A Hybrid Machine Joins 3-D Printing And Human Handicraft [Video]

Haptic Intelligentsia is a rapid-prototyping machine and a snobby Brooklyn craftsman rolled into one.

Joong Han Lee calls his master’s thesis at the Design Academy Eindhoven “a human prototyping system.” Which makes it sound like some kind of dystopian baby-making machine in a Margaret Atwood novel. In truth, Haptic Intelligentsia is both saner and stranger than that: It’s a 3-D printer that requires human hands to physically build the objects it spits out. Think of it as a rapid-prototyping machine and a snobby Brooklyn craftsman rolled into one.


The diagrams and video above do a good job of demonstrating how it works. In short: You’ve got a box-like machine with a robotic arm clamped to a glue gun and a pair of gloves inside. Stick your hands in the gloves, grab onto the gun, and the robot arm gently guides your hands around a virtual object–a vase–that Han pre-programmed into the system. “The robotic arm will give a sensation that you are actually touching the contour of the virtual object, with a tip of the glue gun,” Lee tells Co.Design. “If the user moves the glue gun around in the air, they will feel a subtle haptic force in the area where the virtual object is constructed.”

So your hands are controlled somewhat but the amount of pressure you exert on the gun–and, in turn, the amount of glue that oozes out–is entirely up to you. What’s more, the robot is only meant as a guide; you can disobey it all you want (and disobey people do, as you’ll note in the rather, uh, creative vases above). What you end up with, then, are vases in which no two designs ever look exactly the same. They’re digitally produced objects that betray all the messy evidence of handicraft.

The idea, Han says, is to humanize the 3-D printing process–to give “the user a tactile relationship to the virtual object.” It might seem like an irrelevant exercise. The whole point of 3-D printing is that it doesn’t require human skill. You just design something on a computer, send the file to the printer, and poof, it materializes before you. But the resurgence of craft, from home-brewed beer in San Francisco to handmade knives in Brooklyn, indicates that perhaps we’re not mere slaves to convenience: For all the appeal of instantaneous production, we still like getting our hands dirty.

[Images courtesy of JoongHan Lee]

About the author

Suzanne LaBarre is the editor of Co.Design. Previously, she was the online content director of Popular Science and has written for the New York Times, the New York Observer, Newsday, I.D.