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3D Printers

The idea of a printer or fabricator ("fabber") that can print 3-dimensional objects may seem like science fiction, but in fact, such devices not only exist, there are entire families of them, using different methods to achieve results with different materials.

I was astonished by the freedom this sort of manufacturing method allows modern designers. One of the first objects on display at the Full Print 3D exhibition in Barcelona, was a "fractal table". The complexity of this design would make it difficult, if not impossible, to manufacture using traditional methods, and the resulting table is a much a jewel, or work of art, as it is a functioning object.


There is a scene in The Looking Glass Club in which Steel designs a bespoke gun by drawing it with his hands in 3D and then printing it. If that seems far-fetched, consider how these ladies used 3D motion capture to design a wide array of household furniture just by sketching them in 3D.

Their designs are captured by motion capture technology, converted into 3D models. A laser is then used to solidify liquid plastic in successive layers to build the physical object.


Since designers can work in 3D using computers, their designs can be as complex or as simple as the designer wishes. Additionally, algorithms can be used to improve the designs in terms of their strength-to-weight ratio for example. It's not just about taking designs from the screen to real life in a shorter time, it's also about using the power of computers to achieve designs that traditional manufacturing techniques simpy can't achieve.


"Cloud Speakers"

Complex, organic objects wrap loud speakers to add unique style to this audio system.


Complex, practical objects can be manufactured in a single piece that would be impossible to produce from a single mould.


This chair has had its strength-to-weight ratio optimised by an algorithm so it's not only very strong and light, it uses far less material to produce.


This chair's shape is designed using hyperbolic curves so that the supporting structures perfectly support the weight using minimal structure.


This chair folds flat and can be carried, and yet it requires no assembly. It is 'printed' as a single object!

There were many more examples than I've selected here, all ingenious and beautiful and practical. My favourites though, were those that showed that complex working mechanisms could be printed in a single pass, requiring no assembly!

These design techniques are currently only available to a privileged few, working with the prototype 3D printers. It won't be long though before commercial versions of these are available to have at home. If you buy one, you can download designs for objects you need, or create your own and simply print them off as you need them.

If you can't wait for that, there are already commercially available 3D printing services, such as shapeways, offering 3D printing services over the web. They have machines that can even print stainless steel objects! Send them your 3D design electronically, they're post the object back to you in 10 days.

The future is already here, its just not widely distributed yet.


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