• Efe Alpay

Malfunktion: Initial Experiments on Connecting a Bass Guitar to a 3D Printer

Updated: Oct 10

Before you read: The article below was written for a PhD study that I was conducting @ METU Department of Industrial Design back in 2013. Some of the terms and links might be old but the concepts still seems relevant and because of that I wanted to publish it here.


Open source movement beginning with software has lead to DIY and Maker movements in which every project is shared with the rest of the world. Enabling other makers throughout the world to make the same or modified things by themselves and even lead to the way of innovation by derivation. The essence of this open nature and the will to share with others is transforming the way we design and make things. When this open-source and maker culture is combined with the newly emerging crowd funding environment, new pathways are paved that empower individuals as designers and manufacturers. One of the consequences of this open-source, maker, DIY movements is the field of 3D printing. In its simplest terms, 3D printing is manufacturing of 3D and usable objects and parts by adding material layer by layer in autonomous machines.

3D printing (additive manufacturing, rapid manufacturing as a more technical description), having an intensive effect on the way objects are manufactured disturbs the division of labor as we know it from the beginning of the industrial revolution and mechanization of manufacturing. Marx’s labor depends on the time and effort of the worker who produces the objects, even if he does not need that object, in return of a fixed wage. His labour, manufacturing power, is estranged from himself by the owner of the factory or company he works for. This as Marx argues, causes an alienation of the worker from: his labor, himself, and the artifact made by himself as well as from his fellow workers.

This system based on the possession of capital has not disappeared in the modern world. The design companies are hiring designers to own their labor, design, in return of a fixed salary. This way, the company owns every product idea and design that its employer has produced (Johnson, n.d.). Since design is related with the transformation of ideas into tangible products, this process requires extensive facilities related with manufacturing. The process of realization of a product, when prototyping, machining and molding requirements are considered, can generally only be afforded by established design companies that own enough capital, thus power, to make this transformation process happen. Therefore, the designers are bound to the corporations or established companies if they are willing to realize their profession (Johnson, n.d.). As a consequence of this boundary of designers, they are generally condemned to become estranged from their labor. Even the high end companies that are driven by innovation and provide special opportunities and above average wages to their designers cause this estrangement since in the end all their workers’, designers’, work belongs to the company.

Despite the traditional manufacturing methods, additive manufacturing or 3D printing as a more popular term, provides a completely different paradigm of object manufacturing and possession while also changing the need for labor in Marxist terms. However, in order to understand this paradigm shift in manufacturing, the roots of this change should be explored.

Origins of the spread of 3D Printing

Additive manufacturing has been an active field for over three decades mainly serving to the engineering and design departments of large corporations for prototyping reasons. The usage of the machines in the industry are generally for prototyping and verification reasons, as well as for manufacturing of highly complex parts that are needed only in small quantities. Because of the intellectual property of these technologies related with additive manufacturing (E.g. Stereolithography, Fused Deposition Modeling, 3D Printing, Electron Beam Melting, Selective Laser Sintering) are owned by established companies, the development of these technologies and machines had been in control of these companies. In 2004, however, starting with an open-source experimental project by Dr. Adrian Bowyer (Bath University Department of Mechanical Engineering), called RepRap, the myth of these professional machines used for rapid prototyping and manufacturing slowly started to transform.

Bowyer’s initial aim was to create a low cost 3D printer that can print parts for the next generation machines, thus replicating itself. It was designed to use common parts such as bolts and screws and simple solderable electronics to control the machine. Some of its parts were designed however from ABS plastic that can be manufacturable by the machine itself. Most importantly, all of the construction schemes, electronics schemes and software was published as open-source and documented in order for others to be able to build the same machine or develop it. This concept actually completely contradicts with the capitalistic system’s values since once a company purchases such a machine, then there is no need to buy parts or supplies since the machine itself is already capable of making its own parts (Bradshaw, Bowyer, & Haufe, 2010). Bradshaw, Bowyer and Haufe explains the case as:

Conventional industry has little use for this idea: why sell a machine to your customers that means that they never need to come back to you to buy another, never need to buy spares, or even that allows them to go into production themselves in direct competition with you? But owning such a machine would have real advantages for people in general: anyone who had one could use it to make things, and could also make another such machine and give that to a friend. This is an interesting example of a failure of the market: such a self-replicating machine is an object that people would value, but that it is in no one’s interest to sell. For these reasons it was decided to make the machine and to give all its designs away free under the GNU General Public License on the web.

In terms of Marx’s capitalistic system, it might be thought that such a machine would bring the collapse of it onto itself because RepRap does not bring profits to the seller. However, many RepRaps exist throughout the world, that has inspired other businesses to make profit by building upon the same technology. MakerBot, Fab@Home, BitsFromBytes, Ultimaker are few examples from the many who have made derivative machines inspired from RepRap and turned these into business by selling low-cost 3D printers to customers around the world. Moreover, most of the mentioned businesses release their build plans and software as open-source letting other people to make derivatives of their products. Despite the contradictory business model of open-source with capitalism, MakerBot has granted a 10,000,000 USD venture capital funding and BitsFromBytes has been acquired by 3D Systems Corp. (One of the world leaders in the additive manufacturing industry) in the last years (the demands supporting these successes are beyond the scope of this paper).

