3D Printing and the accelerating pace of cool

Sci-fi has long imagined a world where the speed of cultural development grows faster and faster. For example, Gibson's Neuromancer tells of a world where advertising and manufacturing are so advanced that fleeting trends are the norm. In the world of Judge Dredd, the populace is so bored they occupy their time with increasingly more extreme fads.

March 20, 2014

Fads swept the youth of the Sprawl at the speed of light; entire subcultures could rise overnight, thrive for a dozen weeks, and then vanish utterly.

William Gibson Neuromancer

As manufacturing becomes easier, the theory goes, and people become more connected, trends spread faster, new ideas are commercialized quicker and new subcultures are adopted quicker. It gets harder and harder to keep up with cool, when cool only exists for a fraction of an instant.

Compare the heavy metal subculture of the 1980s which thrived for a good many years, with 2013’s “seapunk” subculture, which was in and out within a couple of months. Other examples include the fast-lived cronut fad, the rise of fast fashion and the ubiquity of short-lived internet memes.


There’s one technology that threatens to make this phenomenon even more extreme: 3D printing. 3D printing vastly reduces the time it takes to go from idea to manufactured product.

A current example of this is the Fraemes kickstarter campaign, a project to create customizable 3D printed iPhone cases. Any image can be turned into a phone case: everything from internet memes to party photos to club logos. You could create a phone case in the morning, post about it on your blog in the afternoon and have it become a hip sensation by the evening.

I worked on the software for Fraemes, which meant developing the code to transform a photograph into the blueprint for the phone case. This meant I had to consider lots of factors – like making sure the case would never be thin enough to snap, stopping weird image pixelations from showing up in plastic and trying to keep the raw materials used for the case to a minimum. It was a strange mixture of programming and industrial design.


Fraemes aren’t the only ones taking advantage of 3D printing. There are already hundreds of shops on Shapeways where designers sell everything from stone statues of the meme Sad Keanu to gold-plated companion cube pendants. It may take a couple of years before Shapeways becomes as mainstream as Etsy – but when it does, being trendy will never mean the same thing again.