Materials Literacy

I have not mentioned it here before but part of my time at the moment is taken being Product (and Project) Manager for I Can Make. An amazing new start-up founded by Chris Thorpe, Becky Fishman and Dean Vipond (and myself), I Can Make is creating fun, educational content for your and your child’s 3D printer.

We are developing the educational support for the product and during the talk, the obvious point of ‘putting more stuff out into the world’ came up. In trying to form a response to this in I came up with the concept of ‘Materials Literacy’. Throwaway at the time, a short hand for a whole area of knowledge to be communicated and imparted. Below I try to develop what we could mean by ‘Materials Literacy’.

As 3D printing and other home manufacturing processes become more available people using these tools will need to have a level of understanding of the materials that are in use.

Not to the same depth of understanding as a professional designer, whose knowledge of materials and their properties is rich, in a similar way that an architect and construction engineer should understand how the materials they or the client wants work under the stresses and strains of construction and being in a building.

Just as we do not all need to be graphic designers or typographers to make use of the printer in our home, we don’t need to be a product designer to take advantage of the 3d printer.

What we do need to understand are some of the core properties of the material that we are using. At least with the laser printer we were using paper which most of us already had familiarity with. We knew enough about its properties to be able to make use of it easily without in depth domain knowledge, but remember, in school were you taught how paper was made? And for the most part what material was used to record and communicate your learning on?

We are and we’re already very comfortable with the material of paper. The inks, toners and processes were the new materials, that and the possibilities of what could be printed opened up new possibilities of learning and understanding how to communicate with print.

With home manufacture we need to know appropriate materials for appropriate tasks, it’s no good using a non heat resistant plastic to make a part that is going to be subjected to high heat, for example. Equally though, we should be able to understand the life cycle of the material being used and following on from that, the life cycle of the objects that we make with that material. How recyclable is the material (is it compostable, or does it require other processes to recycle it) and could that recycling be done in the home?

We also need to be aware of materials and how the interact with the human body, printing children’s toys with a material that might be toxic could create a similar situation to the ‘lead paint’ situation. [[Matt Malpass, who co-directs the MA industrial design course at CSM mentioned this during an initial discussion about materials literacy]].

Similarly, unless there is an understanding about the materials and how to reuse them, in a couple of years, Ben Hammersly predicts a news article on ‘the amount of plastic rubbish that is being churned out by the home printer industry’ [my paraphrasing].

Consumers need to understand the costs of the material that they use and be able to calculate the cost of printing versus mass manufacture.

If 3D printing and other new personal manufacturing tools and processes do change our relationship to objects, in that we can have what we need, when we need it, for as long as we need it and not necessarily any longer then part of the tool chain to deliver this change has not been delivered. Also, importantly a large part of the education and information on materials and how we use them and can re-use them has yet to be developed.

It is this space that I believe should be covered by ‘Materials Literacy’.