I’d like to talk about the relevance of 3D printing, more specifically of having a 3D printer at home.

And it mainly has to do with the concept of symbolic value. Something we all know as this mysterious force that makes objects become more valuable over time – instead of less.

A pen isn’t worth much, except when you used it to sign an important contract.
An old cup isn’t worth much, except when it has been your grandma’s.
A book isn’t worth much, unless it has managed to change your life.

But only you can see it that way,
only you can tell the difference.

Now imagine that everyone else sees the same.

Working at the heart of the 3D printing community has taught me three things.

One: in a few years everyone will have access to a 3D printer. If not at home, at school. Or at a makerpoint near you.

Two: the most accessible material will be plastic; it’s strong, versatile and affordable – hard to compete with.

And three: when you can create anything it becomes very hard to decide what to make.

But that all changes when you add time as a final ingredient: when you combine 3D printing with your sense of identity.

You’ll learn that plastic has the power to make your memories last,
to make your reality more rewarding,
and quite possibly, to make your dreams come true.

Let me tell you what you need to unlock this power.

The first thing you need is a 3D printer. Good thing these machines are not only getting more reliable, they’re getting more affordable too. But for this technology to change your life it’s not enough to just buy the machine, you have to be able to design for it as well.

I mean, having a 3D printer and only producing other people’s designs is like giving a kid pencils and then saying they can only draw between the lines. 

Luckily, while the hardware is maturing faster than ever, the software to create 3D models is getting more accessible as well. There’s tons of free software out there to help you take your first steps, in the style that suits you best; whether it be mathematical, artistic sculpting, 3D scanning or through an actual game environment, like Minecraft. 

And don’t think you couldn’t do it. too many people think they’re not creative because they’re not artistic – but with the emerging CAD software of today anyone who can work well methodically can create stunning visuals, and beautiful objects that look professionally produced.

So if you had access to a machine that can make almost anything, and the skills to model it too, how would you change the world.?

Just remember; you don’t have to invent something new to do so. Adapt a piece of it well – and you will. I experienced this myself after I bought a 3D printer to explore the relevance of 3D printing beyond utility.

3D printing is not just practical and functional, it’s also a way to express ourselves.

What you see here is called filament.
It’s the source material for many 3D printers.

But where you see a plastic string, I see a storyline – waiting to unfold.

And I’d like to share a few of those stories with you.

When I first explored the relevance of 3D printing at home I decided to try and capture a memory in a functional object. My girlfriend provided me with the functional part of the equation, by digging up a sugar cup she inherited from her grandma. The lid of the cup was missing, and repairing household objects is one of the few obvious applications where desktop 3D printing is a great solution. However, I didn’t know exactly what the lid had looked like, and even if I had, printing the original shape in plastic would be such a terrible contrast with the gold plated body that it probably still would’ve never made it out of our cabinet again.

But I was prepared, and planned to replace it with a totally new shape instead; the memory of our first vacation together – a journey to Crete, the Greek island. When I thought back of that holiday the first thing that came to mind was a trip we made on our second day there, when our hotel owners suggested we’d visit Balos Beach, a peninsula in the very west of the island. The road would get bad after a certain point they said, but it would be worth it – so we went for it.

And surely, after a while the road got bad. I mean I didn’t get worse, it simply ended. This meant driving off road next to a cliff – in our tiny little rental car – for miles on end. And when at last we arrived at the edge of the mountain it turned out we still had a pretty intense hike in front of us to get down to the water. But when we finally ended up at the beach we had to admit the hotel staff was right, it had all been worth it; Balos Beach was a beautiful lagune, with golden sands, clear water, an amazing view and almost no one else around. Our own private paradise. So you can probably tell, when I think of Balos Beach the feelings and memories of that entire holiday are coming back to me along with it. But how to translate this journey into the lid of a sugar cup.? 

I decided to go for an approach everyone I know would be able to follow: I looked up the mountain we drove up in google earth, just traced the side view and extruded it. Then I looked up a picture of the tiny car we were in and did the same, just on a different scale. Next I simply put the two together and gave it a round cut, and voilà;

A new cap is born. The mountain covers the opening, the car acts as a handle. So now when we serve the tea, we also put a story on the table. Even though the shape doesn’t necessarily speak for itself, it’s so different from what you’d expect that it triggers the question what it represents. I call this combination of story and utility ‘functional symbolism’. And I bet this cup doesn’t get trashed until we die.

Then I realised; when you’re making abstract notions tangible, the topics aren’t limited to the past. You can also solidify what you want to achieve in the future, so you can hold on to that thought. I’ll just share another straightforward example. It’s about hydration. It’s very important you know. And I try to do it all the time – keep drinking. But I fail. And then I put my own head on a water bottle, and now I’m reminding myself all the time to be thirsty.

The funny thing is, other people ask about it. And then I explain to them how I aim to drink more water, and remind myself this way. And with that I’m affirming my goal, which really works well if you want to keep your spirits up. So I guess that replacing plastic parts of the objects around you with substitutes shaped like metaphors can help people to voice their intentions, which is a catalyst for action. I just like it because at work I can finally tell which bottle is mine.

Function is optional though, for plastic to become priceless. As I’ve realised during another personal project called ‘Final Embrace’. About two and a half years ago I lost my mom to a quick win for cancer. I miss her a lot, and when it had been almost a year since her passing she was constantly on my mind. I wanted to do something for my dad that I could give him on the day itself, and while I usually express myself in written word, for the past few years my dad had really gotten into sculpting, and I decided I’d try to speak his language instead. The idea emerged to design a 3D printed sculpture that would fit around her urn, which up till then was standing on a side table being very standard – which she certainly wasn’t. For its shape I picked a topic that had regularly come up in her final months; the subtle beauty of people’s hands and the broadest sense of being touched.

However, 3D modeling organic shapes like hands is a really complex process, and I feared my CAD skills wouldn’t be sufficient. Luckily there’s another way to create 3D models; by using a 3D scanner. Without funds for a professional tool I was saved by an open source project. I bought an Xbox Kinect, which you can use to control video games through movement, yet by plugging it into a laptop, combined with some free software it also acts as a 3D scanner. Within 15 minutes after it’s arrival I was looking at my own arm in 3D, which my girlfriend immediately recognized as being even better than designing it from scratch. She suggested I’d make a round within the family, and before I knew it I had captured all six hands; my father’s, my brother’s, his wife’s, their kid’s, my girlfriend’s and my own.

I modeled them around a 3D drawing of the urn, simplified the result and turned it to a more abstract wireframe version that I ordered at Shapeways, a company with access to powder based 3D printers. When it arrived and I put it around my moms urn, I took a step back and I really felt something. This final embrace would last forever. In hindsight I realized that this moment really confirmed for me that 3D printing has the power to make a piece of plastic more valuable than any expensive luxury, all you have to do is put a part of yourself into it.

  • Whenever you want to remember a journey,
  • Whenever you want to express who you are,
  • Whenever you never want to let go.

Give your story three dimensions, and it will certainly go far.

Thank you.


What will make 3D printing relevant for everyone.?
Everyone has a story to share.