3D printers has been cropping up in the news a bit lately. They’ve been building bungalows in China, making men’s hips in Southampton and, perhaps most importantly, printing weird little figures for a men’s clothes shop in Manchester.
But what is 3D printing? How does it work? And when will you have your own 3D printer? I had a cyber-chat with Rees Calder, one of the men behind London’s 3D printing studio iMakr, to find out more…
I’ve done a bit of research here, but I still don’t quite understand 3D printing. Can you explain for us morons what a 3D printer does?
Desktop 3D printers like the ones you can see at the iMakr Store in Central London create objects from plastic filament that is melted, then deposited in layers from the bottom up. The process is also called additive manufacturing, because you are adding material instead of subtracting it from a larger block – as with more traditional methods of manufacture.
Outside of making figures for menswear photo-shoots, what else do you lot use your printers for?
The sky is the limit really; we are constantly experimenting with new ways to use the machines, and are trying to expand the technology wherever possible. At the moment we are printing objects ranging from the purely aesthetic (art pieces, characters from TV, films and games) to the purely functional (spare parts for household appliances, Go-Pro fixtures and attachments and iPhone speaker amplifiers) and then a mixture of the two – things like ornate lampshades and designer clocks.
We have printed trophies for awards ceremonies as well, and our Print on Demand service means that we are able to essentially print whatever someone requests. We’re also using them for noble means; we’re collaborating with Oxfam to in order to use 3D printing to help with humanitarian aid in Lebanon.
This might a bit of a Blind Date question, but what’s the weirdest thing you’ve printed?
Interesting question! We’ve had requests for things across the board, from guns to sex toys, although we tend not to entertain things like these… We’ve printed flexible shoes that you can actually wear, we’ve done a number of naked Mini-You’s upon request, and then many of the designs that come from our own designers are fairly out there, as we are trying to push this technology and show people that there really are very few limits.
It seems there’s a bit of a ‘buzz’ around all this at the moment, yet according to Wikipedia the first 3D printer was made in 1984. How come I only heard about it last year?
The technology has been around for a while, mainly in industry though, as most of the innovations were protected by patents until the early 2000s. The expiration of these patents meant that suddenly 3D printing was accessible to the general public, meaning that everyone now had the ability to tinker with and develop this technology. This has led to a drastic reduction in cost and accessibility — some of our cheaper machines are now in excess of £700.
How did you get involved with them?
Our founders identified that this technology was worth investing in, as there is an amazing potential for growth for anyone able to get involved in the industry at this point. The rest of us all have a passion for 3D printing, and want to be involved in its progression every step of the way.
What’s the future of 3D printing?
You could argue desktop 3D printing is analogous to desktop computing from 30 or 40 years ago. Initially the devices were big, expensive, and required a fair amount of technical expertise to operate – so much so that people couldn’t really see a day to day use for them. But as cost and size came down, and usability went up, computers became more and more accessible to the public at large, leading to the point today where almost everyone essentially has an incredibly powerful computer in their pocket.
It is likely that 3D printing will follow a similar trend. As cost comes down, more people will have access to the technology which will spur on an exponential rate of growth — as more and more people are able to experiment and develop this technology. This will inevitably lead to more and more problems being solved with 3D printing, which will feedback into faster and faster development of the technology. In one or two decades time 3D printing will be ubiquitous, but it is difficult to predict its exact progression trajectory, it depends on so many factors.
In time everyone will understand how important these machines are, and when we start heading into the realm of true multi-material printing, and are able to start producing circuit boards and working machinery and then eventually complete devices, things really start to look interesting. We are heading towards an age of manufacture moving away from mass production and into the hands of the consumer. This will mean that objects themselves start to lose their value, with blueprints and designs becoming the true commodity of the future.
In China giant 3D printers were used to make bungalows. How do these printers differ from the ones you lot use?
Yes, it seems like every day we are able to print something new! The printers that are printing buildings are surprisingly similar to a desktop 3D printer, the primary difference being size of course, and that they are extruding concrete instead of plastic. But fundamentally they are just laying down concrete in layers until it builds up a structure.
Could the same technology be used to make even bigger things? Will we be seeing printed skyscrapers at some point?
It is difficult to say, but anything is possible really. Given enough time and enough investment in the appropriate technology, there is no reason that printers won’t be able to develop to this level. With the advances of metal printing in particular, there are definitely going to be some pretty crazy innovations which the construction industry stands to greatly benefit from.
How long do you think it will be until we all own 3D printers?
Again it is difficult to say, but ubiquity is approaching, probably within the next decade.
“With great power comes great responsibility.” Do you worry about this technology getting in to the wrong hands?
Not really, people will always find ways to abuse technology and use it for nefarious means. If we were to worry about the potential wrongful applications and let it affect progression then it would stymie the growth of the technology as a whole, which would be obviously detrimental to the growth of the industry. On balance the good applications will far outweigh the bad.
What do you get up to when you’re not printing things?
Aside from printing, we are developing a large on-line database for 3D printable objects, after all, there is no point in having a 3D printer if there is nothing to print with it! www.myminifactory.com is where one is able to freely download objects for printing. We have our team of designers which regularly submit new designs, and we also curate external submissions.
Other than that we work closely with other companies within the industry, trying to promote growth and progression wherever possible, building relationships and developing new ways of approaching problems is integral to any emerging industry, and we are endeavouring to be at the forefront.
Anything else you’d like to add?
Finally, we’re always looking to collaborate with companies and individuals who have interesting ideas regarding this exciting new technology. It would be great it you could let your readers know that they should get in touch with us if they think they have something valuable to contribute!