Lately there have been countless articles and references to 3D printing, 3D printed shoes, guns, art, bicycles and casts for broken arms… While making 3D weapons understandably sparked a great deal of controversy and even panic in the press, other products especially in fashion and design have been met with a huge degree of interest by the public. But what is 3D printing and how advanced is this practice in reality?
Unlike conventional printers, 3D printing allows you to create a physical object from a digital model designed on the computer. (I had an image of a pair of shoes emerging from our office printer when I was reading about this, so don’t worry if you’re finding it hard to imagine.) The process is also known as ‘additive manufacturing’ which works by adding layers of new material in certain shapes to create the final product (see video below). This meticulous method of manufacturing is quite different to the usual process of either reshaping or carving out an object from the raw material – such as stone or metals.
The main thing about 3D printing is that it allows you to create endless identical versions of a product using the same digital prototype. In terms of mass marketing and accuracy this is quite a revolutionary tool. But have we reached the stage where we can really say this process is world changing? I did some research to find out how costly and how easy it would be to create my very own 3D product, envisaging a small piece of jewellery just as a tester. Maybe a pair of R-Inc knuckle dusters?
Searching for a willing print shop couldn’t be so hard. However I soon realised that my new mission was about to land me well outside of my sustainable ideals, as 3D printing mostly uses plastics… nevertheless it was a design process that simply fascinated me. Eventually I decided against the knuckle dusters, but continued to look into the process itself.
What I found was inspiring, however it was more of an interesting idea than a flawless method. Many 3D products, besides being quite environmentally unfriendly, are not of the highest quality. While it could hugely simplify the design process, currently the cost still seems to be too high to be worth it. There is no doubt that in the next few years this will change, however at this stage it doesn’t seem worth it unless your products are small white plastic and you have a lack of physical labour.
In terms of more complex structures that need to be assembled from multiple small identical pieces 3D printing could provide a welcome alternative to current manufacturing techniques. And there are already a number of inventions such as the Filabot seeking to use recycled materials as “3D ink”.
It seems that while machines can assist in manufacturing to some degree, there is nothing more valuable or beautiful than skilled craftsmanship. Machines may provide a cost effective way of mass producing simple goods, but in terms of creative projects and unique high quality objects the input and skills of a human are essential. Having said that, 3D printing still fascinates me and I am interested to see how artists and designers will incorporate this process into their own work. Doubtless to say this is only the beginning…
Video by Create it REAL