The NY Times is running a debate on whether (home) 3-D printers are the Next Big Thing. My guess is not, partly for reasons advanced in the debate (making plastic shapes is limited, handling other materials is messy and dangerous) and partly from the observation that home 2-D printers have proved pretty much transitory. I suppose most people have one or two sitting around, but I only use mine when someone makes a mistake: typically sending me a non-editable PDF that needs to be printed out, filled in, signed and scanned. This happens rarely enough that I usually need to download a new driver, which is a real pain (honestly, after 30 years, we still need drivers!?). My guess is that if 3D printing becomes a Big Thing, it will be on the basis of same-day delivery from a special-purpose facility to which we send our customised product requests.

But what really interested me was a sceptical piece premised on bagging out the paperless office as a precursor of 3D printing hype. The line was that it was first predicted in the 1970s, but that US businesses are using more paper now than they did then. This struck me as probably true but misleading for two reasons
(i) the population has grown, as has the proportion of workers who deal with text in one form or another
(ii) the two point comparison conceals a rise and fall.

Point (i) is obvious. A quick check reveals that (ii) is also correct. Paper consumption peaked in the late 1990s and has fallen sharply since 2005. Consumption per person is the lowest on record (going back to 1965). I’m pleased with this because back in 2007, I noted that the much-mocked “paperless office” was become a reality, and predicted that the trend would accelerate (reprinted over the fold)>

The myth of “The Myth of the Paperless Office”

The “paperless office” is one of those catchphrases that gets bandied about for a while, only to disappoint and eventually be used in a purely derisive way. As Wikipedia says, it has become ‘a metaphor for the touting of new technology in terms of ‘modernity’ rather than its actual suitability to purpose’. The death of the phrase was cemented by a 2001 book, by Sellen and Harper “The Myth of the Paperless Office”. Here’s a good review from Kirk McElhearn.

This book wasn’t a snarky debunking but a fairly sophisticated analysis, pointing out that a sensible analysis of task requirements could allow a significant reduction in paper use. But it was the title that stuck. No one would ever again refer to the paperless office with a straight face.

Six years later, though, looking at my own work habits, I find that I have virtually ceased to use paper, in all but a couple of marginal applications.

The office is still full of paper, but a lot of it hasn’t been looked at for years. For example, I have filing cabinets full of photocopied journal articles, and a good indexing system for them, but I hardly ever use them. It’s easier to download PDFs for all the articles I want on a topic, and read them onscreen, rather than checking to see if I already have a file copy. And I’ve hardly added any in the last five years, so it’s only inertia that keeps them in place.

There are still a couple of exceptions. For example, I still use paper in intra-office editing, where it’s easier to handwrite suggested changes on a draft than to use digital markup (especially as I avoid Word wherever possible). But I could easily do without paper altogether, whereas without email I would be crippled.

So, I wonder if I’m an outlier, or just on the leading edge of a broader trend. A bit of digging produced the finding that (US) office paper consumption peaked in 1999, and has been in decline since then.

The annual rate of decline (-0.9 per cent) is unimpressive in itself, but striking when compared to the growth rate of 5.7 per cent observed from 1985 to 1999, at a time when talk of the paperless office was particularly prevalent. Compared to the ‘Business as Usual’ extrapolation of the previous growth rate, office paper consumption has declined by around 40 per cent. My guess is that the decline is accelerating. Academic journals have nearly abandoned paper submission procedures for example, and I assume that similar things are happening in other lines of work. The disappearance of faxes is another illustration.

Of course, the “paperless office” myth wasn’t just a prediction that digital communications would replace paper one day. It was a sales pitch for a top-down redesign of work processes, which, for the reasons given by Sellen and Harper, was never going to work. Some uses of paper became obsolete long before others. For example, it was a decade or so after the widespread adoption of email that it became generally feasible to use PDF attachments (still a problem of you’re on dialup and some fool sticks a 2Mb glossy ad into their FYI circular!).

