The Art of 3D Printing

By: 
April 04, 2008

The most important debate taking place in the additive fabrication circles today involves the role that direct digital manufacturing technologies will play in the everyday life of consumers. When, if ever, will significant amounts of our material goods be “3D printed” rather than molded, machined, cast or stamped? Will there be a desktop manufacturing system in every home, turning out on-demand goods?

No one understands the barriers and possibilities of a digitally manufactured future better than those engineers who control the practical aspects of design and manufacturing. Yet artists and industrial designers can provide some insight into additive fabrication too.

Paola Antonelli, the senior curator at the Museum of Modern Art’s department of architecture and design, points out that designers have been keenly interested in additive fabrication for about five years now. “The good designers understand what these technologies can and cannot do,” she says.

And judging from a new exhibit at the MOMA, designers understand that additive fabrication machines can do things that engineers haven’t quite dreamed of yet.

The exhibit, Design and the Elastic Mind, explores the often reciprocal relationship between science and design. And Antonelli filled the exhibit with objects and concepts that highlight what she considers disruptive or potentially disruptive technologies. Though the exhibit divvies them up differently than Design News readers would, these technologies include nanotech, computer-aided design, advanced actuators, biomimicry, robotics, motion control and 3D printing.

Just as we often do here at Design News, Antonelli uses “3D printing” as a catch-all term for all the computer-driven, additive fabrication systems, not just the few machines that actually use ink-jet deposition methods. And she picked some interesting objects to show what these technologies can do.

One 3D printing standout was the “sketch furniture,” from Front Design. This Swedish design group has come up with a system for “materializing free-hand sketches,” by combining video motion capture techniques and additive fabrication. Users simply make  full-scale gestures in the air to sketch out the object–think of the gestures as pen strokes. The motion capture technology records these gestures, saving them as 3D part data, which can then drive a laser sintering machine. The exhibit showed furniture that Front has produced with the system (click here for photos and video). But engineers may well look at the system and see the whiteboard of their dreams.

Another interesting exhibit showed the capability of 3D printing to create textiles. Usually we think of additive technologies as producing rigid parts or sometimes assemblies of parts that can move in relation to one another. Freedom of Creation, a Netherlands design group, has used EOS laser sintering technology to create textiles. These textiles have their “threads” interwoven layer-by-layer during the sintering process. Computer design allows the textile to take on a wide variety of properties, something that may interest engineers responsible for flexible goods.

Design for the Elastic Mind featured many other examples of 3D printing, from production automotive parts to chairs that push the build envelop of these machines. Check them out at http://www.moma.org/exhibitions/2008/elasticmind.

And visit Design News on-line next week for coverage of the exhibit’s other technologies.

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