3D printing allows you to print 3D objects – and it’s a niche on the verge of exploding commercially. The future is here
There’s a scene in Terminator 2 where John Connor watches on terrified as liquid metal peels off the ground back into the T-1000 Terminator. Now, in some glorious pop culture meets science meets technology meets internet democratisation, the RepRap Project is making the fantastical imaginings of the film distinctinctly more possible in real life.
RepRap (not developed in Silicon Valley or Roundabout but by scientists at Bath University) is a 3D printing machine that can reproduce all its own parts. It’s a machine that can make itself.
Where does Schwarzenegger fit in? Well, aside from looking for an excuse to open an article with a Terminator reference, it’s RepRap’s ability to melt low-metal alloys and refashion them as circuit boards via additive manufacturing that draws parallels with the lovable Terminator.
It does, honestly. And the internet democratisation bit? RepRap is an open source project, meaning the machine’s designs are publicly available and free. You, me, and your dog can have a go at making a 3D printer, at altering one, at being part of RepRap’s evolution – and, of course, at printing objects in 3D.
3D printing today
You will, no doubt, have read about 3D printing before; the wondrous technology shaping up to shape our future that lets you create 3-dimensional objects. (If you can’t quite get your head around the concept, try this video.) In fact, I wrote about 3D printing back in February when I profiled Alice Taylor of MakieLab, a London-based start-up that 3D prints bespoke dolls.
What was once an industry primarily exploited by the medical profession, aerospace and motorsport sectors – hip replacements, teeth and Formula 1 parts have been 3D printed for years – is now fully entering the commercial arena.
You can buy a 3D printer today for a few hundred quid. And this October, taking place in East London’s Brick Lane (where else?), comes the UK’s first 3D printing trade show.
But what impact is the technology having so far on London’s businesses and manufacturers? And how do British firms measure up to their Nordic and American counterparts – traditionally the leaders in this new technology?
Before going any further, some background. There are half a dozen or so types of 3D printing technologies/methods in existence – methods dependent on what materials are being printed. And it’s not actually that new; in one form or another, the technology has been around for the last 20-30 years.
The recent explosion in affordable machines (produced by Makerbot and our friends at RepRap) is the result of the expiration of key patents, in particular those patenting fused deposition modelling (FDM) technology.
Indeed, the term ‘fused deposition modelling’ and its acronym are themselves trademarked. The other non-trademarked (but as yet little used) label is ‘fused filament fabrication’ – or FFF – which is actually a variant of FDM technology developed by RepRap.
Crudely put, FDM technology is based on the “additive” principle and works by layering materials – thermoplastics, polymers and waxes – by heating and fusing them to form new layers as instructed by computer code in a computer-aided-design (CAD) file. A 3D object is thus created from the 2D outline.
In 2014, several patents covering laser sintering 3D printers will expire and a new wave of printers (already in development) will come to market, and so the technology will open up yet further. For now, in London, there exist half a dozen or so 3D printing manufacturers.
While these manufacturers vary in the type of machines they have, and therefore the services they offer, they are all fairly small scale and offer bespoke, one-on-one solutions to businesses and individuals wanting products printed.
Mass market 3D printing
On the other side of the Atlantic, meanwhile, it’s a very different story.
Two companies, Shapeways and iMaterialise, offer a much more widely available service. They will 3D print pretty much any CAD file sent to them (within reason). This is mass market 3D printing. Since 2008, Shapeways has printed just over one million objects. The company’s second biggest market after the US is the UK.
“We’re usually cheaper than other companies because we do massive volume – there’s less margins,” explains Duane Bray of Shapeways. “As soon as you upload a [CAD] file you can see which materials we have – we’ve got 30 different materials.”
Shapeways boasts 150,000 active users and promises to deliver objects between one to two weeks from receipt of the CAD file. The website acts as a marketplace too. Amateur and professional designers alike can set up a shop space on the site to sell their printed wares. This process, says Bray, provides people with the perfect trial space to test a product.
There’s very little risk, goes his argument, as the user can put up a product, or even just a prototype even, then gauge the response to see if it sells before adjusting or not adjusting the model accordingly.
This is, of course, what has made many people so excited about 3D printing. Move away from the sci-fi phenomenon of creating an object out of “nothing” in your living room, and the most interesting discovery here is that, for the first time since the industrial revolution, economies of scale will no longer be a factor in manufacturing.