I’m interested in this story in itself, but also because of its implications for energy use. Just as with paper, there’s a widespread assumption that energy-intensive methods of doing things are essential. This is assumption is reinforced by the long lag between the point at which things become technically feasible and the point at which the necessary infrastructure is in place for their widespread adoption. For example, videoconferencing has been a feasible alternative to business travel for decades, but as long as you need to book a special building and equipment at both ends, it’s not going to happen on any significant scale. When every office computer has a high-quality digital videocamera attached to a gigabit capacity network, things might be a bit different.

30 thoughts on “Origami

  1. I think you are right John. The paperless office is coming but like all such developments it evolves on its own terms which so often the prophets themselves are only dimly aware of and even the masters cant quite get right. The other thing they seem to have missed is the speed of uptake which is never instantaneous even if it does tend to be an exponential.

    In respect to the prophets more generally, recently there was a reproduction of Issac Asimov’s predictions in 1964 for 50 years in the future in the NYT – http://www.nytimes.com/books/97/03/23/lifetimes/asi-v-fair.html . With benefit of hindsight I scored successes > failures on a scale of +2 to -2 . The score when added up came to zero?! though many more may now be emerging. This underscores how rate of change is finite.

    But returning to the paperless office – despite exposure to it in 2000 I was a sceptic about the value of Endnote (and PDFs seemed unmanagemeable) when you needed to enter citations manually and there was no linkage to the electronic document. Having tried computer reference searching first in 1975 and getting pretty disheartened I thought at the time “not again”. But finally though I gave up in about 2008 and used a specific project as a test bed for Endnote use….and rapidly became a born again proselytizer with now 7000 documents and counting (the most extreme is a 500 MB Appendix of 7500 pages).

    As a result I think the slow uptake can be explained by past constraints with the paperless office that may be summed up as it formerly requiring too great an effort – specifically to efficiently find the electronic documents, compile the citation details, grab documents, store and load many and big picture documents, back it all up, organize the references, add and subtract from them, retrieve the references annotate them, compile citations in different formats, get extracts through OCR etc. This really has only been possible in the past 2-4 years.

    Also interestingly uptake has still been gradual in my extended circle perhaps reflecting scepticism like my own. Two colleagues, one an older well published academic, the other more my age, both have their existing tedious time wasting ‘systems’ and I cannot convince them to change/give them up.

    Meanwhile out in civil service and lawyer land none of my friends have taken up what seems a blindingly simple efficiency benefit for them. I have tried but maybe I’m a bad communicator. In the business world though an IT relative tells me there are many alternative Endnote analogues available. So change is happening across the board albeit patchily.

    A final essential need is for decent large ‘Desktop’ size screens 24-30″ and second/third supplementary screens to organise work. This only became really easy in this same past 4 years or so. Beyond that there is a final barrier. These appear to still be many corporate office managers who see such desktops not as productivity generators but as unnecessary luxuries for bludging workers who just want to play video games or finance industry wonks.

    Talk about false economies.

  2. Video conferencing + fibre NBN = Win. Unfortunately…..

    My office is like yours John, lots of paper from times of yore, lots of paper interactions with business and government but not much in my line of work: software development. Even my extensive library of technical manuals is rarely used when every answer is a google search away. Even solving Linux installation problems is child’s play. Someone has always encountered the same problem and got an answer on some forum or other. Now that I have NBN fixed wireless 25/5 (rural location) it’s like a new world has opened up: need software, click, need video, click, need to send product, click. Wonderful.

  3. The main thing holding most workplaces back from using much less paper is their inability to understand and use digital signature technologies. At one former workplace, a cryptographic key pair was generated when the employee started (keys were kept centrally). Forms such as leave requests were “signed” by all concerned (employee, manager, etc). The company didn’t want paper because, with truly international operations, paper is useless.

  4. I think equating 3D printers with paper printing is a flawed analogy, but I’ll go with it initially.

    I have a graphic designer friend who plonked down $20k in about 1985 for a laser printer and a Macintosh; it immediately removed several steps in the process of taking his work to traditional print and paid for itself several times over during the next few years.

    My guess is that these days he’s using only slightly more paper than any of us and still producing “books”. His “toolchain” – the software and gadgets used to produce a book – are light years ahead of their equivalents in the 80s. It’s that “toolchain” (eg: the document interchange formats you take for granted) and the changes it enabled that are important. All those came from that “paperless office” stuff.
    For my friend, one PDF, one book or a million books, the toolchain is the same.

