When you get into a debate about 3D printing, you expect the same old topics to crop up; will we have one in every home? Is it eco-friendly? What about 3D printed guns? Etc.
At the 3D Printing For The Future event at the Manchester School of Art, these questions were
asked and ensued some insightful responses about the reality of the technology and how the negativity surrounding 3D printing is unfortunately overshadowing the good. But one thing that seems to really divide the industry is the debate on just how “new” 3D printing actually is.
On the surface it could be argued that 3D printing is in fact not new at all. Invented by Chuck Hull in 1986, 3D printers have been in action for nearly three decades - if this were a games console, it would be considered ‘retro’. Yet the term and the processes have transformed, expanded and become so many other three letter acronyms that for anyone outside of the industry it is rather difficult to keep up – so we just stick with ‘3D Printing’.
“3D printing is a nice term that engages lots of people,” argued Alistair Williamson, MD at Lucid Innovation during the panel discussion. 3D printing definitely has appeal, before you delve into what it actually is, this simplified idea that you can print any object like you would an A4 Word document, sounds quite exciting. Of course, we know that’s not the case but the concept of 3D printing is an interesting one nonetheless.
Adding to this interest, celebrities are now attached to 3D printing brands. Look at 3D Systems partnership with Will-i-am or most recently Things3D working with The Hoff on their latest project, it all adds to the cool factor and captures the public’s attention. With a bit of celebrity sparkle, people forget to ask what came before it.
The truth is a lot has come before this and as Alistair adds: “Every product you use will have undergone some sort of prototyping. There’s a lot under there – what’s the fuss?” Rapid prototyping has been happening for years and products across just about any industry will have used the process to get to their final incarnation on the store shelf. We simply don’t tend to think about the how and why when we buy a product.
The industrial side is no overnight sensation either along with 3D printing bureaus who themselves have been in the picture for years, as Michelle Greeff, Director of Technologies at Hobs Studio said during the discussion. TCT has focused on Additive Manufacturing and Industrial 3D Printing for over 20 years so there has at least been two decades worth of 3D printing to make a magazine out of.
What is new is the consumer side which has exploded in recent years due to companies like MakerBot putting 3D printers onto our desks at prices that are not unattainable to the weekend hobbyist or budding inventor in the garage. There are many options for this type of 3D printing with new machines appearing on what feels like a weekly basis offering competitively low prices on increasingly smaller machines. The ‘newness’ comes from the fact that people are actually starting to be able to afford these machines and they can be found on the high street in places like Ryman and Staples or in popular online marketplaces like Amazon.
The media makes bold statements like “3D printing will change the world” giving the impression that the technology was simply invented this week and will be printing our breakfasts the next. Whilst they do not represent the 3D printing timeline, the reports do highlight development that does make the technology new – applications.
Whilst industrial manufacturers in aerospace and automotive might have been subtly using these processes for years, new industries like medical, fashion and arguably food, are new to the 3D printing conversation. Designers have a new set of tools to work with due to increased awareness and accessibility so indeed new products made in this way are beginning trend.
Overall a major reason for why the technology still feels novel is that we are still getting to grips with it. The industrial sector has championed the technology in ways that improve the quality of products and really leverage its resourceful, optimising characteristics. On the other hand, makers, hobbyists and the public in general are just beginning to get their hands on this technology and learning from it but it is not as simple as a lot of news reports would have them believe.
“Designing things is quite difficult,” says Alistair. “The major barrier is that things take a lot of thought and experience to create.” For years there have been inventors and makers in sheds making their own products without universal threat to manufacturing so maybe we won’t all suddenly become our own designers and put the manufacturing industry out of business.
For now it seems the message from the 3D printing industry is that it is exciting and there are lots of reasons emerging in uses and materials for why we should pay more attention to it. These might be new but the technology itself certainly isn’t. As artist Michael Eden put it: "I'm looking forward to the day when people aren't excited about my work because it's 3D printed. I just want people to forget that they've been additive manufactured."