Digits2Widgets – the bespoke model
Jonathan Rowley is the design director at Digits2Widgets, a 3D printing and design company for the arts and industry. He believes we’re some way off this manufacturing revolution. But he does believe the technology has the potential to be as important as the telephone, or even the internet. His concern is with the technology’s growth; he doesn’t buy into the Shapeways model.
“It might look jazzy, but two weeks is too long to wait for something. People get enthusiastic about the opportunity to make something but their CAD drawing skills might be limited, their basic engineering skills might be limited, and then they send a dud file off and it comes back wrong.”
Digits2Widgets grew out of a dental practice on Wimpole Street. About seven years ago the dental specialist Andrew Darwood invested in 3D printers to create models of patients’ jaws to improve the qua
lity of their implants.
But the machines were expensive and not paying for themselves. In order to make them do so, he started a new company: Cavendish Imaging, which provides a scanning and modelling service for dentists and medics. Still, this wasn’t enough, so he bought new machines – including a nylon SLS machine, the “Rolls Royce machine” – and started Digits2Widgets.
SLS stands for selective laser sintering. Like FDM, it fuses and layers materials together except the materials are different – metals, ceramics and glass powders as well as polymers such as nylon.
Digits2Widgets and its fleet of Rolls Royces have three main types of client, says Rowley. Those needing a stream of products printed (MakieLab is one) and those after one-off projects.
“Machines don’t care what they make together – they make glasses alongside skulls alongside dolls alongside all sorts of bizarre stuff.”
Among the products being printed now are sun glasses frames – specifically designed with the technology in mind – and shoes. “We provide service for one off projects. We take the time to understand their intention before we print anything; we guide them using our experience to the best way that we can achieve that.”
“All London designers should be looking at 3D printing”
This appears to be the general consensus among London’s 3D printing crop. Andy Milns, co-founder and director of Inition, believes all London designers should be looking at 3D printing and considering how they can exploit it.
Despite not offering the same generic service that Shapeways offers, he believes London isn’t far off the US in terms of production – a statement that Bray agrees with.
Formed in 2001, Inition has 3D printed a chocolate brain, a wingsuit for Nissan skydivers, and packaging for fruits. While Milns believes the technology will have a significant impact, like Rowley he agrees that it’s not yet the most cost-effective method for all types of design and manufacturing, and won’t be for some time.
“I think there’s huge potential but I don’t think everybody will have one in their home,” says Milns.
His view is echoed by the futurologist, Ray Hammond. In fact Hammond goes one step to further to question how significant the technology will become at all. He argues that while the technology is “very important” there’s a risk and possibility that we will identify it as a trend that will get “absorbed into mainstream operations” and forgotten about as something distinct. “It is just a subset of the information revolution.”
Hammond does believe that smaller businesses producing personalised products for people will be able to compete far more easily with larger players. He dismisses the idea of a mass market versus niche approach, arguing that the market will broaden to provide all different levels of service.
Hammond – who spent years working in Silicon Roundabout – believes London is “way off what is happening in the US”. He cites the usual factor holding the industry back: investment. We don’t have the venture capital backing the sector’s development, he says.
One person who is backing the sector is Kerry Hogarth – founder of the events company Team Awesome which is behind the 3D Printshow 2012.
Taking place this autumn, the show will house 60 exhibitors covering a range of those actively engaged in the industry – from the manufacturers themselves, to designers, software developers, consultants, architects and medics.
Running the event alongside her is Rachel King. King is determined that the show represent all levels within the industry: “We’re trying to be as unbiased as possible, showcasing various companies who have different approaches; we’re trying not to lean to one side.”
To this end, each of the exhibitors has been instructed to demonstrate and actively engage visitors somehow. She says: “We’ve asked each exhibitor to offer a learning experience to the guest, to move away from the typical trade show formula.”
King believes it’s only a matter of time before 3D printers are as commonplace as their ink jet predecessors and says it’s vital that the show appeals to the next generation of artists, designers and engineers – people who will be using 3D printing form the onsets of their career.
Whether we each have a 3D printer sitting next to our microwaves in 10 years’ time or not, one thing’s for sure: this technology ain’t going away; it will keep rising. This is the true Rise of the Machines.