In Pictures: Build Your Own at FACT

Words and images by Ryan Garry

How much difference can one man make? How much difference can one machine make?

e-NABLE began in 2011 as a community of volunteers – 3D designers and printmakers from across the world – all of whom are working towards improving the design and accessibility of prosthetic hands. As an open source project, the files are freely available to download, share, and modify.

The hand’s components are almost entirely printed. The five steps below are followed to construct a copy, which is given free to whoever needs it. Like a tailored suit, the hand is measured and fitted – unique to each recipient.

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The incredible potential of the printer is belied by its ‘food’ – thin plastic wire spools in from the back and is moulded – by extruders moving at up to 300mm/s – into the shape specified by its programming. Finger bones, replica organs, fossil reconstructions – all possible. The bins arranged on the wall in the exhibition space (below, to the right) are filled with components which have been printed as part of the exhibition for those in need.

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Consumer 3D printing is still in its nascency. Overall revenue – industrial and consumer – totalled $3bn in 2013, and is expected to exceed $20bn by 2020. A printer with similar capabilities in 2010 ($20,000) now costs less than $1,000. Over a thousand people – mostly children – have so far benefited from e-NABLE’s efforts.

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Onto another kind of creation. The old-fashioned kind – the type that doesn’t ask computers to do the heavy lifting, but requires the hard graft of human labour. Computers are mightily efficient, though – while we are stuck using only 10% of our brain. Similarly with a house – the study is the room where work is done. But, ask architecture art collective Assemble – could each room not be equally productive?

A project during April and May of this year transformed the backyard of 48 Cairns Street, Toxteth into a concrete mixing yard – which utilised locally reclaimed materials, such as broken roof tiles and bricks, in the casting process. Local apprentices were invited to collaborate. This community project inspired the artist Will Shannon (here working with Assemble) to posit how the rooms of an ordinary terrace house could work together and be transformed to produce – each room purposed into a workshop making a different item of furniture.

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Miniature metal samples of finished furniture are displayed under jars and posted onto a floor plan of the house, showing where they’d be made. The model below is placed atop a wooden component of a machine that could be used to make its full-size equivalent.

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Two days ago we were making temples, the next day cathedrals, and today skyscrapers. All made possible by the development of our tools. What will our machines look like tomorrow? Perhaps they will one day develop into…something more. Become more than machines. In fact, less mechanical – and more autonomous. Could they one day think?

And when they think, why would they not share our anxieties?

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The Internet of Things is an ever-growing movement that connects various embedded devices – sensors or transponders, for instance – from all over the world into networks, and allows them to communicate with each other. It allows for more data, more sources. More sharing and accessibility. More stress. Especially for whoever has to process it all.

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This installation is an example of how the network could be applied. Here, we’re dealing with hydroponics. The pyramid in the background circled with plants is outfitted with sensors, which feed back information about ambient conditions. They can be accessed from anywhere in the world that has an internet connection, and decisions are made based on the data. The decisions could also be automated, and given to a computer to do.

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This part of the exhibition is just a bit of fun. Alter the parameters on the board, press the button, and the potential for plant life on your new planet is calculated. But alter the variables of the real world – the temperature, the humidity, the soil acidity – and all hell breaks loose. They need to be monitored; they need to be controlled! Sometimes, even computers need a little rest.

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Compassion is the most human trait. It’s anti-economical – it consumes your own resources for little in the way of personal gain. But homo economicus we are not; we think with our hearts as much as our brains.

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Acts of Care is Linda Brothwell’s project of national intervention. Designing tools derived from local craft processes, she then repairs a public element of that community. In Sheffield, various walls at Portland Works had been subject to gradual wear and tear and decay. After learning about methods of casting stainless steel (Sheffield being, after all, birthplace of the material), she inserted constructed shims into empty elements of the brickwork to resist further erosion.

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This metal could have ended up anywhere, been used for anything – been in the Burj Khalifa or in a Rolex watch. But it wasn’t – it was used to help and repair a community. Plastic used for printed hands could have otherwise been used in riot shields. Concrete can make a prison or a hospital.

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People are ceaselessly inventive and inquenchably creative, and our tools are indispensable to us shaping the world in our image.

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We are what we make.

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Build Your Own: Tools for Sharing is open Tuesday – Sunday, 11am – 6pm at FACT until 31 August 2015.