3-D-Printed Time Series Plates

Stackable data for a new point of view. The unusable mess comes for free.

Ever since my recent experience with 3-D printing, I’ve been itching for an excuse to print more. It’s a slow process that takes much longer than graphs rendered on a computer screen. But maybe that’s why it’s so satisfying.

In the end, I can hold the data, touch it, and look at it from all angles. The printing process also requires that I step away from my desk, which my wife has been gently suggesting I do more of lately.

Then this physical chart bubbled up in my feed:

It was made in the 1950s. It shows energy usage in the United Kingdom from 1951 through 1954. Each card represents hourly usage in a day, so you can view the data as a whole, or you can pick out individual cards to look at segments of time more closely.

It’s awesome.

So in an effort to try my own, I pulled monthly unemployment data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, consulted my own tutorial on prepping data in R for 3-D printing, and printed a plate for each year. This is what I got:

There are a lot of things to like. I can view from any angle:

I can “zoom in” to any year by thumbing through the years like index cards:

And I can lay it out however I want:

Of course, as we all know, with great power comes great responsibility. Throughout the process I’d be holding a stack of the plates, and because they were so slippery, I would drop all of them in a scattered mess. Organizing sure was fun. Luckily I labeled each one as they came out.

In retrospect, I would’ve used a dataset that was cyclical, so that I could see more of a pattern from stacking. It would look more like a rolling landscape than a spiky one.

I also would’ve encoded the holes or notches on the bottom to piece the plates together, but I realized the the need after printing, so I used a drill instead. My drilling wasn’t especially precise.

But that’s all part of the fun. As a slow work in progress, I learned more about the printing process. Next time: new dataset, color-coding, and a better mounting mechanism.

3-D Printing: How to Prepare the Data in R

I used a similar process to get the data in right format for printing.

Become a member. Support an independent site. Make great charts.

Join Now

Membership

Learn the process of making, designing, and exploring data graphics. Your support goes directly to FlowingData, an independently run site.

What You Get

  • Instant access to tutorials on how to make and design data graphics
  • Source code and files to use with your own data
  • In-depth courses on how to make great charts
  • Hand-picked links to tools and resources
  • Members-only newsletter

Favorites

A Day in the Life: Work and Home

I simulated a day for employed Americans to see when and where they work.

Graphical perception – learn the fundamentals first

Before you dive into the advanced stuff – like just about everything in your life – you have to learn the fundamentals before you know when you can break the rules.

Real Chart Rules to Follow

There are rules—usually for specific chart types meant to be read in a specific way—that you shouldn’t break. When they are, everyone loses. This is that small handful.

Life expectancy changes

The data goes back to 1960 and up to the most current estimates for 2009. Each line represents a country.