Saturday, 10 June 2017

Increasing productivity or part of the problem?

A couple of things happened recently that made me think differently about public perception of 3D printing. 

Firstly my mum recently visited our workshop with one of my nephews. My mum repeatedly referred to our 3D printers as robots, mainly because my nephew is at an age where he is fascinated by robots and all things mechanical.

The other occasion was in a throwaway conversation with our neighbour. I was banging on about driverless cars and AI imminently taking everyone's jobs. He turned to me and called me a hypocrite, I run 3D printers which are taking away other people's jobs right?

Then during a third conversation with a surveyor who had asked us to print a hole in the ground, yes he really wanted a print of a hole in the ground! Why did he want a colour 3D print of a hole in the ground? He was trying to persuade older contractors of the value of capturing 3D data. Often they just will not wait even to take a series of photographs from which a virtual model can be created to record complex underground servicing. 

From the mess of servicing underground you would think it would be a good idea to record and share this information. It is not a difficult idea to grasp but I can see how it could be a difficult idea to implement.

Putting all of that together, 3D printing of architectural design models is the staple of our business. The thing is that until 10 years ago it was really not possible to 3D print design models. 3D printers were around before that but price and speed where not right for making what are essentially concept models. 

So for most architects they became design professionals without needing 3D printing to make design models. And the truth is that like recording that underground servicing it has not been easy to introduce 3D printing into most architect's design workflow. 

This is not to say that architects have never used models and with the rise of 3D printing some have tried to apply 3D printing to their existing requirement for physical models - which is often for high quality presentation models. But that is not what 3D printing is good at unless a modelmaker is involved in transforming the 3D print into a convincing model.

A presentation model does not serve the same purpose as a design model. A design model helps stakeholders make decisions during the design process and presentation models sell the final design. 

In this sense, 3D printing design models is an attempt to add value to the design process. If we are replacing anything, it is the time consuming card and foam models which were traditionally made by architectural assistants. Often made over the course of a night, fueled by pizza and coffee. Architectural assistants do not become architectural assistants to stay up at night making card mockups, they do so to become architects. So are 3D printers taking jobs in this instance?

There is a real threat to jobs in large established industries from AI and robotics. Capturing 3D data on building sites and in road excavations or helping stakeholders make clear decisions in the design process is not a threat to jobs. Instead these are processes for adding value and increasing productivity of existing jobs.

Public perception of 3D printing is formed not by reality but by manufacturers hype and the imaginations of the media. 

Finally, is a 3D printer a robot? Robots do do boring repetitive tasks when they have time off from taking over the world I guess.

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