    When I look at a 3D printer, I just see abstract robot stuff with a plastic extruder attached. Just like I’ve seen it with a plasma torch, a laser attached or even a chocolate extruder. It doesn’t matter.

    What matters is that the toolchain for computer aided manufacturing (CAM) is now available to a much wider range of people than before.
    I think you would be hard pressed to find a small engineering firm or kitchen cabinet maker etc that isn’t using CAM; certainly all the big manufacturing folks do.

    With some care, right now I can print something on my 3D printer and if I need it in a different material or I need a hundred, I can go to the next step up the food chain with my files and make it happen.

    One gadget, or a million, the toolchain is what matters.

    So early days, over hyped, not for everyone.
    But very important for some of us and important for how we make stuff in general.

  5. Potentially, manufacturers could put the files for each widget in your whiz bang thingy online. Then when the widget breaks, you can just print a new one. But this is the sort of idea that will get people buying, but probably not using much.

  6. 3D printing in its current form will probably always be a bit of a sideshow, though an awesomely cool sideshow (I remember seeing the first RepRap printing out parts of its first child in . . . 2001? Thereabouts. It blew my mind). There are a number of problems which aren’t entirely irrelevant to the 2D printing analogy, but are much much bigger with 3D printing.

    The first one is that the materials you’re dealing with are either very limited, or a major pain in the arse to keep in stock. Think about the recycling options – plastic waste sorted into five types to ease recycling (though two of them are just variants of the same chemistry), with a whole range of common plastics sorted into a grab-bag “other” category. Things like polystyrene, one of the more common and useful plastics around, need to be handled specially; really interesting and useful things like polycarbonate don’t even get a mention. Turn that around and think about the collection of filaments and beads and the like that you’d need to build any given machine that might require half a dozen different types of materials from LDPE through to pressed steel sheets and electronic components. Building modern machines is /complicated/, and requires a whole lot of sophistication – 3D printing may support some parts of the process, but it won’t allow it to be moved wholesale into people’s houses.

    Where 3D printing as it stands /is/ interesting is in the case where you want to replace a part for something that you have, which is broken – this use case naturally constrains the materials and sophistication requirements. For example, I’ve got a dishwasher with a filter part (just some ABS plastic and a fine fibre glass mesh) that’s in the process of breaking – the dishwasher isn’t supported, though, so the only way I could get a replacement is by scavenging. If I had a 3D printer I could build a replacement myself without any great difficulty. Not perfectly, but well enough to keep the ~$1000 investment that was made in the dishwasher paying back for a while longer.

    If I had that 3D printer (maybe this christmas? Oh if only . . .) I could fix my dishwasher, but I could also fix a friend’s dishwasher, or toilet cistern, or any number of other things. I have the smarts needed to do things like go from a 3D printed blank to lost wax castings for low-stress metal parts, too, if someone was able to either supply the original so I could make a CAD model of it or supply their own model. And that’s where I think 3D printing will fit in – it’ll allow for extremely focused and very localised manufacturing of a wide range of things, with the level of sophistication depending on who you go to for your parts. That could range from someone in a small country town who could replicate a part for an old machine (something that happens already, but generally at a fairly low level of sophistication) through to a small specialised engineering shop that can go all the way from printing bits of plastic to fix something you care about enough to pay through the nose, to short run manufacturing of things that need sophisticated materials and processing. That kind of thing already exists, though, so future 3D printing would just push that capability further out, and further down.

    We may, however, end up in a world where the idea of going to a shop to buy a toy for your kid’s birthday is a thing of the past – that sort of thing is definitely an area where a small 3D print shop can take a design from anywhere and hand it to you a few hours later in solid form, including the minor alterations and customisations you asked for. It might even be an original design you saw in the shop’s window and liked enough to buy.

    Oh, and one day I expect that things like historic cars or aircraft will have broken bits and pieces replaced by something printed on the spot, so the days of old warbirds being grounded due to lack of spares will be gone . . .

