Monday, July 22, 2013

3D Printing Wizardry

3D printing, 3D printing, 3D printing. It seems to be the magic word of the year, as it pops up more and more regularly in the tech, investment, and general news blogs. 3D printing startups are coming up like wild mushrooms too - I have joined the party as well.

3D printing is currently at the top of the so-called 'hype-cycle' and will soon reach the 'Trough of Disillusionment' where it is no longer used because it is cool, but the technology will truly have to prove itself in the real world. I am not talking about the professional market, as 3D printing has already proven itself to be an excellent method for early prototyping over the last 20 years. I am talking about 3D printed products that will have to enter and survive in the real world of consumers.

For this to happen, 3D printed items will need to beat products manufactured through other processes mainly in terms of the following factors:

1. Subjective appeal: aesthetics, carrying out a personal identity
2. Functional performance
3. Profitability

The most interesting application areas that have a chance are in my view the following:
  • Toys. Subjective appeal is enormous since toys can be customized or designed by the end user himself. Also, toys can be easily expanded upon through the creation of all kinds of accessories. In a few years there will probably be an affordable and safe 3d printable material that comes close to the mechanical and aesthetic qualities of injection molded plastic, better than the currentday sintered powders or extruded filaments. Especially toys that have multiple moving components but do not require tight tolerances are interesting candidates for 3D printing, since it can integrate multiple components and in the future also multiple materials in a single print, which removes the assembly line. So also concerning functionality 3D printing could meet the standards. In terms of profitability, 3D printing is better suited for small objects that require less material and machine time. But it will still be a quite expensive technique for several years to come and therefore most interesting for items that already have a high price. The action figure industry is one likely to be taken over by 3D printing.
  • Jewelry. For jewelry, 3D printing meets all three factors, as long as they are items without moving mechanisms. It will soon be possible to print all kinds of precious metals in all kinds of beautifully complex shapes, for a competitive price.
  • Formfitting wearables. Unique benefits of 3D printing are that it can be produced on demand, and there is hardly any restriction in terms of geometry. An already successful example is hearing aids, of which thousands have been produced through 3D printing. Another example is high-performance shoes for athletes or people with disabilities, who can have their feet scanned and then have a shoe created to exactly fit them. Jake Evill recently introduced a concept for a lightweight and beautiful 3D printed arm cast, which would replace the old-fashioned and clunky plaster-based ones. This concept is too expensive to put into practice by hospitals, but could be done if patients are interested to pay, say $100 extra for a special and more breathable cast. Maybe then, friends and family could 'rent' a piece of the casting and make their own piece to fit into it with their own printer, with a name or message.
  • Gift items. 3d Printing offers the unique feature of being able to personalize a gift item through 3d form, rather than 2D techniques such as engraving and cutting. The price of most of these items could be competitive if they are relatively small, and smartly designed to save material. Examples are figurines of people or pets with their name on it, 3d printed chocolates, and ceramic items such as mugs.
  • Exclusive 'collector item' designs. There will always be a market for luxury, avant-garde items, where people pay $5000 for an exclusive 3d printed vase, table, or shoe. Designers following organic design philosophies can shine here, such as seen in the works of Freedom of Creation and Nervous System. In the fashion world Iris van Herpen is the straddling towards fully 3D printed clothing, and in the world of musicians there is Olaf Diegel who seems to be doing good business creating unique 3D printed guitar casings.

  • Architecture. I very much believe in the idea of 3D printed dwellings such as put forward by prof. Behrokh Khoshnevis. They can be created in only a few days, and easily customized according to the wishes of the prospective owner.
  • Electronics casings. As a product designer it is sort of a dream of mine that the evolution of products continues to follow biological evolution. As such, our current-day mostly crustacean-like objects with outer shells acting like exoskeletons will be supplemented by more intelligent and versatile objects that have internal skeletons and a sensitive, adaptive and interactive skin. 3D printing may play a part in that because it allows for lots of small interconnected parts, instead of one single shell. Before that happens though, casings will become adaptable in terms of ergonomic shape and decorative elements. It may only be profitable for smaller handheld devices such as shavers, electric toothbrushes and tablets.
  • Spare parts. As 3D modeling is becoming a more and more ubiquitous skill and 12-year olds are already doing it (I started at 16), average consumers will start to recreate all kinds of items around them that may at some point need replacing, and are hard to come by. Of course intellectual property issues will create some resistance, but I think that in the end we will just end up with an enormous database of all kinds of 3D printable spare parts.

These are all exciting developments and show the potential scope of 3D printed applications. Even more exciting is that if we apply ideas from media theory to 3D printing, it may be likely that manufacturing based on 3D printing will be so different from current-day, mostly linear, production techniques, that it will radically change our technological lifeworld in a way almost impossible to predict. Where now we look at the technology and imagine objects we know to be constructed in that fashion, as I basically have done with this text, completely new types of objects and systems may arise that we could hardly have predicted beforehand. We can only keep our eyes and minds open so that ideas can come to us, and the developments accelerate.

And a final side note: 3d printing as an idea was not completely invented by Chuck Hull in the mid 1980's; also here science fiction was first! In a 1964 Superman comic, the hero creates 3D busts from 2D photographs as gift items for his friends:


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Ralph Zoontjens said...

Thanks :)
No it is currently mostly a 'hobby'-type project, I just do it because I like to keep in touch with the latest developments and reflect on them. Also because I am a designer myself.