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3D printing is taking art and industry into a new, futuristic dimension, as Simon Brooke reports

12 min read

In Germany a company has developed a “printer” that “prints” three-dimensional objects that are smaller than the diameter of a human hair. In Jalalabad, Afghanistan, where the basic infrastructure is almost completely destroyed, young people are creating objects that they have designed themselves on hi-tech machinery. In Barcelona groups of students are getting together to do something similar, while NASA is “printing” the hi-tech parts that it needs for its space craft.

At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, using similar equipment, students have been creating, among other things, a web browser for parrots and an alarm clock you have to wrestle with to switch off.

Fashion and jewellery designer Michael Schmidt , who is known for creating elegant yet edgy clothing and accessories for Madonna and Lady Gaga, created this 3D printed dress for Dita von Teese. Schmidt says: “A designer’s work is constrained by the tools and materials at his or her disposal. 3D printing removes many of these limitations and with that the barriers imposed on one’s imagination.”

Fashion and jewellery designer Michael Schmidt , who is known for creating elegant yet edgy clothing and accessories for Madonna and Lady Gaga, created this 3D printed dress for Dita von Teese. Schmidt says: “A designer’s work is constrained by the tools and materials at his or her disposal. 3D printing removes many of these limitations and with that the barriers imposed on one’s imagination.”

It might sound crazy, but welcome to world of 3D printing and its allied technologies, including the “fab lab”. With this fast-growing new science, essentially you design something on your computer and press “print”. In the near future you’ll be able to do the same thing with something that you buy.

Your 3D printer builds up the object gradually, either by depositing material, such as plastic or some form of carbon, from a jet, or with layer upon layer of plastic or metal dust-fixed with adhesive or a laser. The object is thereby built up by adding material, one layer at a time; hence the technology is also known “additive” manufacturing.

After a few hours, or days for larger, more complex pieces, what was on your screen appears on your “printer” as a document would, except of course, this is a three-dimensional object.

“3D printing has the potential to revolutionise the way we make almost everything,” observed US President Obama earlier this year. The Economist magazine recently compared it to the birth of the printing press, the steam engine and the transistor.

The analogy might seem overblown, but this new technology certainly removes the need for transport and logistics, which makes it both cheaper and greener – two very important factors for manufacturers, retailers and distributors. It also has huge positives for parts of the world where moving objects around is difficult, hazardous because of the lack of a transport network, or because of lawlessness.

“We’ve seen a revolution in online shopping over the last few years and over the next couple of decades this will be the next stage,” says James Milroy, a retail consultant who has worked with eBay and Amazon among others. “You’ll be able to buy something in a couple of clicks and then ‘print it out’ and have it a few hours or even minutes later – no messing around with deliveries and packaging.”

3D-printed house by Janjaap Ruijssenaars

3D-printed house by Janjaap Ruijssenaars

As well as retail, 3D printing has profound implications for almost all other sectors. So far it’s been very much the preserve research and development labs where prototypes have to be created. But once products pass through this stage and start to be manufactured, 3D printing will also be increasingly relevant. Items in markets, ranging from automotive to healthcare and from personal electronics to large engineering, all have the potential for production in this way.

For example, Dutch architect Janjaap Ruijssenaars has unveiled a design for the world’s first 3D printed house. His Landscape House takes the form of a continuous looping Möbius strip. However, its complex design is not made of reinforced cast concrete but layers of printed sand.

3dprintuk, based in Brighton, on England’s south coast, is typical of the small companies that are springing up to exploit the new technology and meet the growing demand. Customers and projects are hugely varied, says founder Nick Allen. In one case 3dprintuk was asked to replicate a set of alloy wheels of a customer’s real, full-sized car for a remote-controlled car. The customer sent in a photo of the wheel and the dimensions, and Allen simply “printed” them out.

“We get asked to do all kinds of things,” says Allen, who started the company with an inheritance. “I’m constantly finding new applications for it, and we’re getting more and more inquiries from individuals and companies who want to have something made far more quickly and cheaply than most ordinary workshops could do it.”

This new design and manufacturing tool is also empowering people in some of the poorest countries of the world. It has huge implications for aid and the alleviation of poverty. Techfortrade is a charity that promotes innovative technology in developing countries. It intends to make 3D printing a sustainable technology by integrating it into poor rural communities to help regenerate local businesses. Last year it held a competition to find the best use of 3D printing technology in the developing world.

The winners, Washington Open Object Fabricators (WOOF), received a prize of $100,000 to help towards implementing their project. WOOF’s invention will enable waste plastic to be used as filament for 3D printing machines to create new products. As a result of their win they are now working with a US-based NGO called Water for Humans to address local issues in water and sanitation in Oaxaca, Mexico.

“Our idea is about improving the lives of people in developing nations for the long term by providing access to vital facilities that others may take for granted, using sustainable processes,” says WOOF’s Bethany Weeks.

You’ll be able to buy something in a couple of clicks and then “print it out” and have it a few hours or even minutes later – no messing around with deliveries and packaging

Already a host of companies is putting 3D printing into practice. Arcam, based in Gothenburg, Sweden, is typical of these new-style manufacturers. It is seeing demand move from beyond researchers and product designers creating prototypes into mainstream manufacturing. It currently operates in two main markets – orthopaedic implants and aerospace – and its principal material is titanium. Clients are based around the world with about a quarter of business coming from Asia.