  7. I’m with Happy Heyoka. Marshall McLuhan, in ‘The Medium is the Massage’ made rather the same point. When each person becomes a publisher through photocopying, it is essentially a Gutenberg moment. And when each person, for good or ill, becomes a manufacturer through 3D printing, it is a Ford moment. One-offs can be cheaply manufactured whether they be custom prosthetic limbs or guns (both current realities). It will be a small while before ‘cheaply’ becomes ‘competitively’.

    I believe that 3D printing will be a game changer in ways that none of us predict and on a timeframe that none of us will get right.

  8. I found that the main driver for finally getting rid of paper was the migration of the majority of staff from desktops to laptops, which only really happened in the 2000’s. The reason is most people’s working lives are dominated by meetings, and your desktop is useless unless you’re at your desk.

    So the 70’s may have been a bit ambitious, but certainly it’s well on its way to happening now.

    I haven’t used a printer once so far this year.

  9. Speaking as someone who is heavily involved in the realm of 3D modelling, specifically working in the medium of lego, I could use a 3D printer. But I really only need one for two main reasons:

    1. The people I’m working with are old and of a straight forward practical nature and appreciate having a physical 3D model to work from which lets them work out the field of view of security cameras, what witnesses would be able to see, where motion sensors are shaded, and so on. If I show them the same 3D model on a computer screen they get confused and start making threats about disposing of my body in a piggery.

    2. Our current level of information technology is so useless. Did you know that when you place smart phones next to each other they don’t automatically link up to make one big screen? And the app for putting one smart phone in front of one eye and another smart phone in front of the other and watching things in 3D is utter rubbish. Now once we get virtual reality goggles that let people see and manipulate a virtual 3D image in front of them, then I can throw away my lego. But who am I kidding? Pigdog and Spider would never wear goggles that would let someone sneak up behind them and stab them in the back.

  10. One of the biggest imposts on household budgets is housing. I suspect on site 3D printing of homes may ultimately be a winning technology. Whether we will have 3D printers inside those homes is another matter.

  11. This is an area in which I know too little so I will offer no opinion. I bet nobody thought they would hear that from me! πŸ™‚

  12. If you want to try without buying your local hackerspace will have a 3D printer. I paid for most of the makerbot replicator (I not II) at the hobart hackerspace over 18 months ago which is even better than owning it myself outright as these things outdate but will always have a use in a space. Currently have a project that may require titanium printing, which is probably the killer app in this area and these will be run by your local 3D millhouse by the stream. Then there are online print-on-demand places like shapeways.

  13. The public service is still a very long way from being even remotely paperless. Many supervisors still prefer to review work in a printed form (sometimes for multiple iterations), and I have worked in teams in which the practice is to print a letter, sign it, scan it and email the scan to the recipient.

    Most senior execs also still prefer to take paper briefings into meetings.

  14. I think this internet thing is just a passing fad like CB radios were a few decades ago. (hmmm…). Seriously tho, I imagine distant future advances in nano-technology could work well with 3D printing.

  15. I think the printing bureau thing will take off, it’s only a matter of time before someone like Officeworks starts doing it. The problem of copyright/patent parts will probably be ignored because patents (AFAIK) cover *function*, so if you make a replacement part that works, you’ve violated the patent.

    Personally I’m on the fence about getting my own printer because of the cost. For the stuff I want to print resolution is important, and I’d be looking at ABS plus acetone vapour smoothing, which adds another layer of toxic complexity to the process. But I am very much on the fence because Shapeways charge $20 shipping and local printing bureaus are even more expensive for anything non-trivial.

    What I suspect you’ll see is a lot of home tinkerer/crafter types who have sub-$1000 printers at home then farm out the “finished” print job to someone with a higher-quality printer. Especially for novices it’s easy to make mistakes (the software is not there yet), so paying a price premium for high-quality printing of defective models isn’t worth it. We’re also likely to see clubs like Maker groups buying their own recycle/remake gear so they can turn printed waste and recycleable plastics back into filament.

    Right now they’re very much a geek thing. You can really see it with cos-players, there’s an awful lot of printed’n’painted costuming visible already. Add tiny programmable chips like the Arduino and you can craft some pretty amzing toys and trinkets.

