It’s hard to predict whether a particularly promising technology is going to be transformative. Great corporate names which seemed at one time to offer innovative products or services with unlimited possibilities have turned out in retrospect to have pioneered one-trick ponies. Several seemingly more modest enterprises, on the other hand, have managed to transform themselves into world leaders in what has seemed the blink of an eyelash.
We make lists of technologies that seem to us to have transformative potential. Several years after 3D printing was invented in 1983, this technology started to appear on top-ten lists of transformative technologies. The fact it’s still on these lists decades later, though probably a promising sign, is just that: a promising sign.
It was only a matter of time before lists of ten things that 3D printers could make started to appear. These lists were compiled in terms not of logical categories of the things that the technology could make but in terms of how incredibly diverse these classes of products were. The latest such list (readwrite.com/2014), titled “Ten Crazy Things 3D Printers Can Make Today,” included making body parts, pizza, chocolate, clothing, musical instruments, cars, guns, drones, what’s called “adult products,” and 3D printers.
Versatility is one of the reasons that 3D printing makes so many of the lists of transformative technologies. As we all realize, computer code has become a lingua franca (a language systematically used to make communication possible between people not sharing a mother tongue, according to Wikipedia) for the young of every professional persuasion, including artistic. Digital processes have replaced pre-digital ones in field after field. The number of people fluent in communication through the social media has exploded, and the number of venues they can utilize has continued to increase exponentially. This is the world in which we now live.
On the last Wednesday of February, SUNY New Paltz hosted a New Paltz Area Chamber of Commerce business lunch on the college’s 3D printing initiative. Noting “the great excitement that our program has generated,” president Donald Christian repeated his message that the college was growing as a hub for innovation. In his February report to the school’s faculty the next day, he again singled out the 3D printing initiative for praise, saying it “captures an exciting interdisciplinary interface of arts and technology, shines a bright spotlight on the college, and expands opportunities to engage the region — all in support of aims of our strategic plan.”
How can an arts program and an engineering program explore 3D printing together, as they are now doing? In New Paltz, that’s what interim fine and performing arts dean Paul Kassel and science and engineering dean Dan Freedman have been figuring out. Kassel said that the process involved “bringing natural partners together” and “breaking down silos.”
So the arts and the sciences aren’t strange bedfellows after all? Not to these two, one the theatre teacher who is the son of a chemist and the other the chemist who is the son of an artist. The three-semester curriculum they concocted is now entering its second scholastic term at New Paltz.
At the announcement of the expansion of the program earlier last month, Bre Pettis, the CEO of MakerBot, the Brooklyn-based manufacturer of the 3D printers that New Paltz is using at its Innovation Lab, was encouraging of the way Freedman and Kassel were working together. “I’m personally really excited to see what happens when the jewelry students join forces with the mechanical engineering students,” he had proclaimed. “I want to invest in the company that emerges from the meetings that happen in this room.”
To the New Paltz Chamber, Kassel dramatically described the magical transformation wrought by the technology as “alchemy combined with discovery.” In an interview, Freedman described it in more practical terms as “the interface between design and engineering.”
3D printing technology is indeed digital in a broad sense, Freedman explained. Design based on computer science was now ubiquitous. “Every object in the world is now designed on a computer,” he said. “You now have to know a bit of coding at the kindergarten level.”
The two described their courses, both arts and engineering, as “project-embedded,” meaning that the students explored the use of the equipment to meet their own interests, making objects both for practical purposes and for creative play. Said Kassel, “They get to partner the technology with real-life experience.”
A knowledge of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) was unavoidable. “The more STEM you have,” said another speaker at the luncheon, Larry Gottlieb of the Hudson Valley Economic Development Corporation (HVEDC), “the higher position you get.”
That didn’t mean that art went out the window, though. “Add A to STEM,” he said, “you get STEAM.” Combining art, design and technology, the students were learning “to navigate the digital worlds.” Where they took the experience was largely up to them.
“Take a risk and move forward in this game-changing technology,” proclaimed Gottlieb, whose shorthand description, “Getting smart people together and do smart things,” was certainly a smart thing to say.
Gottlieb had met Bre Pettis of Makerbot on Facebook more than a year ago. “We’ve been looking for someone like you,” Pettis said after Gottlieb explained what the region proposed to do. Gottlieb and then-CEO Mike Oates of HVEDC went down to Brooklyn to see 3D printing.
Congressional candidate Sean Eldridge said he had invested in the technology because he thought it built on the region’s strengths in both the sciences and the arts. “It’s here and it’s going to grow,” he said. He likened the initiative to the development of nanotechnology in the Capital Region. “I see this as something with similar potential.”
Gottlieb articulated a context for the technology. It should not be looked at in terms of its operations, he said. Instead, it was “an engine of creativity.” The product, insisted Gottlieb, was not the printers but the approach toward the things they could do. The evolution of the designs, he said, was central. He searched for a good analogy. “We are at the very beginning of this technology,” he told his audience. “We’re at the Clip-Art stage.”
Business luncheon speaker Arthur Hash, a support technician for the program who has used digital technology to make jewelry, is conversant in the various computer languages and programs that instruct the printers how to make what they make. He’s a walking advertisement for STEAM.
At the end of the business luncheon, Helen Gutfreund of the New Paltz Chamber, placed chocolates on the tables. Yes, they had been made by a 3D printer.