However, Italy with its traditions of design and artisan manufacturing, is another thriving market and the company believes that the UK will also become the largest source of demand for its products, outside the United States, within a few years.

“We’re reaching a tipping point when it comes to manufacturing by 3D printing,” says Arcam’s area sales manager Lars Ryberg. “Over the last three years or so there’s been a growth in demand from manufacturers around the world.” The ability to speed up the manufacturing process for prototypes is quite remarkable. “The benefit is that you can easily create new design iterations. For example, if you want to cast a prototype model in titanium, it can take five to seven months. Then, once you’ve finally looked at it you realise to you need to make a few changes and the whole process starts again. However, with 3D printing you can create your prototype over the space of a few nights.”

The company’s clients include suppliers to NASA as well as manufacturers of prosthetic limbs and artificial joints. Cost saving and efficiency are important not just at the design process, and increasingly are being recognised during manufacturing.

“Our machines are additive not subtractive, in other words you’re adding more of the material not taking it away,” explains Ryberg. “If you’re making a prototype or a production model, you’ll probably find yourself grinding away up to 95 per cent of the material but, with our 3D printing the system, it is far more efficient and you can recycle the powder that our printers don’t use after they’ve finished printing.”

Janina Alleyne Exoskeleton 3D-printed shoes

Janina Alleyne Exoskeleton
3D-printed shoes

Mobile internet technology is inevitably playing its part in driving demand for 3D printed goods. MakieLab, a London-based start-up, has released an iPad app called Makies Doll Factory. The company has developed a system of creating objects using game technologies, such as 3D Studio Max, and developing them into 3D-printable toys complete with internal working joints. According to co-founder and chief executive Alice Taylor, although this software manufacturing platform, which can produce 3D printed shapes, might have started with dolls, it could easily be used for a range of other products. Both the demand and the technology are there, she believes.

Within just two days of the app being released, some 4,500 dolls had been made and last summer it raised $1.4million from early-stage investors – evidence that this technology has major commercial applications.

Part of the appeal and the potential of 3D printing is its democratising effect on research, development and manufacturing. By slashing production costs and requirements, it’s giving more and more people the opportunity to have their own manufacturing facility in their studio or even their home.

There are, however, drawbacks with 3D printing. At the moment it still takes many hours, even days to create an object. It’s being produced from something on screen, so that object must be very accurately designed or the “print out” will not work properly. With traditional prototypes, a human maker can point this out before the product is finished.

Also, as with music, film and text, technology-led democratisation certainly has its upside as hundreds of millions of free-music Napster fans have discovered, but the implications for intellectual property are serious.

“This is something that many companies need to start thinking about urgently,” says William Davis, an intellectual property lawyer. “As the technology develops, millions of people around the world are going to be able to access plans and diagrams of well-known, desirable products and they’re going to be able to create them without paying for them.” He points to the futile efforts of large record labels to prevent file sharing.

One 3D printing maverick caused serious concerns by publishing details for printable gun parts. They claim to have had more than 400,000 downloads. Its founder, a law student called Cody Wilson, has now launched a new site, Defcad, which describes itself as “the world’s first unblockable, open-source search engine for 3D printable parts”. Wilson argues that the 3D printing revolution will only take off if it can escape the dead hand of the corporate world.

This new “Wiki-manufacturing” might inspire young people – as well as an army of geeks and neo-anarchists – but for designers, manufacturers and all kinds of organisations it could be a nightmare, agues lawyer Davis. “They need to act now and they’ve got to start lobbying government and regulators to ensure that this exciting new development is used in a positive, constructive way.”

Catching counterfeiters in the Far East and impounding fake goods is keeping the authorities busier than ever, but what happens when anyone can create their own version at home?

However exciting and revolutionary it might be, 3D printing is one part of a new chapter in manufacturing technology. Professor Neil Gershenfeld is director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Center for Bits and Atoms. His laboratory is breaking down boundaries between the digital and physical worlds, from creating molecular quantum computers to virtuosic musical instruments. Technology from his lab has been used in settings, including New York’s Museum of Modern Art and rural Indian villages, the White House and the World Economic Forum.

Within just two days of the app being released some 4,500 dolls had been made

He compares the discussion of 3D printing with comment about the microwave oven in the 1950s. “Microwaves are useful for some things, but they didn’t replace the rest of your kitchen,” he says. Gershenfeld believes that, with the growth of so-called fab labs, where objects can be fabricated direct from the computer, the entire kitchen is about to change.

“The computer programme doesn’t just describe the thing, but becomes the thing,” he says. This revolution is turning data directly into things, known as digital fabrication, rather than going through the traditional research to prototype design to manufacture process. “We can programme the growth of materials so that the code doesn’t just describe them, but becomes the material itself.”

He cites the example in aerospace where linked carbon fibres do not require “a billion-dollar factory”, but can instead come from a computer that winds the necessary fibres into a composite structure, which is then fully reversible when its life cycle is over.

It’s a world, according to Gershenfeld, where computers and other machines will be able to sense wear and tear or breakdowns, and then create the necessary parts to complete these repairs. It’s a world that, in the time it’s taken you to read this article, has come a few steps closer.