a plastic unicorn horn sitting on top of a dresser

Working at a university has a lot of perks, and one of the newest is access to the makerspace in the engineering school. When I heard that there was going to be a workshop to learn how to use the lab’s 3D printers, I leapt at the chance. I kid you not, I was actually giddy at the prospect of learning a new creative technique.

I take my motto – Always Be Making Something – very seriously. It’s not just a goal, but an intrinsic part of my character. I am never happier then when I am immersed in some new craft, ink. paint and glue on my fingers, tangled yarn and paper scraps on the floor,1 scissors and needles and brushes and heat guns lying close at hand. Writing is great, editing is great, but so much of that work takes place in my head that I need the outlet of creating something with my hands to balance out all that thinking. I’m no great artisan, but I enjoy the process as much as the product, and like having a tangible item in my hands that I can show off and say, “I made this!”

So what went wrong with 3D printing?

It wasn’t the technology. Many of my creative endeavors in the past have been purely digital — I can spend hours editing photos or messing around with graphic designs and digital painting. The product may not be something you can hold, but you can share it, and the challenge of learning to use digital tools is just as much fun as learning to use traditional tools. So that wasn’t the root of the problem.

The workshop was a hasty and brief introduction to the 3D printing world, just long enough to teach us how to download an object file online, use the software to “slice” the file, and send it to the printer. Because the actual printing can take a while, we didn’t walk away with anything that day, but I was still excited about seeing the results.

The object files we used are freely available online. The workshop didn’t go into how those files are actually created, but I imagine it involves a lot more design skill than I have the time or inclination for right now. The free files are plentiful, though, with plenty of options for people who want to get a taste of the technology. There wasn’t a lot of time to browse through the selection, so I did a quick search for “unicorn” (naturally) and choose a a simple but fairly large unicorn horn that I had to get help shrinking down to a size that would fit in the lab’s printers.

The lab has cameras on all its 3D printers so you can watch it live if you want — I didn’t, but they sent over a speeded-up recording of the process when it was done, which is fun! Three-plus hours of printing in 7 seconds. Look at it go!

It wasn’t until the next day, when I went to pick up the horn from the lab, that I started to feel deflated about the whole thing. There wasn’t anything wrong with the horn — it printed exactly as it was supposed to, and is a very nice shape and size, about eight inches tall and six inches in diameter at the base. It has small holes around the base that I didn’t notice until it was printed, presumably so it can easily be attached to a costume of some sort.

But it’s just a piece of plastic.

In my hands, it feels just like something I could have bought for a few bucks at Spirit Halloween. While I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s flimsy, it does feel unsubstantial and a little shoddy-looking, since the printing process doesn’t produce an entirely smooth surface. It doesn’t feel any different from a mass-produced bit of junk that can be thrown away as soon as I’m done with it, and then feel guilty about throwing it away because it’s plastic.

In other words, it doesn’t look or feel handmade, and there’s no accompanying sense of accomplishment, no aesthetic gratification that a handmade object usually produces. It’s just a cheap plastic horn.

I’m not trying to malign either 3D printers or the designer of this particular object file. 3D printing technology is fantastic, especially for prototyping new equipment designs, or for reproducing objects that are unique or hard to come by. 3D printing as a flexible and accessible alternative to mass production is really a wonder of the age.

But as a exercise in creative arts and crafts, reproducing a plastic object — an object that someone else designed — just fell flat for me. Maybe I would feel different if I had designed the unicorn horn myself, or if I had some particular project in mind that I needed something with very particular specifications. But to print something just for the sake of printing it? It did not fulfill my creative itch.

What’s really ridiculous about the whole thing is that, because the horn feels cheap, I feel cheapened by it. Like, how could I, an ardent arts-and-crafter, be responsible for bringing this tawdry bit of plastic into being? All this astonishing technology and design labor to create… this? It just doesn’t feel right. There are so many amazing materials to work with in the world, why cheap plastic?

I am making plans to do something more with my unicorn horn. Perhaps that process will restore some of my creative satisfaction. Sanding, painting, maybe some lights .. the ideas are simmering and I’m sure I’ll come up with something that will give this bit of plastic a purpose beyond Future Landfill.

I’m not sure when or if I’ll venture into the 3D printing realm again. There are many lovely designs (this gothic lantern, or this recreation of Narsil, or this medieval castle ), but when it comes down to it they are still just plastic, no matter how well you finish them up. Maybe if I try again it will be something with more practical purpose instead of creative — like some organizers that fit my bathroom drawers better than the store-bought ones. We’ll see.

Have you ever experimented with 3D printing? What are your thoughts?

  1. Not really. Tangled yarn is the worst. It’s a good thing my super power is untangling things.

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