Management

The American View: The Spectre of Failure (Now in 3D!)

My 3D printer mocks me. It’s useless as anything but a paperweight. Or, at least, I can’t get it to work. Rather than smash it like a petulant adolescent, I intend to learn how to use this thing. Until then, it serves as a reminder that new technology is inherently difficult to understand. Therefore, we need to be accommodating and encouraging towards new users.

There’s a … thing … sitting behind me as I write this. It looms over me like a cursed idol. It’s not particularly large. It doesn’t make noise or move around on its own. It just sits there ... mocking me for my repeated failures. I don’t dare throw it out or give it the swift kick I sometimes feel it deserves. No, I leave it alone. Then, every time I see it, it reminds me, that I’m not as technologically savvy as I’d like to be. It’s … my completely-useless 3D printer.

Let’s back up: I’m a nerd. [1] I play a lot of table-top games with family and friends. Some games require maps or illustrations to help a scene come alive. In 2007, I bought my first colour 3D paper models set. I’d download PDFs, print them on cardstock, cut out the components (walls, roof sections, etc.), and assemble them with folds, tucks, clear tape, and glue. This game us 3D buildings and terrain pieces, all at scale with the miniatures we already used. It was a ton of work – especially for complicated designs – but it paid off. The addition of 3D models increased everyone’s enjoyment on game day.

Several years later 3D printing became a thing. One of the companies I’d bought 3D paper models from started dabbling in 3D .STL files. Their new line operated on the same principles as their paper models: customers pay to download the design, then print as many copies as they like. Unlike the paper versions, these plastic pieces could have lots of detail and were study enough to handle getting dropped, knocked over, or soggy. There were two downsides: first, you had to paint your own printed products. Second, you had to have access to your own expensive 3D printer.

I asked several friends and family members to test run on the 3D printers they had access to through school or friends; nothing came of that. Eventually, I accepted that I’d have to get my own. Prices were coming down and quality was improving. After months of saving up, I decided to get a pre-assembled and ready-to-use Prusa i3 Mk 3. Everything I’d read said that these printers were the best value for your dollar. I was excited.

Instructor helping students on electronic courseI daresay I was as excited as these stock photo models posing in front of what is either a 3D printer or an espresso machine.

So was everyone else in the world, it seemed. It took nearly six months from when I paid for it for my printer to be built, shipped, cleared through customs and finally delivered. Still, I had it! By then, I also had a library of two dozen designs to try out. I unboxed the machine, assembled the last few parts, read the manual, watched the manufacturer’s introductory videos, and set out to print a simple test item. My boys and I watched in fascination as the printer precisely laid down a circular base the size of a pound coin. Then it started printing a second layer over the top of the base. Then something strange happened … the base lifted off of the steel baseplate. It dragged along, stuck to the print head. Instead of creating an object, the printer was simply depositing hot plastic in a growing glob. We powered the unit down and did our best to clean up the mess.

We weren’t mad … at first. It was only a few cents worth of plastic wasted. Surely this was just ‘teething trouble’ for the printer. The unit had been tested and certified by the factory, so it surely had to work. We cleaned the print head, recalibrated the unit according to the manual, and tried again. Same result. We performed all the troubleshooting steps listed in the manual. Same result. We re-watched the troubleshooting videos on YouTube. Same result.

To date, this shiny new printer of mine has failed at 100% of the print jobs that we’ve attempted. It has literally never worked once. It’s always the same problem at the same stage of production. You’d think that would make for an easy fix, right? Google the precise issue and find a forum post that explains a fix. In reality, I trawled through two dozen user forums and FAQs that all advised the same two corrective actions: clean the print head and recalibrate. That … didn’t help.

The next logical step was to find a forum of kindred would-be home printers. Surely someone else had experienced my problem and would have an easy-to-understand suggestion for me. I checked social media. True, there were a bunch of enthusiast groups full of opinions on all things related to home 3D printing. Unfortunately, they were all communicating in insider jargon. As an outsider, I realized I’d have to dedicate anywhere from 20 to 100 hours of research just to be able to articulate my query and comprehend their answer(s). Those were leisure hours that I simply didn’t have.

Writer’s CrampAfter attending to household chores, volunteer work, and typing these columns ever week, I barely have enough ‘free time’ left over to sleep. I’m not awake enough to dredge Reddit forums for potential jargon translations.

