Frame 101

Print and Be Damned

Words Enya Moore

As reports of advances in digital technologies increase, so the level of enthusiasm rises. The excitement surrounding 3D printing technologies has reached galactic levels – witness Foster + Partners, currently collaborating with the European Space Agency to design habitations on the moon.

Back on Earth, user-friendly versions of high-tech tools and processes, such as 3D printing, are becoming universally accessible – high-street retailer Staples is even offering ‘Easy 3D’ printing services in-store (albeit only in the Netherlands for now), and desktop units abound.

If the hype is to be believed, 3D-print technology is a harbinger of a new ‘industrial revolution’ (see review page 75), but perhaps a William Morris-like footnote is needed here. Morris believed that much of the Industrial Revolutions output was shoddy, lacking craft skills (and ultimately dehumanising the producer). Now the ‘democratisation of production’ promised by this new technology means the producers dont necessarily have the design skills to fully realise the technology’s true abilities. Do we really need another source of plastic novelty objects?

A little later we’ll look at two more-challenging examples of the technology in use, but first heres a bit about how it works. A 3D printer ‘reads’ information about the object to be produced from a digital model, and then ‘prints’ the form by piping successive or ‘additive’ layers of liquid resin – a little bit like the pots you might have made at nursery school, where successive coils of clay build to make a form.

Resins and plastics are the more usual inks or materials from which 3D-printed objects are made, but ceramic, chocolate and even moon dust are contenders – the possibilities grow every day. This is distinct from rapid-prototyping methods, such as laser cutting – a subtractive process from an original block of material. 3D printing is also pretty slow, not rapid, and is being vaunted as a final production technology rather than one just for prototyping.

3D printers also share an affinity with open-source technology, with digital patterns, models and CAD templates freely available on platforms such as Thingiverse. Indeed, you can easily find dozens of open source designs for 3D printers themselves if you dont want to pay the off-the-shelf price, which can be hefty.

Most importantly, 3D printing is big – very big – business. The technology has been around since the Seventies, but contemporary developments in digital modelling have led to huge investments in this technology – for every ‘hacked’, home-built desktop printer, another heavily funded innovation in engineering or science finds a way to use it, with everything from printed weapons to stem cells being muted.

The professed rhetoric of many evangelists of 3D printing is to democratise creation, by making production more accessible, personal and inspiring. Alluring yes, but to date one could argue that the first wave of 3D printing has revealed some false starts. What does it mean to shorten the arduous journey between design and manufacture? The trip can now be a metaphoric short hop, skip and a jump – or click of a mouse – and there are definite pitfalls in creating a disconnect between the designing and making of an object, or more specifically the familiarity with the process and its problems and opportunities.

The uniqueness of a designer or maker is not only their conceptual creativity, but crucially their inherent knowledge of materials, skills and, above all, process. Jumping the gap between design and manufacture can lead to failure, because there is no iterative feedback loop between the conceptual and physical. Brian Peters, architect, designer and founder of Design Lab Workshop, gives the importance of this in his explanation of the practices name: ‘Our philosophy is to divide each project into three parts. Firstly, the design – conceptualising, designing and planning a project; secondly, the Lab – experimenting with materials, researching and analysing, and thirdly, Workshop – fabricating, constructing and assembling either prototypes or the finished product. The process is not always linear and each part informs the other’.

Here in this gradual, iterative process is where mistakes are made and rectified, and specific features accentuated. What remains to be seen is whether this process is damaged, enhanced or simplified by digital technologies such as 3D printing and laser sintering, when used for final production.

Due to the speed at which new techniques are being realised, there is a certain novelty aspect when they are discovered, often leading to the celebration of the technology rather than an understanding of how it could and should be best applied. With technical advances and general eagerness comes a breathless element to all discoveries. Slow Design, Slow Down!, the theme of last years Budapest Design Week, is sound advice for budding 3D designers. While Budapest focused mainly on social, cultural and economic sustainability, digital technologies designers and makers could take a lot from the message.

When this haste in the high-tech world is quelled the outcome can be very positive. During a six-week residency programme at the European Ceramic Centre, Brian Peters used a liquid earthenware, traditionally used in mould making, to create a series of 3D ceramic-printed bricks – Building Bytes. According to Peters, materials such as concrete and cement could be used in the same way. Interestingly Peters sees common ground between what is admired in ‘crafted’ artefacts and those produced using digital fabrication techniques. ‘For example, when printing Building Bytes ceramic bricks, each brick is similar,but slightly different due to the material behaviour of clay, he says. It is a standardised process that creates unique results each time.

Building Bytes bricks can be used to produce a uniform structure using multiples of the same brick, or a varied structure in which each brick is uniquely shaped to create a complex form. Although still a work in progress, the goal is a system using portable 3D printers as on-site brick factories for large-scale construction, thereby greatly reducing transport and environmental costs while further integrating the design and construction process. The latter has huge ramifications in terms of allowing a certain degree of flexibility and ad-hoc, on-site problem solving.

I believe that architects and designers have a lot to learn from one another, especially with regard to emerging technology’, Peters affirms. ‘Architects, designers and builders from all over the world have contacted me interested in fabricating inexpensive custom bricks on site, with local materials.

Peters is also collaborating with Dutch practice DUS architects on creating a larger 3D printer. Seeing architecture as ‘craftsmanship and combines research and design with a hands-on approach’ it has launched the first mobile 3D printing machine, KamerMaker – the ‘RoomMaker’.

An ‘open-source’ way of working is still common in the realm of digital technologies, and this is key in the effective development of 3D printing technologies and applications – although as commercial competition increases between various manufacturers of the actual equipment, such creative exchange could well become proprietorially restricted. Currently though, cross-disciplinary experiments are increasingly visible across the design spectrum. Dutch fashion designer Iris van Herpen collaborates heavily in her highly technical, haute-couture garments. Her willingness to experiment in melding digital technologies with traditional hand skills produces results that make her work strikingly unusual.

Working with Canadian ‘hylozoic’ architect Philip Beesley, van Herpen produced visually stunning pieces in her Hybrid Holism Collection, presented at Paris Fashion Week in 2012. The title piece for the collection was a dress built layer by layer in a container of polymer that hardens when struck by a laser beam – the result was a translucent, honey-coloured garment that appeared to be an extension of the body.

Her most recent collection, VOLTAGE, unveiled at Paris Fashion Week this January, exhibited a garment that was the result of a collaboration with Austrian architect Julia Koerner, a lecturer at UCLA, and Professor Neri Oxman, an artist, AA alumni and MIT lecturer, and manufactured in partnership with Materialise and Stratasys.

Continuing the exploration of prosthesis or prosthetic extensions that are wearable as couture, van Herpens partnerships with architects has led to new possibilities for structure and form-finding. Utilising Stratasys multi-material 3D printing technology, the designers were able to factor a variety of material properties into a single build. The resultant cape and skirt resemble a soft, elastic body-armour, benefitting from Oxmans development of algorithms to understand human motion.

The incredible possibilities afforded by these new technologies allowed us to reinterpret the tradition of couture... where delicate hand-made embroidery and needlework is replaced by code’, enthuses Oxman.

3D printing has penetrated the consciousness of almost every sector for professionals – from healthcare to fashion – and the true scope of this new technology lies not only in the manufacturing process but also in the potential for cross-disciplinary exchange. This is where the potential lies for innovative design solutions and perhaps unexpected leaps forward. For the public, 3D printing will need to prove that it can deliver benefits in terms of cost and time before it can have the ‘democratising’ impact so hotly anticipated.