SXSW blog: The maker movement

Printing entire buildings or airplane wings? How about 3D printing with silkworms? Check out cool tech from the conference.

3d printingNow that South by Southwest Interactive is over, we tapped agency folks who attended the conference to write up the lessons learned. 

By Gints Bruveris & Dan Strasser

We’re not sure what the biggest trending topic was at SXSW Interactive 2014 in Austin, Texas. It’s a close tie between “standing in line” and “the inability to hail a cab.” While we let those trends battle it out in a death match, let’s move on to the maker movement.

We’re at least three years into the tech extension of the DIY culture known as the “maker movement.” It’s also maturing faster than a 3D printer can print a paperweight. Along with “wearables,” it was probably the most talked about technology trend at SXSW. Marketers, of course, are trying to figure out how to use it for themselves.

Right now it seems that 3D printers are more toy than utility. We hear about the ability to make smartphone cases or weird-looking paperweights. Last year we saw Defense Distributed create and successfully test the first 3D-printed gun, which made a lot of people begin to see that maybe this 3D printing thing isn’t a toy. But what else can it do?

The truth is we’re really just scratching the surface of “making.” Joi Ito of the MIT Media Lab showed us several different research projects happening at the university. One such project included a full-scale Boeing 787 Dreamliner airplane wing printed and constructed out of small interlocking components – you know, just to see what you could build if you 3D printed your own Meccano set.

What’s the next logical step? A giant building printer, obviously. The Spiderbot is a wire-suspended robotic printer that can print you a building. The cable system and rapidly hardening polymers mean a 3D-printed condo could soon be a reality. The 3D lofts will still be tiny and expensive though.

Past that, SXSW showed us that the next level of 3D printing may not even be a printer at all. Ito demonstrated the Silk Pavilion. He suggests that maybe instead of using the Spiderbot to build your structure, why not employ thousands of “hacked” silkworms? These silkworms are released onto a pre-fabricated structure, where they are guided to complete the structure for us.

Before heading down to SXSW we were naive. Well, 3D-printing naive at least. Taking a digital file and having it printed into a physical object has been around for more years than we thought. Sure Oreo is printing some icing onto their cookies, but that still doesn’t scratch the surface of what is already happening in the 3D printing world. You need a house? Print it. You want to build your own computer? Print a circuit board. You need another liver? Print one using living cells.

No big deal right?

But this does start to raise a lot of questions. Should people be given the tools and designs to be able to print whatever they want? Is the designer responsible for the plans they are releasing? Should this be government regulated? Should you have to be of a certain age before you can print your own gun? We don’t have those answers. Those debates are just starting. But they better happen quicker than the speed at which this technology is growing.

As scary as some of it seems, it’s also incredibly exciting. If individuals are given the tools necessary to see their ideas come to life without the need of working with large corporations that have large machines in large warehouses, it simplifies the ability of great ideas, life-saving ideas, world-changing ideas to be realized.

We are excited. And afraid. Which is exciting. And scary.

Dan_Strasser1G7A7583 Gints Bruveris (left) and Dan Strasser (right) are senior AD and ACD, respectively, at Bensimon Byrne.