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D2W's Eos machines
Sintered nylon is D2W's speciality and these are the babies they print their brilliant goods on
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D2W's container process
Varying sizes of baskets are stacked on top of one another in order to maximise efficiency in build volume usage.
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A D2W Container
After the remainder of Nylon is blown off this is what your order will look like, ready to ship.
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Lithophanes by Betty Lewis-Williams
These amazing designs are produced by mixing 3D printing techniques with 400-year-old porcelain casting techniques.
Last time TCT visited Digits2Widgets (D2W) their Camden facility was just building site; a proud Design Director, Jonathan Rowley looked on and enthused with his vision on how the growth of D2W meant the resurrection of industry in a derelict warehouse, in what was once the design centre of London.
Some seven months later and Jonathan’s concept has come to light as we found out on our latest visit to the London HQ of one of the UK’s leading 3D printing service bureaus.
The impressive facility houses an exhibition area, a vast office space - home to, not just the D2W team but others from the industry such as MakerBot resellers RoboSavvy - and, of course, the factory floor with several industrial 3D printers complete with a delivery bay area.
As you enter the door you are greeted with the exhibition space that showcases D2W’s speciality; high quality, sintered 3D printed goods. After a tradeshow in Shenzhen before Christmas many of the items are awaiting to be returned to their plinths but of the remaining prints one Jonathan truly takes pride in is the glasses by Ron Arad’s PQ eyewear:
“One of my pet hates in the [3D Printing] industry is the term ‘the democratisation of design’, design is a skill that people work very hard at achieving." Said the trained architect Rowley, “Ron Arad is a trained designer and because of this he has an understanding of how materials will react, he understands that sintered nylon has certain beneficial properties and he exploited those to create a unique product.”
The eyewear was part of Innovation Showcase at TCT Show + Personalize 2013 and its unique is down to the design of being printed in the closed position, without hinges meaning the glasses gently cling to the head.
Although D2W do offer plaster, resin and wax 3D printing, the sintered nylon - used as the finished material in Ron Arad’s glasses - is were the company really come into their own.
Two giant EOS Formiga machines (a P100 and P110) are on 48-hour cycles printing all sorts for all sorts. From animators looking to print stop motion figurines to engineers looking to print prototype parts, D2W appeals to all. One of the key factors in D2W’s appeal is their intuitive lobster pot-like nylon container process.
The fixed-price process involves the client choosing the amount of build area they require inside the printer, downloading a relevant nylon basket STL file and placing whatever it is they wish to print inside said virtual basket. Clients can pack in as many prints as they can fit and then send that batch to D2W. When they are printed and the remaining powder is blown away you’re left with a cage containing all your objects that also acts as packaging for postage. Genius!
This containerisation process, which D2W explain excellently in their blog using a shipping cargo analogy, eliminates several problems that many bureaus encounter when using sintering technology, problems such as: pricing, packaging, material wastage, missing parts and part identification.
Jonathan Rowley is exceptionally satisfied with the process, “It’s particularly popular with students because once they’ve all chipped in and paid for their area of the build platform it is theirs to do as they please, they can fill it with as many prints as they want.”
What you CAN make with a 3D printer
Jonathan Rowley is a fully signed up member of the 'anti-3D printing hype' brigade and believes there's some dishonesty about what is possible on a desktop 3D printer. One slice of dishonesty that really grinds Jonathan’s gears is when companies display sintered 3D prints next to desktop 3D printers.
As a joke gift one of his members of his team gave him a PLA printed owl, “I carry it round with me to show people what parts off these desktop machines look like in comparison to sintered parts but if I’m not quick enough, sometimes people pick it up and say ‘wow!’”
The mainstream hype may bring its problems and time wasters but Jonathan and his dedicated team wouldn’t dream of scoffing at somebody’s idea. A customer may come to D2W with a half-baked, harebrained scheme yet the fully trained team will converse and try to understand what it is that you want to achieve with the technology:
“We had a company come to us recently who wanted to 3D print some trophies for an awards ceremony. Knowing the printer as well as we do we knew their design would lead to some problems at the top of the print, so we had to hollow out a section in order for it to work." explained Jonathan, "When it did print we realised it had no heft to it and you can’t give a trophy for somebody to lift that doesn’t have any weight. So,we used an old technique; creating a ballast with sand, and you know what? It worked really well and the customer was delighted with the product.”
New tools for old jobs
This example of using an old world technique in order to improve a 3D print is often reversed in many of D2W’s projects. Jonathan and co. see 3D printing as a tool that can enhance the creativity of manufacturing forms that have been in existence for hundreds of years.
One such project is that of Beth Lewis-Williams’ Lithophanes. Lithophanes were a passion to many in the 19th Century. The etched porcelain artworks, when backlit, illuminated rooms across the European continent. Thanks, in no small part, to MakerBot’s customisable versions, lithophanes are having somewhat of a renaissance.
As opposed to the traditionally flat, rectangular shapes of lithophanes Beth thought about creating spherical, porcelain lithophane lighting fixtures. D2W was her first port of call asking if she could print her designs in porcelain. Although Jonathan had to disappoint in that porcelain couldn't be printed they could find a way to make the lights possible by printing a negative in plaster.
Beth used the 3D printing to make a cast and then used the same manufacturing process mastered in Europe some 300 years ago. That she was able to find a way to make the lithophanes and thus complete her University of Arts London course is testament to how D2W work, they will always try to find a way to help you achieve the impossible.
The striking and fascinating designs then went on to feature as part of D2W’s London Design Festival 2013 exhibition alongside many other magnificent objects printed by the Digits2Widgets team. Jonathan Rowley sums up this ethos of objects over technology with this quote in a D2W blog “Our view is that the machines themselves are of limited interest. Unless the objects that they produce have quality, then the machines are redundant. Jonathan’s analogy was that 3d printers are the hi-fi. 3d printed objects are the music. Hi-fi has it’s place, but without the music, it’s nothing.”