I saw an article in Time magazine a few weeks ago about a low-cost 3D printer. The machine receives instructions from a digital computer file that instructs it to build things by depositing and fusing layers of a heated plastic.
In 1983, I remember a Time magazine "Machine of the Year" cover that proclaimed: "The Computer Moves In"...to your home.
The editors back then chose that cover story well. But I'm less certain about the prospects for "Your Personal Assembly Line" as Time called the 3D printer, relegated to page 39, an appropriate placement.
The image that jumped out of the story depicted a plastic lamp, the kind of thing, and "thing" is the term of art here, that is typically found at a no-name discount store in my Washington Heights neighborhood for maybe a dollar or two, certainly less than five.
I went to Michael Moyer and Larry Greenemeier, two Scientific American editors who often cover technology, and asked what you could possibly do with a machine that could create "baubles, knicknacks and uh...."
"You mean tchotchkes," Michael volunteered.
"Exactly," I said. "What I want to know is whether you can make more than low-cost "tchotchkes."—the kind of item that might be manufactured in Asia for pennies. As an aside, tchotchkes are by no means an Asian monopoly. The word originates from Slavic languages that use it to describe toys or trinkets: цяцька (Ukranian),, цацки (Russian), טשאַטשקע, (Yiddish), cacka (Polish), čačka (Slovak) and now perhaps it will be listed in the Urban Dictionary as a personal 3D fabrication apparatus—or maybe just the tchotchkator.
So can you do more with the tchotchkator than build a טשאַטשקע? No doubt. Dental implants, personalized drugs. Evelyn Lamb, a Scientific American intern, wrote recently about a 4D geometrical shape reduced to an object in 3space on one of these printers. All great, with most, if not all, output coming from machines owned by businesses or academic institutions.
"But why would I want one at home?" I asked, noting the $2,200 price tag for this prosumer product (you tell me) that is intended to rope in the type of early adopter that bought the Kaypro.
"You might be able to print out a screw if the hardware store is closed," Larry said. Hmm. A screw built of baked layers of a material? Not sure about hanging that big living room landscape painting. The ability to create the tchotchke of your choice doesn't seem to measure up exactly to the changes wrought at work and home by XyWrite, Visicalc or other early PC applications.
Maybe I'm missing some-chke. But let's bring in a tangent here. In the magazine business, you can tell if a "book" is doing well by how thick it is. Despite the merciless pounding in the marketplace that most magazines have sustained because of the still ongoing transition to the digital world, the magazine Real Simple is still pretty thick. Advertisers are interested in a 30-something audience that embraces minimalism not tchotchkeland, or the thingiverse in the somewhat hipper terminology invoked by the 3D printer company MakerBot.
In its defense, MakerBot would undoubtedly direct me to the creativity unleashed by their Replicator II, perhaps showing me printer output that includes a life-size horse's head sculpture, or emphasizing the pent-up demand for concocting a home-made model that hints at the strange contortions of a fourth or higher dimension. Or maybe the MakerBotmeisters would point me to a Maths cookie cutter set: pi or phi cookies. Would you like a Phi-gy Newton, Isaac? I kept thinking of the report I had read of someone making a gun, though it might be more an implement for the gang that couldn't shoot straight, as the explosive interaction of the gunpowder with the plastic might injure the shooter more than the intended victim.
In the end, Replicator 2 just doesn't seem to capture the minimalist zeitgeist that calls for chucking as much you can, whether it be from overstuffed closets or electronic mail boxes. If you want a customized chess piece on which the face of the king looks like your son, send the digital file by e-mail to Kinko's—or its 3D print shop equivalent—and then pick it up on your way home from work. Having a tchotchke maker in the basement workshop or the family room seems like kind of a non-starter. The world is not hankering after more hands-on access to a wonderful world of clutter.