  16. The paperless idea was originally envisioned as on-screen versions of paper – like PDFs – replacing physical paper, a kind of electronic microfiche. The real change that has actually bought the paperless office/life is that the notion of paper as the single reference object for particular information has come unstuck. It has been replaced with much more flexible on-screen applications that produce views of information that is virtualised and stored somewhere else. Two things that have allowed this change are the quality and flexibility of the interactive software systems that present the information to its consumers, and, the ubiquity of presentation devices, especially easily transportable devices like phones, laptops and tablets. People who are native tablet/phone users now expect everything to be available on a screen (now) and find paper a nuisance, or even distressing.

    The other big driver for paperlessness is the sheer volume of information. Ever tried printing Wikipedia? It isn’t a good idea. This is a two-way process, increasing computerisation makes data creation easier which in turn requires more computerisation to handle increasing data volume and so on.

  17. 3D printing produces great shapes but at this stage it doesn’t have much control of the internal structure of the material. It’s one kind of dumb stuff. The qualities of strength, flexibility, heat and abrasion resistance, long term stability, and so on are dependent on the internal structure, for example the crystal structure of metals or the chain length and crosslinking of molecules in plastics. (We are moving to the age of nanostructured fabrication.) These features are controlled in the production process by things like temperature, pressure, additives and so on. So you might be able to print an artfully shaped object but you can’t print something that flexes reliably a million times like a car tyre or a knife with a the kind of edge a chef wants.

  18. @TerjeP
    Interesting video. It’s certainly very difficult to predict which of the tantalising directions 3d printing will be successful in. Building construction is one area that badly needs revolutionising, particularly in Australia were the pace of change is glacial and the prices for anything decent are prohibitive.

  19. There is a lot here to comment on.

    The paperless office or rather the minimal paper office is here. We tend to forget the things that we used to print. Today people can spend the whole day developing an idea and only ever print a portion of the material in order to be able to view the progress in a way that cannot be perceived easily from the screen. The documents that are printed tend to be the ones that have a legal aspect ie an invoice, but everything building up to that can be processed electronically.

    3d printing has will find its commercial niches over time. Examples

    design concepts
    spare parts -automotive – plastic – even transparent (tail lights)
    aviation parts in a variety of metals (laser sintering)
    impossible parts ie parts that cannot be created with normal processes
    biological parts
    medical implants
    houses yes a company in China has built a machine that can produce the components for 2 houses per day, they are not pretty houses, but houses just the same.
    finger nail caps
    much more


    the main limitation is that printers require data in a form that is beyond many people’s skill level of more common interest. i think that software can bridge this gap.

    believe it or not 3d printers need not be expensive. Seviceable printers can be built for a few hundred dollars

    Material can be recycled from plastic waste as required on site.


    High precision and exotic material 3d printers are expensive

    low precision printers can be very cheap and be used for doing things such as building plastic or plaster novelties, or making and icing a cake.

    It has just occurred to me that the first 3d printers were probably knitting machines.

    I was talking about this with a colleague who is interested in this area and it occurred to me that someone could create a game (many games) in which the game created shapes or features that interacted competitively.

    but just to demonstrate the degree of creativity possible through this medium


  20. @BilB ” the first 3d printers were probably knitting machines ” … yes, and looms used punch cards to store the patterns & control the machinery. buckminster-fuller saw this coming. consistent with his yankee pragmatism he envisaged the example of a pair of shoes manufactured by a computer controlled robot in a black box using material & style specifications selected by the customer and to the precise measurements of each of the customer’s feet. all being effected through an interface something like a walk-in sit-down picture booth. so much for shoes, not sure if he envisaged one booth per product, though. this was already in one of his books when my family moved to the big smoke in ’65. -a.v.

    p.s. – can you 3-d print cd-roms or lp-roms? seriously. douglas r. hofstader (“goedel, escher, bach”) said even if from an alien culture intelligence could work out the message on any groove. can 3-d printers digitise my record collection without need of a stylus & turntable & elaborate cleaning products? -a.v.

  21. p.s. – can you 3-d print cd-roms or lp-roms? … can 3-d printers digitise my record collection without need of a stylus & turntable & elaborate cleaning products? -a.v.

    Can anyone print CD-ROMs? Not yet. Quite possibly not until we get nanotech, since they involve putting a layer of metal onto a plastic form.

