It seems you can’t open a tech magazine these days without some mention of 3D printing. But is it all hype or has the technology really developed into something that will transform the lives of designers, manufacturers and consumers?
According to a survey conducted by the Design Museum in conjunction with Ipsos Mori, 71 percent of people know nothing at all or very little about 3D printing. So I was curious when Paul Fanning, editor of Eureka magazine, invited me to share my views on the subject with engineering designers at a conference running alongside the Engineering Design Show. What questions would this audience have about a technology that is new to the high street but has been around as a professional tool for over a decade?
It turned out that the hottest issues for this group of about 100 designers were:
In answering those questions along with my fellow panellists I noticed two trends…
Firstly, there are already situations in which 3D printing is a viable manufacturing process. Stijn De Rijck from Materialise described how they were the first to make a bespoke orthopaedic guide using 3D printing a few years ago. Now they process orders for about 3000 guides per month. The benefits to the surgeons and patients are obvious and there is no other cost-effective way to manufacture these one-off surgical tools.
Image credit: 3trpd.co.uk
Secondly, 3D printing in metals is genuinely game-changing for designers. Because the parts are built in real materials (Aluminium, Stainless steel and Titanium are all possible) designers can make parts without compromising on structural properties. All sorts of people are already using this technology today from artists to aerospace engineers.
You might have seen the Commonwealth Games 2014 Queen’s baton on the news recently. This was designed to combine traditional Scottish craftsmanship in the elm handle with the latest in additive manufacturing for the complex, organic lattice of Titanium around the top.
Image credit: Femur Stool, Assa Ashuach Studio
My visit to the Design Museum confirmed that 3D printing is not just about making things quickly. Combined with other digital technologies designers are able to produce things from the outer edges of their imagination. 3D CAD is being supplemented by coding algorithms that are able to generate highly complex yet constrained forms. This is illustrated in the work by Assa Ashuach which is on display at the exhibition.
In the brief video that he shot for the exhibition
Ron Arad made a plea that designers would stop getting over-excited about the raw technology of 3D printing and concentrate on how it can benefit people. This reminded me of the most heart-warming use for 3D printing that I have come across. Yahoo in Japan recently combined a 3D printer with voice-search technology
. The printer was then presented to some blind children so that they could tell the printer what they wanted a model of and feel it in their hands shortly after.
With that kind of thinking I’d say the future is already here.