3D Printed Limbs: A Cultural As Well As A Technological Shift

Is new technology truly available just because it’s technically available? The Critical Making lab is hard at work on creating 3D printed prosthetics for Ugandan amputees but it’ll take a cultural, as well as a technological, change to really make the program take flight. Read the story here.

If They Only Had a Brain

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3D printing a brain is one thing.

Making it useful for med students is another. But with some gelatin, a solvent and a little bit of ingenuity, research associate Joshua Qua Hiansen can turn a printed mold into an echogenic and accurate model of a brain.

It looks like a brain. It sounds like a brain. It even squishes like a brain.

Highlights From The Critical Making Lab Collection: Biased Voting Machine

In Canada, we tend to take voting for granted. We expect it to be open to us and we expect it to be a simple and fair process. In 2009, Dr. Matt Ratto challenged his Critical Making class to imagine a world where voting was openly biased. This object is one of the results:


It’s a little broken at the moment but in its original form, the voting machine would have two buttons, one red and one green. To vote, the user would have to press one of these buttons. It seems simple enough, doesn’t it? And it is – unless the user has red-green colour blindness.

A colour-blind voter using this machine is forced to either guess which button signifies which option or seek help from someone else. In no case can they reliably cast their vote on their own. The object raises questions of biases and privilege. For a person with a full range of colour vision, it’s such a non-issue it’s doubtful that they’d even notice there was a bias. But the person being excluded will notice.

And if it’s this easy to miss the bias against one group, it leads to the question: who else do we not notice we’re excluding?

To learn more about how this object was made, check out this post from 2009.

Curation at the Critical Making Lab

A critical foundation of Critical Making is, of course, the act of making, the creation of an object from spare parts or specially created components, and the exploration and critique of the process. So what happens when the maker is done making?

That’s where I come in. I’m the curator at the Critical Making Lab. When the researchers are done with an object, it’s my turn to play!

My duties involve cataloguing the objects, deciding which objects should be kept and which should be recycled, finding a place to store them and (the fun part!) organizing them into exhibitions. As a non-researcher, my background is a little different from most of the other lab residents – I’m actually a Museum Studies student, albeit one with a bit of an intellectual crush on emergent technologies.

Be still, my heart! Source.

There are a lot of challenges to being lab curator.

I’m the new girl and I just don’t have the context I need for many of my objects, especially since I don’t have a background in any sort of computer or electrical work. The big, fancy ones are pretty easy because I can Google them. It’s not hard to find information on things like the prosthetic sockets or blind tennis; they were pretty well-publicized projects. But I would frequently quickly catalogue an object which I thought was just a test print and move on. Then, days later, someone would walk by and casually mention that the object I had set aside was, in fact, part of some terribly significant and interesting project. I’m lucky in that everyone in the lab is quite friendly and willing to share their knowledge but it’s hard to get answers when you don’t even know what questions you need to ask.

Painting robot 4

Random junk or super cool robot components?

There’s also the fact that the Critical Making Lab is not a museum space. Displaying objects is a secondary concern. Every decision I make has to take functionality into account. Yes, I can mount part of my exhibition on that shelving unit there but it’s right next to the full-body scanner, so people might need that space. Yes, I can create a beautiful and elaborate slideshow with multiple components to show off every aspect of the lab but who’s got time to update something that involved once I’m gone?

But hey, even if the job has its challenges, I wouldn’t change it for the world. And if I occasionally end up shirtless in the lab on a weekend because I needed a black backdrop for photography and it was the only black cloth I had, well, it’s just another day in the life of a Critical Making Lab curator!

Heart to Heart in the Critical Making Lab

This Valentine’s Day, Research Associate Joshua Qua Hiansen wants to give away his heart. It’s okay, he has a lot of spares:

Purple heart 1 Pink heart 1

Of course, these hearts don’t beat for anyone, even true love. They’re anatomical models for teaching medical students. More on Josh’s Twitter:

Mixed media human aortic valve

Demonstration of valve printed in flexible resin

Progression of printing


Highlights from The Critical Making Lab Collection: Model of LightSail Cube Satellite

Anyone who’s interested in 3D printing probably has at least a tiny soft spot in their heart for science fiction. And what’s more sci fi than space travel? Of course, we’re not quite here

or here


But space travel is evolving all the time. The Planetary Society, a non-profit space advocacy group, has been busy developing a a citizen-funded project called LightSail that will use the sun’s energy as a method of propulsion. See the Planetary Society’s website for more information. The LightSail model is experimental for now – the first test flight was in 2015 – and a full demonstration isn’t scheduled until later this year.

