Beautiful printed world
Pundits whose faith in the power of technology remains amazingly undented have certainly been hyping 3D printing of late. If what they are telling us is halfway true, then every household will soon boast such a device, which comes with the added promise of transforming us all into gifted designers and producers. But is 3D printing actually able to deliver on this promise? And what potential does it offer to design?
Let’s start with the basics. The term “3D printing” essentially describes a process whereby a digitally produced three-dimensional model is transformed into an object proper in just a single step. Professionals speak of “additive production methods” here to distinguish the process of subtractive methods such as milling, sawing, drilling and water jet cutting. The process that is best known is “Fused Deposition Modelling”, or FDM. Here a thermoplastic such as acrylonitrile butadiene styrene copolymer (ABS), nylon or polylactide (PLA) in the shape of a plastic wire is passed through a jet, which can move up and down on three axes, and deposited layer by layer. Amazingly, the printing process also works with other materials such as clay, metals, cement – and even foodstuffs, such as dough, or organic materials if what is required is the production of live tissue.
One approach, various processes
While FDM mostly uses plastics, laser sintering is employed not only with plastics but a myriad of metals such as steel, titanium, and aluminum. The second-most popular process in the field of additive production is likewise subsumed under “3D printing”, but strictly speaking that is wrong. Here again things start with a CAD model that is lasered from a powder: The laser beam melts those points that will give the desired item its shape. A roller supplies a new powder layer, while the construction base is lowered down. Stereo lithography works in a very similar way, the only difference being that the powder bed has been replaced by liquid resin. A third manufacturing method, which also uses a powder bed, is “inkjet powder printing”; here the different layers are fused using a special bonding agent. Inkjet powder printing has the advantage that different colors can be used – just as in “polyjet printing”, which applies liquid photo polymers directly onto a construction base. The latter also goes one step further in the sense that in addition to different colors a range of materials can be combined during the printing process, for example rigid plastics with soft rubbers.
Changing the value-added chain
Previously the production of complex items fell within the purview of the industry, today anyone who has access to a 3D printer can do it (prices start from around 500 euros, for example by “MakerBot”). All you need do is download a construction plan for a 3D model from the Internet (there are open source communities such as “Thingiverse” or “Shapeways”) or design a digital model yourself using a 3D modelling program. Designers have responded to the new opportunities in a variety of ways. Just a few years ago Chris Bangle, who used to be the chief designer at BMW, seemed utterly convinced that in the future anyone could be a designer and that this would put the profession under pressure. Designers such as Stefan Diez and Sebastian Bergne entertain the diametrically opposite view, arguing that average people lack the requisite design aptitude and the skills necessary to operate the digital tools.
Fact is that at present it is mostly small domestic items which are being made – think vases, mobile phone sleeves, citrus presses, toy characters, and costume jewelry. A most dubious and questionable practice is the printing of weapons such as US student Cody Wilson demonstrated with his gun “Liberator”. Somewhat more reasonable is the manufacturing of spare parts for devices that are no longer produced – the relevant 3D printing instructions are available on the Web. Product and industrial design has for some time now been the most popular area of application for 3D printing as it allows rapid production of prototypes. Moreover, 3D printers are gaining in popularity in the medical fields where they are used to print out dental prostheses and hip joints. Meaning that custom-made replacement parts can be digitally fabricated and produced.
A new printing aesthetic
As early as 2006 French designer Patrick Jouin teamed up with Materialise, a Belgian company that specializes in 3D printing on a grand scale and provides a collection of 3D-printed objects for purchase – to manufacture the stool “One Shot”. The beauty of “One Shot” is that the stool can be assembled in a single step, is printed complete with hinges and joints in just one session (in this case laser sintered using polyamide) – and can indeed take the full weight of a human being. Patrick Jouin has designed further objects such as a luminaire called “Bloom” (also using unfolding technique) and a chair called “Solid”, which is difficult to produce conventionally due to its interweaving structure. 3D printing therefore gives rise to objects with complex designs that call to mind biological structures or which reflect the aesthetic of 3D modelling programs, such as polygonal surfaces, and lend them aesthetic appeal.