    Digitising things is the opposite process to 3D printing, so no, a 3D printer will never do that. But there are 3D scanners, and they do work but not well enough to scan an LP. Even the expensive attempts at optical record players have AFAIK been failures. The problem is that it’s hard to smooth out the dust and noise without smoothing out the music too. The IRENE project uses cameras rather than laser scanning. It works after a fashion for mono and they’re apparently working on a stereo version.

  22. Michael :
    Interesting video. It’s certainly very difficult to predict which of the tantalising directions 3d printing will be successful in. Building construction is one area that badly needs revolutionising, particularly in Australia were the pace of change is glacial and the prices for anything decent are prohibitive.

    I can think of at least three fairly changes to the way houses are built in australia that you don’t seem to have noticed over the past thirty years.

    [slab vs stump construction, the use of steel factory-cut or pre-fabbed framing rather than timber, and the reasonably extensive use of tiltslab in low-rise residential. Also plumbing fitout’s changed dramatically with the increased use of plastic pipe…]

    Anyway: Terje’s device is kinda useless: concrete is marginal in tension at the best of times, and “we dumped two lumps of half-set concrete next to each other and thought they would bond” isn’t the best of times. Nothing holding the structure together through horizontal cross-sections, which is where the strength needs to be for the wall to function at it’s job of supporting vertical compressive loads from the roof. Double-brick walls are held together by tie rods, for example, otherwise they bulge and bits pop out.

  23. I think a benefit of 3D printers may be an improvement in the reliability of various appliances. As it becomes easier for both repair people and householders to simply print out replacement parts the whole “make money on spare parts” mentality may fade away and more empathsis could be put on competing on reliability. Of course I could be completely wrong about this. It could go the other way and result in more planned obsolescence as more devices are designed to break down beyond repair and force you to buy a new one. After all, the only reason my 2D printer currently works is because I taped over the sensor that stops it printing once it reaches a set number of pages.

  24. @Moz in Oz
    thanks for the reply and clarifications. i ask because these guys got a signal off an 1878 piece of tin foil using optics. albeit laboriously and with high tech.

    our civilization can bounce lasers off the moon & deduce information so i’m surprised its found hard to deduce the signal & replicate the original sound wave that produced a given groove on a vinyl disk, maybe some kind of a virtual optical stylus to simulate the tracking of a particular physical stylus bouncing around in a particular groove. -cheers, a.v.

  25. @Moz in Oz @16:02
    thanks for the reply and clarifications. i ask because these guys got a signal off an 1878 piece of tin foil using optics. albeit laboriously and with high tech.

    our civilization can bounce lasers off the moon & deduce information so i’m surprised its found hard to deduce the signal & replicate the original sound wave that produced a given groove on a vinyl disk, maybe some kind of a virtual optical stylus to simulate the tracking of a particular physical stylus bouncing around in a particular groove. -cheers, a.v.

  26. My goodness. I just saw what people are paying for little plastic figurines of their favorite computer game and comic characters. They look like the things that come free with bottles of coke in Japan but can easily be $75 or more. While home 3D printers need to improve on tolerances and user friendliness, one wouldn’t need to buy many toys for it to pay for itself. Of course, the only reason that the toys are so expensive is that the lack of home 3D printers makes it hard for fans to pirate them, hence they can safely charge through the nose. Makes me wonder what the next step in getting money out of fans will be. You know, I think the real value of cryptographic currencies is this: Fans can use it to send money to the creators of their favorite art and a secure record can be kept of how much money they spend allowing them to compete on who is the biggest fan and willing to waste the most money on getting their fan score higher.

  27. Oh no, the ones I was looking at were just figurines. And they may well have been produced using an industrial 3D printer for all I know. I could give you a link to what I was looking at, but I’m a fan and I don’t want the artist I adore to think I am bad mouthing his bread and butter. Rich Burlew is just so dreamy:


    But even without me giving you a link, it’s easy enough to find examples online. For example I just found out one can get a figure of Star Trek’s Captain Picard for $300 US. And he just sits there. He doesn’t even come with bionic tea drinking action. That’s no fun at all! (You may have heard of Star Trek, it was popular a while back and concerned the adventures of William Shatner who would travel to planets that had a total population of five men and one woman and he would sleep with the woman.)

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