The Phoenix Rising: 3D Printing and Design Immortality

Amit Zoran, MIT Media Lab
Tamar Rucham

“Things are either devolving toward, or evolving from, nothingness…”

Wabi-Sabi: For Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers by Leonard Koren

I am interested in the story of objects, both physical and virtual ones. While physical artifacts are ephemeral and mortal, without permanence, virtual objects transcend this limitation, attracting us by the new possibilities they introduce into our lives. I am interested in this dichotomy, and the story of objects, freedom and immortality, as illustrated in this story:

Amit:  I met my wife Tamar at Bezalel, the Israeli Academy of Art and Design. She was studying jewelry making, while I was working on my Master’s in design. Back then, Tamar specialized in silversmithing, making one-of-a-kind rings using hand tools. Improvising while working, Tamar made unique objects, which I admired, varying from figurative artifacts to abstract shapes.

 Tamar: When I was making jewelry, I improvised with the material, playing with silver and gold, letting random shapes form into narratives. In 2007, I was working on two rings projects: the first, involving miniature hands, where I used wires to symbolize two hands, almost meeting while embracing my finger (Fig. 2A). In addition, the swan ring was born from the edge of a melted and deformed silver wire, which I shaped into the head of a swan at the top and wrapped around my finger for the body (Fig. 1A). These two rings that were born at the spur of a moment were my favorites. I felt they encompassed a sense of freedom and lightness that sometimes is absent in an over-planed work, and I decided to keep them.

Unfortunately, despite my attachment to the rings, I lost them, which I regretted deeply. Due to their improvised nature, any attempt to recreate them failed. So I was certain they were lost forever, hoping that whomever found them would give them a loving home. For more than five years, all I left with were a few photos, taken by my husband.

Amit: In the fall of 2011 at MIT, I was in the middle of several projects using 3D printing. I was searching for an appropriate present for Tamar’s 30th birthday, while I was introduced to a 3D printing process by which an element could be printed in wax and then casted by silver or gold. Based on several photos I had of the lost rings, I modeled their shapes in CAD software, searching for approximate identical copies and filling in the gaps from memory (Fig. 1B). I had the models printed, and a few weeks later received two silver rings in the mail, very similar to the original ones (Fig. 1C & 2B).

Tamar: I opened the box and I was puzzled to find my long lost rings there. How could this be? They were lost five years ago and a continent away, and yet, there they were. Amit gave me something I thought was gone.

*     *     *

In a sense, the lost rings came back to life. They were cloned form their digital DNA, their CAD file, which was constructed form the last remains of the rings: a few photos. Now on, we can re-clone these rings with no extra effort, using the same CAD files.

An important quality of contemporary digital fabrication is its accessibility and ease of use in production of virtual designs. While there is nothing new in automation, 3D printing helps re-introduce the concept of personal fabrication: any maker, regardless of handicraft skills, will be able to make objects in his shop or workbench using variety of materials.

Digital fabrication and DIY movement borrow narratives from traditional craft, where the intimate engagement between the maker and the produced artifact is central to the fabrication process. A 3D printed work originates from a digital medium, to which it owes its existence. A virtual work doesn’t age in the same way physical work does, and it is always possible to reprint an old, broken or lost artifact (assuming we didn’t delete a digital file).

While our 3D printed rings looked very similar to the original work, there was one difference: now we had digital files. The original rings were a hand-hewn physical investment – of time and creativity, captured in the moment, inherently flawed and unique. Today, the digital copies still carry a meaningful narrative, but from this point on the “real” rings are machine-made, infinitely repetitive and reproducible.

Considering the meaning of an artifact, the main risk here is that metaphysically the physical instantiation is a meaningless, originating from a timeless and material-less ideal. In contrast, the carefully crafted objects depend on temporal qualities and unique activities: the maker’s personal, subjective investment.