Do 3D printing technologies signal the start of a new industrial revolution? Will we soon be able to 3D-print our own toothbrushes? We take a look at the real potential offered by this much-hyped production process and the possibilities it holds for the years ahead.
- Marie-Sophie Müller
The future has arrived in an inner courtyard in Berlin. On the third floor of an industrial building in the Kreuzberg district, computer-controlled printer heads run almost silently back and forth across the base of a man-sized skeletal cube, creating an object, layer by layer, out of fine plastic threads. “It’s a part for a drone,” explains Jasmin Ribouni of BigRep, the company that makes the world’s largest mass-produced 3D printer. Founded in 2014, the young company initially focused on printing molds, scale models and prototypes for designers, architects and artists. Today, BigRep One is increasingly an industrial machine. “You could say that 3D printing is now at the same stage of development as the Internet was in 1996,” says Ribouni. “We have the basics, but the technique is far from delivering the full potential benefits. With the right software, for example, printers can build networks and print mini-series in different locations. I also like the social element of this technology: with a 3D printer, I can set up a business in any country on earth and produce objects that would not otherwise be available so easily.”
The company sold over 100 printers in 2015 alone, most of them to North America, some even to Australia. It is ironic to think that the very machine that will one day liberate us from complex distribution channels is now being shipped all over the world from Berlin. Although BigRep is far from your average copy shop, here in Kreuzberg, potential buyers can make test prints of objects like the drone part.
There is a growing trend towards 3D workshops that allow anyone interested in the technology to have an object printed – or even try printing it for themselves. In Berlin, for example, there’s FabLab, where customers can print objects using the i3 Berlin, an open-source 3D printer that came about as a result of many workshops, and for which an open-source construction manual is available on the Web. Designers can use the i3 Berlin to print micro-production series, prototypes or molds for use with other materials. This means they are less dependent on large manufacturers.
Annika Frye does not believe the technology will soon be turning us all from consumers into manufacturers, printing Lego bricks for our children in the playroom, as predicted by Chris Anderson in 2013 in his book Makers: “The 3D printer isn’t some magic box,” she explains. “3D printing is only useful in furniture design when the parameters are right, for example, or when objects need customizing: a shelf that has to fit a certain corner, or to create variation in details, such as ornamentation. It’s still much too expensive for series production. But 3D printing has a future wherever individual customization is required – for example, in the luxury industry.”
Last year, Frye designed a table for BigRep. The aesthetic of her Woven Table derives from the possibilities and limitations of FDM (fused deposition modeling) printing: “My aim was to create something specifically for this printing technique, to develop a formal idiom that worked with the conditions imposed by the machine.” Just as wood has a grain, so a 3D print has a structure created by the thin layering process. The finished 3D print can be left in its raw form, treated, or laminated. The conference room at BigRep Studios houses a concrete-coated version of her Woven Table.
Other additive manufacturing techniques exist alongside FDM. Laser sintering involves the selective fusion of powder layers (ceramic, metal or plastic), for example, and by means of stereolithography (or “SLA” printing), objects are formed by laser in a vessel of liquid photopolymer.
Joris Laarman from Amsterdam has developed a way to “print” free-form, self-supporting and, theoretically, infinitely large structures in midair. Robotic arms equipped with welding guns are programmed to shape droplets of molten steel into stable, complex structures. In 2017, the first bridge using this futuristic technique will be built across one of Amsterdam’s canals.
In his 2013 State of the Union address, President Barack Obama predicted that “3D printing has the potential to revolutionize the way we make almost everything.” Just four years later, Obama may be able to walk across the first 3D-printed bridge – although to do so, he’ll have to travel to Europe.