Some Notes Towards the (im)Possible: 3D Printing a Turntable

3D printing, which is also known as additive manufacturing (AM), uses successive layers of material under computer control to create 3D objects. The technological sphere of 3D printing is a space that excites futurists, scientists, engineers, inventors, pragmatists, and digital humanists. Given the relative infancy of this technology, it remains a truly improvisatory space where ample play (and a fair dosage of frustration) unfold in the process of creating and printing 3D objects.

Improvisation is the force by which we maintain the human, and yet it also foreshadows where the technocratic future will take us as we head further onto the ledge of the possible, or as jazz artist and creative icon Sun Ra writes, the impossible: “The possible has been tried and failed; now I want to try the impossible” (qtd. in Szwed 192). It is in imagining the impossible that we can create futures that at one time seemed only imaginable. There are concerns that 3D printing—which futurologist Jeremy Rifkin refers to as a third industrial revolution, following the production line—could replace the work of people, among a list of other concerns, such as unhealthy air emissions, a reliance on plastics, gun control loopholes, and 3D printed drugs. While these concerns need to be taken seriously, what I find particularly exciting about 3D printing is its relative accessibility, affordability, and the potential to inspire users to view themselves as creators and innovators.

In terms of pedagogy, 3D printing has enormous potential, and by introducing the technology into schools we can shift the paradigm of how young people view innovation and manufacturing. That is, we can get young people to see themselves as innovators, scientists, and futurists from an early age. The DJ in me sees a continuous loop of remixed potential, as users can control their own manufacturing as they see fit, printing household goods and responding to the enormous crisis of climate change by making conscious decisions to use biodegradable PLA plastic filament in printers like the MakerBot.

At the Innovation lab at the VIU Cowichan campus, we’ve printed a number of 3D printed prosthetic hands, which speaks to the massive potential of the emergent technology of 3D printing. Organizations like the Open Hand Project and Enabling the Future are reminders that technology can greatly improve the lives of those who are missing hands and arms and it can do so at a fraction of the cost. While 3D printers are not cheap (starting at around $1000), the material (filament) to print objects is incredibly inexpensive, which can lead to thousands in savings in terms of prosthetics or other printed objects such as instruments.

Case in point: Schools could print 3D ukuleles for less than half the cost of a traditional ukulele and have students assemble them, simultaneously learning two crafts. Working with the 3D printers at the Innovation lab at Vancouver Island University’s Cowichan campus presented an opportunity to print a hand-cranked turntable using an existing template—an appropriate meeting of the old world dialoging with the new. During the process, working alongside my work-op student Sam, who is truly an equal collaborator (and the creator of the video below), we utilized two 3D printers: MakerBot 3D and Lulzbot TAZ. You learn as you go, as there were challenging moments where printing suddenly stopped midpoint, or where we hadn’t heated the bed properly, or where we chose the wrong filament for printing. Through trial and error, and by making slight modifications along the way, we successfully printed a hand cranked 3D vinyl player.

Below is a video showcasing the process that eventually led to the finished and functional model. The fact that the completed player contains different colours than in the time lapse video speaks to the challenges of correctly printing a larger and multipart 3D object (especially when you are learning the technology). The video also puts a number of objects into juxtaposed conversation. For example, in the second part of the video we’ve chosen the backdrop of a pond with moving water to contrast the mechanical movements in the first part. You might also notice other objects that function as visual metaphor, such as a biography on inventor Alexander Graham Bell, or Pierre Bourdieu’s The Field of Cultural Production.

The choice of the Billie Holiday record was twofold: one, the record was already scratched up and so the further damage our sewing needle stylus would inflict would be fine; and two, its initial pre-digital recording and iconic sound provides a useful reflective space to think about how recording technologies and musical performance borrow from the past while suggesting new ways forward. That is: the past and the present are constantly speaking to one another. In addition, the music in the video, which I composed under my DJ Techné alias, is mixed, cut, scratched, distressed, mashed, and recontextualized largely from fragments of different Louis Armstrong recordings (taken from vinyl in real time), and functions like the Poundian maxim to “make it new.”

While these juxtapositions create some cognitive dissonance, they suggest that experimentation is about finding new ways to understand the social contexts of cultural practice and production in relation to new technologies. At its best, 3D printing and other forms of digital engagement can help us understand technologically based learning, and provide critical tools for pedagogues both within and outside the walls of academia. While the final result is a 3D turntable that looks far better than it sounds, it is important to remember that it sounds at all. It sounds a kind of way forward, which for us, involves an echoing back as we decide where we want to go next. We hope you enjoy the video.

Works Cited

Szwed, John. Space is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra. New York: Pantheon, 1997.

Special thanks to George Farris and Sally Carpentier for their technical support and encouragement through the process.


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