Ribbed surfaces are another aesthetic side-effect of Fused Deposition Modelling. An example: For his “Endless Flow Open Rocking Chair” Dirk van der Kooji, a graduate from Eindhoven Design Academy, placed the key emphasis on the aspect of layering by making the single layers that arise in the printing process so large that they actually define the structure of the chair. In stores the designer item currently sells for around 800 euros – not something for people on a low budget. To date the principle has inspired an entire collection including chairs, tables and clothes hangers.
While van der Kooij’s chair printing machine is a custom-made individual, with “BigRep” the Berlin-based company offers a 3D FDM printer for large-scale objects of a volume of up to 1.3 cubic meters. Designers, architects, universities make up the majority of those interested in the giant machine, which comes with a price tag of 29,000 euros, but there are also some “pro users” keen on it. At present there are plans to combine the printer with a CNC milling machine instead of the print head, which would result in something like a “jack of all trades” among digital fabrication machines, melding additive and subtractive processes. Plus, the appliance would be perfect for small firms and companies as it enables serial production, something that at present eats up too much time and money.
In turbines and car bodies
Above all the big players, such as the aerospace and auto industries, have for a good two decades now relied on 3D printing methods and are regarded as the drivers of innovation in this segment. Global players such as Boeing and Siemens, not to mention the Grand Prix racing circuit collaborate with mechanical engineers such as EOS in Munich or Stratasys, which is based in both the USA and Israel – they’re among the world market leaders in the field of industrial 3D printing. They require complex one-of-a-kind components and therefore print joints and parts that have hollow sections an ingenious internal struts – for use in turbines (aerospace), car bodies (motor racing) or robots (industry). In this way, they constitute a cost-effective and swiftly produced alternative to customary manufacturing methods, such as injection molding. And unlike product design, where 3D printing is mainly used for prototyping, in the aerospace and auto industries, the components thus made are actually used.
To advance these additive production methods, companies such as EOS, Stratasys and Siemens cooperate with the “Direct Manufacturing Center” attached to Paderborn University (DMRC). The engineers are working hard to create larger and faster machines for the future, for example by incorporating several lasers that run in parallel. The goal: to deploy the technology for manufacturing that is as cheap and swift as customary serial lines. Research projects that focus on hybrid 3D printing for electronics and materials go one step further, as they seek to invest the printed object with a digital function from the outset. According to the Fraunhofer Institut the focus here is on printing sensors, OLEDs, memory elements and batteries or intelligent textiles. Given these developments, it’s readily apparent why Britain’s The Economist writes: “3D printing will change the world,” or why US star economist Jeremy Rifkin even expects this to herald a new industrial revolution.
From product to process designer?
But back the beginning: What impact do digital manufacturing methods have on design? If anyone can produce anything, what need is there for the specialist, the cabinetmaker, the designer, the engineer? One can assume that the euphoria over 3D printers for the home will abate once there’s a 3D Selfie on the kitchen window ledge. If what Belgian designer duo Unfold says, and they’re specialized in 3D ceramic printing processes, is anything to go by then the profession of designer will not disappear but will instead focus more on processes and systems than on the final object. And the guys and gals at Siemens are clear that “engineers need to completely reinvent themselves.” As the technology enables a “design-driven manufacturing process” where the design determines the manufacturing and not vice versa, meaning that the limits of manufacturing methods cannot be taken as a reason to constrain the design and by extension that designers from the outset have the scope to realize their ideas. Put differently, “e-Manufacturing” spells immense potential for designers and industry alike, as the drivers of a new digitalized business world, “Industry 4.0”, as the German government calls it, in which everything is networked and where personal wishes, flexibility and effectiveness will more than ever determine whether a company or product is successfull.