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Attempting to read the runes of 3D printing

With an ever-expanding quota of users embracing the wherewithal of the new technologies, the line between consumer and producer is becoming ever more blurred. The Creative Industries KTN recent Bridging the Digital and Physical Beacon Projects Report made the point that 'manifestation technologies such as 3D printing mean that the barriers to becoming part of a value chain have been lowered.' Although presently wearing the mantle of a new ‘buzz’ technology, 3D printing (3DP), a form of additive manufacturing and a particularly potent 'bridging’ example has effectively been lowering such barriers for over a decade.


During this time both designers and engineers have been working with the technology as a means of quickly and cheaply producing prototypes prior to manufacturing the final product. Its ‘rapid prototyping’ capabilities have been a major reason for the extent of its take up so far with early testing enabling not only a reduction in costs and risks but also a more perfect volume production. In a paradoxical kind of way this innovative printing technology could potentially take us back to the of pre-Industrial Revolution cottage industries when dispersed home workers contributed significantly to the national economy. It was precisely these kind of household manufacturing operations that early C19th entrepreneurs were eventually able to scale up to become the factories that launched the Western European Industrial Revolution.


3D printers are machines that can turn digital bits into atoms. Dentures, housekeys, shoes, aeroplane parts, an ever growing list of objects is presently within their grasp. These objects are literally printed by designing a 3d computer-aided design model, testing the functionality and then clicking on file print just as you would for a 2-d piece of paper. The printing process itself basically involves a series of cross-sectional slices being layered on top of each other to produce a 3D object. CAD programmes have a significant advantage over traditional manufacturing processes in that they enable the user to have more control over the precise outcome of the final product – an exactly fitting hip replacement for example, a personally commemorative piece of china. To date plastic has been the most usable material but new material possibilities continue to open up. Shapeways, the worlds leading personal online 3d fabrication service, added stainless steel in 2009, glass in 2010 and this year silver. Shapeways is typical of the type of new services coming online, designed to circumvent the need to own your own printer, where you can upload or scan your design and receive the model in the post maybe as soon as a day later.

















         Watz, Creative Commons Attribution


The technology itself continues to progress from milestone to milestone - within the last two years alone the number of high quality printers in action has gone from 40,000 - 100,000. Other advancements include: fusing multiple raw materials into the final part, objects with increasingly complex moving parts, printing with carbon fiber and bioprinting - employing human cells as the raw printing material. The surgeon Anthony Atala wowed the TED2011 audience when he demonstrated an early stage experiment that could someday solve the organ-donor problem: a 3D printer that uses living cells to output a transplantable human kidney. Organo too, an american company, have also managed to print human blood vessels via their Novogen MMX bioprinter.


Then there’s RepRap – Replicating Rapid Prototyping – a 3d printer capable of printing plastic projects. This is a project that was founded in 2005 by Dr Adrian Bowyer of the University of Bath. Since many of the machine parts, bar the electronics circuitry and electronic motors, are made from plastic and RepRap is able to print those parts, it is in effect a significant step towards the holy grail of the self-replicating machine. At a cost of £300 it is the first of the low-cost 3d printers and with the hardware and software specifications all being open source it has proved additionally pioneering in kickstarting the open source 3DP revolution.


Yet despite the significant progress already achieved by 3DP, speculation has recently begun to accelerate as to its likely evolutionary potential. Will it usher in the democratisation of traditional mass manufacturing, a means of production that itself has already been on a 40-year decline? Is 3DP going to do for manufacturing what ebay did for retail? What evidence is out there to suggest this is no sidebar ?


Some are already predicting that the next 5 years in manufacturing are going to be substantially different from anything seen before, that the access granted to vast swathes of the global population by digitisation and computers is now going to be replicated in the physical, material world as we become increasingly enabled to design and create the objects of our imagination.


In the sense of allowing us to express our design preferences and even collaborating in the design of those preferences 3DP has a definite future. Certainly too from the perspective of an an increasingly user-oriented world there is a growing dissatisfaction with the uniformity aspect of mass production. So there is a real allure inherent within this new form of bespoke design as consumers are afforded an ever-widening spectrum of production options (even food items too) especially if they have the skills to create the 3D models themselves.


There is currently too much evidence to suggest that 3D has already progressed beyond the hobbyist, trinket-generating phase. In the production of medical devices, architectural prototype models and aeroplane parts the technology has secured a number of significant commercial inroads, making parts that don’t require high volume manufacturing. But it is the challenge of competing on cost per item that remains core. Will the bulk mass production such as fuels the Chinese and Taiwanese economies really be replaced by the more localized form of production that in the interim seems the most likely outcome for 3DP?


It would seem appropriate to conclude by quoting Joris Peels of i.materialise.com, a Belgian company who with over the 20 years of experience in 3DP have acquired a reputation as pioneers in the art. His particular line of crystal ball gazing is amongst the more persuasive I have encountered to date.


'I think 3D printing will develop in a concentrated manner and focus on bleeding edge consumers and 1% of all goods. 3D printing will not be used by “everyone to make anything” but rather be used by some to make the things they care about most. Furthermore, I believe that through this path 3D printing will come to slow down mass production and ameliorate the heavy burden that mass manufacturing is exacting on our planet...

Once they have nestled themselves in a comfortable nook of 3D printing the long drawn out deflating of Mass Production will really begin. The loss of this Bleeding edge group of consumers, this small percentage of people who actively seek out “the best” and “the new” in all fields, deprives mass production of its vanguard. Slowly much of the cutting edge will lose its shine and the creativity, innovation and effort will be directed to 3D printing. Mass production will continue to exist but not be a store of much new value and hopefully as the years go on its rapacious appetite for more and more of the world’s resources in name of higher resolution and other false dreams will diminish.’

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