RepRap project paved the way for individuals to own a 3D printer and use them for their individualized needs. Although the initial aim of the project was to make parts for other RepRaps, it did not take much time for the users to produce functional parts related with their daily lives. Lost bath plugs, broken dishwasher buttons, bathroom curtain hangers, custom toys, decorative objects, tool holders and things that cannot be imagined before came out of these machines in the following years. Before RepRap, the perception of 3D printers and related additive manufacturing processes was confined within the professional practice fields and projects with extensive budgets. As well as the production of ready to use parts such as in aerospace industry, these technologies were mainly used prototyping reasons. Reprap has dissolved the long-term used myth of prototyping inside a term that is more understandable by the society, 3D printing and caused invention of new usage ways of this technology in daily lives. There actually pioneers existed in the usage of additive manufacturing to produce end use products like Janne Kytannen, Lionel Theodore Dean and Bathsheeba Grossman. However, the products and processes they designed are more for the sake of high design rather than producing objects related with daily life, functional, and low-cost objects.

As a result, these open-sourced machines caused the creation of market for low-cost 3D printers which also attracted big companies into the field. These developments lead the facilitation of the usage and increase in reachability of this technology, or object manufacturing power, by wider audiences including consumers. Although still not being a mainstream phenomenon, the spread of 3D printing has evoked great interest from DIY, a new segment called pro-sumers, tinkerers, entrepreneurs, and obviously designers.

Domain of digital interfaces

The required process for 3D printing starts either with designing a 3D solid model in CAD software or downloading a printable object from websites such as Although most designers are familiar with CAD modeling software, such processes and the knowledge required to design printable parts are far more inaccessible for most users. Thus, online 3D printing services such as,, and offers their users parametric interfaces to customize the pre-modeled 3d objects according to their desires. However, all of the mentioned processes still exist in the digital and virtual domain rather than being a part of the physical daily life. Because of this reason, the reachability or the usability of the technology still remains in a confined domain of technology enthusiasts, designers, DIY’ers and similar.

After the modeling process, the 3D CAD model Is sliced into layers in the computer software and the machine pathways are calculated. Hitting the print button sends the calculated movement data to the machine and starts the materialization process of the design intent frozen at the moment of this action. After this point, human intervention into the material and the process is not allowed, thus excluding the man. On the contrary to our real life interaction with material which includes a continuous and hands-on interaction with material either through mechanized tools or by our hands. The connection between the computer and the printer’s extruding nozzle, the idea and the materializer in other words, seem to create a sublime field that no humans are allowed to intervene. A field that is untouchable by man due to its digital nature and absence of a decent tool for controlling this process. At the moment that material is extruded through the nozzle of the machine, this digital process turns into a part of a physical object that is frozen in time and space.

The Bass Guitar and 3D Printer

The experimental video related with this paper attempts to intrude to this “sublime” field and cause errors and deviations from the original movement data sent to the machine. In this intervention, the bass guitar acts like a divine hand that forces the machine out of its original path dictated by the computer, introducing the essence of the beauty of errors that are uplifted in hand-made artifacts.

This study is an initial attempt on the exploration of the applicability of using a musical instrument, a bass guitar, as a physical interface for intervening the process of 3D printing. The main aim however, is to modify this completely autonomous process with manual intervention by connecting physical controllers like a bass guitar to the extruding nozzle of the machine to make deviations and distortions from the original model that is sent to the machine. The reason for this pursuit is the continuous digitization and virtualization of the object design and creation process that mainly consists of specialized software. These processes require specialized knowledge in the field of CAD modeling tools not even mentioning the advanced software knowledge and process know-how to pursue this creation process. In real life however, our relationship with matter is still more physical than digital. This materialistic relationship intrinsic to human nature manifests a physical interface between object creation and individual as a more accessible field among the society. In other words, individuals that are not so capable of using CAD tools or even computers can be empowered with the use of physical interfaces that let them interact with the process of object manufacturing thus facilitating the liberation of the act of object manufacturing among masses.

Object: malfunktioned tube

Figure 1. Objects manufactured

Figure 2. Objects manufactured close-up

Figure 3. Object manufactured through the intervention of bass guitar

This experiment represents a real time intervention to the objectification process of a simple form, tube. The reason for choosing such a shape has been the intent to be able to see the deviations easily on the surface of the object.

The manual intervention during the process of objectification introduces new identities to a mechanically, and autonomously manufactured object. The strokes and punches on the guitar strings transform to a physical representations incarnated as blobs on the surface of the object itself solidifying the moment of the guitar session. So such kind of interventions on the object making in a way acts like a photographic film that in the moment of exposure to light transforms into a frozen moment in time. Then the object becomes a unique representation of time and space, in a way gaining an artistic value. Of course, the authenticity and aura of such an object can easily be detached from the object and destroyed in means of the mechanical reproduction discussed by Benjamin (2008). For example, such an object can be molded and manufactured in series leaving no place to authenticity. The tube also acts like a record plate but in three dimensions. However, the most important implication of this intervention process lies in the fact that the user is empowered to modify and customize the object during the manufacturing process, a process which previously no “user” or “consumer” is let to intervene. Since the process does not involve human labor but only consists of machine time, the user or consumer is left alone with the object s/he wants to create, fusing Marx’s alienated representations of the self with the man itself. Thus, the normal user is empowered as being the manufacturer. But not forced to produce that s/he does not need, rather producing things according to his/her taste or need. Of course the process used here (the bass guitar as the interface) has a very limited control over the object. But the main argument here lies in the fact that being able to control the form and manufacturing of an object with a physical interface reachable by the majority of a society rather than through software interfaces that are available only to a minority that have access to and knowledge about this technology.

Works Cited

Benjamin, W. (2008). The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. ePenguin.

Bradshaw, S., Bowyer, A., & Haufe, P. (2010). The intellectual property implications of low-cost 3D printing. ScriptEd, 7(1), 5–31.

Johnson, C. S. (n.d.). Kickstarter - 100K Stray Toasthed Pull Toys by C. Retrieved January 11, 2012, from

Marx, K. (1932). Economic & Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844. Retrieved October 7, 2012, from

Do not hesitate to contact me to discuss a possible project or learn more about my work.
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© 2020 by Efe Alpay.