The Critical Making lab has partnered with The Planetary Society to create realistic 3D-printed models of the LightSail Cube Satellite. There models are not functional, but will be used for educational purposes to explain how the actual Lightsail works. Stay tuned for future examples…

LightSailSolar sail






Note: Spaceship images from Wikimedia.

Researcher Profile: Daniel Southwick

Daniel Southwick

Daniel Southwick is a PhD candidate in the Critical Making Lab, currently working on his dissertation. He is interested in troubling current conceptions about 3D printing. 3D printing is often promoted as the transition from digital objects into physical ones. Daniel’s recent project, the Camera Obscura, shows that it isn’t that simple.

The Camera Obscura project started from a simple goal: Southwick wanted to print and put together a camera from a pattern downloaded from the internet. If 3D printing truly was as simple as it is often perceived, this should be no issue. It was not, however, that simple.

Creating the camera in fact required physical and social structures which were not present for Southwick. The pattern was not created in a void but as part of the creator’s environment. The pattern came from a European country; connecting parts were metric and difficult to get in Canada. Putting it together also required a great deal of implicit knowledge of how cameras work – for example, Southwick initially printed the camera in white plastic, not realizing that reflection of light would be an issue when actually taking photos.

Camera obscura

The camera, put together

Although Southwick wanted to avoid excessive self-reflection, he pointed out that the Camera Obscura project demonstrates just how complicated it can be to move an object from the digital realm into the physical and how deeply an object’s pattern is influenced by the culture and environment of its creator.

Camera Obscura photo 2

Photo taken with the camera. Still a ways to go!

Re/Making the Unknown: A Symposium Exploring Humanistic Approaches in Science and Technology Research

A few of us from the Critical Making Lab are co-organizing a half-day symposium that brings together scholars from multiple fields to discuss the use of interdisciplinary humanistic approaches and methods in understanding:

  • how scientific and cultural knowledge are produced

  • how infrastructures that cross disciplinary boundaries can share objects, methods, and features

  • and how new technologies that blur material/digital distinctions are changing cultural institutions

Date: June 18

Location: Room 1150, Robarts Library (Main Floor), 130 St. George Street, University of Toronto

Session One – 10am to 12pm

Finding the Known in the Unknown – This session will discuss historically-informed approaches to curating unknown, discarded, and damaged/destroyed technoscientific objects. This session will be facilitated by curators from the University of Toronto Scientific Instruments Collection, and will present a handful of case studies that see historical artifacts from the collection brought to new life through the use of cutting edge technologies.

Coffee and light lunch (provided) – 12pm to 1pm

Session Two – 1pm to 3pm

3D (De/Re)Materialization This session will consider, with respect to the use of 3D technologies in humanistic approaches to science and technology studies, how 3D scanning and printing can be beneficial for some humanities scholars. Through the presentation of relevant examples and a live demonstration of 3D scanning and printing technologies, it will encourage a discussion around whether 3D makes possible certain kinds of investigations that are becoming increasingly necessary in a number of disciplines. The session will be facilitated by scholars from Information, Museum Studies, and History and Philosophy of Science and Technology.


This symposium is an effort of the Jackman Humanities Institute Working Group on Humanistic Studies of Science and Technology.

Not Print Print Bang Bang: 3d printed guns and the illusion of digital immateriality

Recently, in the Critical Making lab we printed a nonworking version of the Defense Distributed 3d model ‘liberator’ handgun. To be precise we printed a disabled version of the gun as part of a project on the increasing hybridity of the virtual/material world and the role of 3D printing more generally. We did so publicly (link to Globe and Mail story here) in order to initiate an open conversation on issues related to 3D printing and guns and to hopefully engage law enforcement, regulators, policy makers, and 3D printing advocates in developing a measured rather than a knee-jerk response to the perceived problems associated with 3D printing. That an open conversation is necessary was brought home to us by recent calls by both conservative and democratic politicians in the US for regulation of 3D printers.

