkers assembles the product.

As the instruction manual notes, “it will take a couple of people a weekend or so to put a Cupcake CNC together”. The body consists of laser-cut plywood pieces that are bolted together. Wires and belts are exposed making the high tech mechanical workings open and transparent to the user.

In 2012, MakerBot released the Replicator 2 and 2X models, whose designs reflect a shift from weekend makers to professional designers, engineers, and printer experts. Plywood is replaced with smooth black metal frames. Everything is pre-assembled, which is reflected in their higher costs.

The Replicator 2 costs US$2,199 and the Replicator 2X costs US$2,799. The reverence for high-tech is greater reflected in the design as well as a professional aesthetic. The new products boast larger and more refined design outputs.

The value of collective revolution is reflected in MakerBot’s service design. MakerBot Thingiverse is the digital platform that allows people to share their designs and digital files using Creative Commons licensing agreements.

MakerBot also provides extensive customer service, online user forums, instructional and demonstration videos, community contests, educational partnerships, and trouble shooting guides.

So how do people actually experience MakerBot products? From the reviews on Amazon.com and CNET.com, the experience of MakerBot products are generally positive with the strong caveat that it requires a lot of tinkering and upgrading before complex ideas can be printed out.

In his Amazon.com review, P. McWhorter says, “In order to be happy with it, you need to have correct expectations. This is cutting-edge technology, and it will both delight and disappoint you.”

MakerBot’s promise is that it challenges the mass-production legacy of the Industrial Revolution. Yet MakerBot relies on the same Industrial Revolution values including the shift from making by hand to machines, efficiency in the use of energy sources, affordability for the everyday person, and the use of power of the collective.

Its affordability is not universal. In fact, it is limited to those who live in the nations represented in their distribution network: Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, South Korea, Netherlands, Russia, Singapore, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, and the UK. People are not making by hand but by computer.

What’s more, a view of the objects in Thingiverse shows that the majority of what people are making with MakerBot are cheap plastic novelty items.

While the plastics used are bio-plastics derived from corn, the questions raised about the sustainability of corn-monoculture-based bioplastics are not addressed. In relation to scaling up to “‘change the world together"’, one might ask, ”“Where is the collective revolution in having tens of thousands or millions of people individually manufacturing cheap plastic objects to be used and disposed?”“

One of the most interesting re-design’s of the values espoused by MakerBot is found in the work of Kodjo Afate Gnikou, an inventor from Togo, West Africa. Profiled in October on the Fast Company website, he has invented a desktop 3D printer built from the high technology e-waste shipped from Europe and the US to Africa, called W.Afate.

Here is a 3D printer that can repurpose e-waste to help create products that align with Africa’s low-waste reclaim and repair cultures.

The importance of looking at products like MakerBot through the design anthropology lenses is that the cultural values associated with the designs we use are not neutral. They are physical embodiments of how their designers and users seek to experience the world.

Every other week, we will explore global cultures by investigating the undoing and undesigning represented in design.