There are moments when you feel you are living in the future. Like when you realise it is now possible to print practically anything from jewellery to grandfather clocks to lampshades and candle sticks. How did we get to the point where, at the click of a button, the little code of naughts and ones that make up a digital blueprint can be instantly translated into a physical object? It’s like 3D printing just snuck up on us and we suddenly have the power to transfer 3D designs from anywhere to anywhere else over the net and print off anything at a moment’s notice. This is insanely cool.
But how does it work? The 3D printing process, sometimes called “additive manufacturing”, uses liquid polymers or metal powders to construct objects a fraction of a millimetre at a time. The cool thing is that 3D printers work almost identically to conventional printers, with a print head that moves back and forth in straight lines depositing material on a 2D plane. One layer builds on another to create an object. The technology has been around for a while; architects and industrial designers have quietly been using 3D printing to create fast, accurate models of their designs for ages. Only recently has the process been used to forge commercial products.
3D printing could eventually reduce the entire manufacturing process to a print run. However, unlike a traditional production line, 3D printing is going to encourage the customisation of products. Changes in design incur zero retooling costs when using a printer, so instead of creating a mass output of exact replicas each item will be precisely tailored to a customer. If you want, say, a flute embossed with pink frangipanis, then your wish could soon be a reality, at little to no extra cost, ready-made to demand. Hooray for customisation, and in this example, poor taste.
Customisation won’t stop at consumer goods. Just imagine: in the future hospitals may be able to replicate any damaged bone from an MRI scan. Just recently, scientists at the University of Hasselt, in Belgium, successfully printed and implanted an entire replacement jaw bone. Dentists have already begun to print teeth. Though they are fighting a losing battle – the new CandyFab 3D printing process uses food-grade sugar to create edible sculpture.
It’s not just big companies that get the fun of using this new technology; thanks to sites like shapeways.com, 3D printing is now available to anyone with an internet connection and a creative streak. Consequently, 3D printing is starting to emerge as a new medium for artistic expression. Impossible twists and intricate lattice networks are no trouble at all for a 3D printer and shapes that are traditionally quite difficult to craft can be realised with ease. We’re seeing a very healthy democratisation of design through online 3D printing sites. Access to technology has increased and on sites like these it’s a meritocracy and designs are displayed by popularity.
We are yet to see 3D printers in general use. But the efficient use of materials, the low cost of production, the speed and the reduced need for supervision or hands on manufacturing will eventually make 3D printing irresistible for most producers. This technology is the catalyst for a brave new world of production and I can’t wait to see where it takes us.