We are certainly interested in facilitating and extending the current debates and are hopeful that we can work with authorities to address concerns. However, we also want to be clear that the gun is just a ‘canary in the coal mine’ for a whole slew of important theoretical and pragmatic information issues. Our work is not on firearms or the functionality of 3D printed guns per se, but addresses the limitations of our capacity to engage and think about them. We are primarily interested in the increasingly tenuous dividing line between our mundane and physically embodied existence and the seemingly separate and virtual modes associated with digital technologies. Recent debates regarding the material nature of information have been given a new locus given the development of working 3D printable guns. Our reason for printing the gun was simply to take note of this new recentering and to explore the issues from a number of different perspectives.

More specifically, the law and other formal and informal entities are used to treating ‘the digital’ and ‘the physical’ as two entirely separate worlds. We have been encouraged to think this way by a whole variety of individuals and institutions, including both libertarian (e.g. John Perry Barlow’s famous ‘Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace’) and conservative voices (e.g. reasoning regarding the DMCA in the US,) depending on need. Over the last few decades, a lot of work has been done to encourage the idea that information is immaterial, that form and content can be separated, that the medium is just a neutral channel for transmission. (Mcluhan was prescient in calling attention to the limits of this idea!)

Matthew Kirshenbaum has noted that “computers are unique in the history of writing technologies in that they present a pre-meditated material environment built and engineered to propagate an illusion of immateriality”. 3D printing calls attention to this fallacy – and the 3d printed gun is only one example of this, albeit a particularly evocative one. Other examples of this fallacy include the idea that all information (not just the computational) is similarly immaterial. This results in the idea that once books and other textual materials have been scanned and digital versions have been created, the physical ‘versions’ can simply be thrown away since all value resides in the ‘informational’ content and that has been captured. While librarians, archivists, and critical scholars from a range of disciplines (Katherine Hayles, Matthew Kirschenbaum, JF Blanchette, and many others) have been speaking about the problems of this perspective for many years, 3D printing definitely highlights the pragmatic and not just the theoretical import of such issues.

Our research on 3D printing includes work on its use to facilitate accessibility for the visually impaired, new forms of distributed productivity and design, and other socially beneficial attributes. Our printing of the gun model and exploration of its dimensions should not be taken as either a whole-hearted embracing of the cyber-anarchistic future articulated by its original creator, nor of a ‘won’t somebody think of the children’ reductive response. Instead, the project stands as part of our work as information scholars and as public intellectuals debating and exploring new information technologies and the patterns of life associated with them.

Matt Ratto on 3D-Printed Guns

Matt Ratto recently appeared on an episode of TVO’s The Agenda with Steve Paikin to discuss the critical implications of 3D printing dangerous, controversial, and occasionally illegal technologies (like guns) with Paikin and Cody Wilson, director of Defense Distributed, the R&D firm behind Liberator 3D-printed gun.

Critical Making Lab and Children’s Own Media Museum at Harbourfront

Lab members Antonio Gamba Bari and Gabby Resch, in conjunction with the Children’s Own Media Museum, took a handful of arduinos and one of the lab makerbots down to Toronto’s Harbourfont Victoria Day festival in order to provide the opportunity for kids (and their parents) to explore, create, and build a range of unique artifacts. It was an interesting opportunity for us to explore the interactive possibilities afforded in a busy, chaotic atmosphere, as well as a chance to see how a long-running group such as the COMM anticipates and prepares for an event that caters to hundreds of both excited and distracted kids (and their parents) as they experience technologies like 3D printing and electronic circuits for the first time.

Traxler’s “The idea of a Tree”

The Idea of a Tree

I find this project by Thomas Traxler to be a wonderful articulation of a sort of mechanistic notion of a tree, complete with inputs (sunlight, yarn, dye) and outputs (color, shape, speed). The title is necessary here, and really sets the frame for our unpacking of the artist’s concept. Mechanically I really like the way a simple mechanical transformation – sunlight into electricity that then powers an electrical motor at differing speeds – is translated in various ways. The dripping dye differently colors the yarn that moves past it – lighter if faster, darker if slower. The material is wound thicker or thinner depending on the speed at which the motor turns. Both result in a complex aesthetic , despite the initial simplicity.

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