So, that’s where I left it. My Prusa i3 Mk 3 is perched on a firesafe directly behind my office chair, unmoving, useless, and gathering dust. I’ve paid for a complicated, fragile, and unintuitive machine that doesn’t do what I tell it to even though it was billed as ‘easy enough for a non-engineer to use.’ Meanwhile, everyone I’ve encountered that owns one condescendingly snubs owners who can’t ‘hack it.’ My experience with 3D printers has – to date – been universally exhausting, infuriating, and depressing.

That’s why I leave my printer right where it is. Not out of guilt or some twisted need for revenge, but as a reminder to always maintain perspective. My electric doorstop reminds me that what I’m currently going through with 3D printers is exactly what my older friends, relatives, and co-workers went through in the early days of personal computers.

I first tried learning computers in junior high. I took a programming class in Apple BASIC. I loved the class and wanted to buy my own PC. Unfortunately, my paper route only paid $5 a month. A $1,300 Apple IIe was simply out of reach. I tried learning them again in high school. A buddy of mine owned an Apple IIe, so we tried typing our term paper on it instead of using an electric typewriter. We completely botched it since the software was unintuitive, had no manual, and no one in the family knew how to make it work. Again, success was out of our reach.

Flash forward five years. I’d learned about computers at university. I’d taken my disability pay for an on-the-job injury and bought a computer of my own. When I arrived at my first active duty Army post, I was one of a handful of people in the unit who knew enough about computers to support them. I became the tech support person for our company … then for our battalion ,… then for the entire medical group.

Very old computers on an office deskI owned a Macintosh SE/30 (the one on the left) and managed to salvage enough parts from the base salvage yard to build an IBM PC-AT (the one on the right) for my company orderly room. That earned us a reputation as the technology ‘centre of excellence’ for the group.

PCs were becoming mainstream by then. Still, most of our older workers didn’t have one, weren’t interested in one, and refused to use one unless compelled. Why? Because PCs at the time were complicated, fragile, unintuitive machines that only ‘worked’ when the operator performed each process step exactly right. Even then, they’d fail half the time without. The operator was expected to troubleshoot their hardware and software, often with no manuals and little (if any) formal training. People would ask for help, only to be condescended to by self-taught amateur enthusiasts who had their own impenetrable insider jargon. The onus was always on the operator to become proficient even though there were few (if any) routes to get educated.

As you’d expect, people became frustrated, exhausted, and even bitter when it came to PCs. I couldn’t blame them. I understood what they were experiencing because I’d walked their path for years before I found a sympathetic community of computer science nerds at university to help get me up-to-speed. So, I strived to do what I could for my community to help get people acclimated to their new PCs. I tried to be the ‘helpful guide’ that got them past the most difficult parts of initial proficiency until they were confident enough to troubleshoot on their own.

That’s why I haven’t smashed my darned 3D printer yet: I’m pretty sure that the problem isn’t anything I’d done, it’s likely something obscure that I don’t know how or where to look for. [2] My problem is that I don’t have a guide – yet! – to help me get past the exasperating early days. Hopefully I’ll get there. Until then, my 3D printer reminds me every time I return to my office that I need to avoid jargon when I write, explain things such that a wide range of readers can understand my intended message, and never condescend to someone who’s just starting out.

New technology is always frustrating before it becomes thoroughly mainstream. Anyone that’s not an early adopter is likely to get increasingly locked out of the enthusiasts’ movement as those-that-are-involved accelerate away in proprietary knowledge from those-that-aren’t. This is natural. It’s also counterproductive. Technology that’s restricted to a temple of pompous first-movers isn’t going to change the world for the better.


[1] Like this comes as a surprise

[2] Like the old DOS joke that you have to set ‘bugs = OFF’ at the command line.

Pop Culture Allusion: None this week


POC is Keil Hubert, keil.hubert@gmail.com

Follow him on Twitter at @keilhubert.

You can buy his books on IT leadershipIT interviewinghorrible bosses and understanding workplace culture at the Amazon Kindle Store.

Keil Hubert is the head of Security Training and Awareness for OCC, the world’s largest equity derivatives clearing organization, headquartered in Chicago, Illinois. Prior to joining OCC, Keil has been a U.S. Army medical IT officer, a U.S.A.F. Cyberspace Operations officer, a small businessman, an author, and several different variations of commercial sector IT consultant.

Keil deconstructed a cybersecurity breach in his presentation at TEISS 2014, and has served as Business Reporter’s resident U.S. ‘blogger since 2012. His books on applied leadership, business culture, and talent management are available on Amazon.com. Keil is based out of Dallas, Texas.

Shares

Get our latest features in your inbox

Join our community of business leaders