3D printing: Talkin’ bout a revolution

by agwelch

3D printing is the talk of the design world at the moment and has received significant coverage in the mainstream media (The Economist and Newsnight both carrying features).

Working in the design press, I have had my eye on additive manufacturing technologies for a number of years and find the current interest in the sector fascinating.

For New Design magazine, I visited the recent 3D Printshow to judge just how game-changing the technology might be.

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You can’t fault its timing: the inaugural 3D Printshow, which took place in London this October, came at a moment when 3D printing is enjoying an unprecedented level of public interest and national media exposure.

Close up of a 3D printed object

Close up of a 3D printed object

This excitement surrounding digital product development technology is exhilarating but also somewhat bewildering for the design community. After all, we have been using such rapid prototyping techniques for several years; what has happened in the last eighteen months such that, as The Economist would have us believe, 3D printing puts us on the verge of another industrial revolution?

Certainly, ‘desktop’ 3D printers, such as Makerbot’s Replicator 2, are now ‘affordable’ (starting at around $2,000 (£1240)) and a community of 3D file sharers has sprung up. However, does this really amount to a paradigm shift that will see a fundamental change in the mechanics of manufacture and economies of scale?

Desktop 3D printing (image courtesy of Form 1)

Desktop 3D printing (image courtesy of Form 1)

For the ladies and gentlemen of the press, the 3D Printshow began with a private view of a gallery space hosting a number of 3D printed art and sculpture pieces, including footwear, fashion pieces, and jewellery alongside fine art sculpture. Many of the objects on display were intricate and engaging works that were testament to the technological progress made in 3D printing systems over recent years, particularly in the range of materials, colours, and finishes that can successfully be printed.

Matthew Plummer-Fernandez was amongst the artists at the event to explain their work. His collection ‘Digital Natives’ uses 3D printing and scanning technology to, as he puts it, “disrupt” everyday objects and “examine the interplay between the real and digital world”.

'Digital Natives' by Matthew Plummer Fernandez

‘Digital Natives’ by Matthew Plummer Fernandez

The pertinent question, perhaps, is when will 3D printing break out of the gallery and make a real impact on everyday, ‘real-world’ products. Quirky works of art and high fashion are one thing; enabling consumers to print spare parts for a vacuum cleaner; medics to print patient-specific hip replacements; or agricultural communities in the developing world to print farming equipment is quite another.

On the main floor of the exhibition the well-established names of the digital design and 3D printing universe, the likes of Objet, Autodesk, and Ogle Models were present alongside a number of start-up businesses and companies targeting the ‘hobbyist’ market.

The fact that the 3D Printshow was open to the public (who came in their droves) gave the event the feel of an expo rather than a trade show. Visitors were invited to marvel at the potential of the technology with the show’s organisers happy to embrace a hyperbolic tone: “the internet changed the world in the 1990s – the world is about to change again” and “the Future starts here, so print the Legend” being two typical extracts from the show’s brochure.

One model that received a great deal of attention, perhaps because it appealed to futurists and sci-fi fans, was the Prototype for a 3D Printed House by the Softkill design studio. The work, according to its designers, is intended to investigate the architectural potential of the latest selective laser sintering technologies and to test the boundaries of large-scale 3D printing by designing using computer algorithms that micro-organize the printed material itself. The house moves away from heavy, compression based 3D printing, instead proposing lightweight, high-resolution, optimised structures that, at life scale, are manageable truck-sized pieces that can be printed off-site and then assembled on-site.

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Detail from Softkill’s concept for a 3D printed house

Also a crowd pleaser were the many companies showing off the potential of their desktop 3D printers to print various objects – typically toys, puzzles and trinkets – on demand.

A Makerbot Replicator 2 in action

A Makerbot Replicator 2 in action

UK software house Digital Forming were manning the ‘Digital Co-Design Bar’. Here visitors could test a collaborative design platform that would allow design-led companies to set up online customization businesses.

Designers import virtual product designs (using CAD software) and compose a ‘co-design’ experience by setting parameters within a 3D environment. In practice, this meant I could sit at a computer and play around customizing an iphone case with various textures and accessories. Once you are finished fiddling, your design is sent to one of the company’s network of 3D printers across the world for on-demand production and dispatch.

There are clearly the foundations of a vibrant community of amateur (or perhaps that should be ‘semi-professional’ considering the technology gives anyone the opportunity to design, manufacture and market) 3D printers in place. My question is to what extent this community will ever grow beyond a niche subculture.

Makerbot, whose recently launched Replicator 2 was undoubtedly the star of the show, already hosts ‘Thingiverse’ – an online platform for designers to upload and share printable 3D designs. Is this the stirrings of a model that will challenge the principle of volume manufacture?

At the moment the world of desktop 3D printing is, to an extent, a geeks’ subculture – but then haven’t geeks been responsible for some of the world’s most revolutionary ideas? Just look at the internet, Facebook and Star Trek conventions.

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