Opinion: Are 3D printing farms the future of product design?

Published: 19 December 2018 - 1:54 p.m.

The past decade has seen many 3D-printed projects emerging from galleries and scientific laboratories, which have captivated the collective imagination, yet the move to the mass market has been fraught with challenges. At the same time, the excitement surrounding 3D printing has begun to settle down, allowing for a more realistic assessment of its potential impact.

Has this technology finally matured? What opportunities does it offer designers and their customers? With their intricate movements, blinking lights, sounds, and smells, 3D printers fascinate almost everyone. Researchers, manufacturers, designers, and makers agree they offer new and disruptive advantages to the world of design. With the Dubai 3D Printing Strategy, which seeks to establish the UAE as a leading hub of 3D printing by 2030, and the upcoming Expo2020, the Gulf region will continue to host demonstration projects that utilise 3D printing in impressive ways.

However, 3D printing is still a new development on the scene, and its role has only begun to be understood within the mass-market. The early part of this decade saw a flurry of activity in the 3D printing space. Despite the optimism, however, the market lost momentum in 2015, as per a report by CB Insights research platform. As if to punctuate the drop in enthusiasm, Makerbot, a leading manufacturer and retailer of consumer 3D printers, closed its retail locations, offshored its operations, and underwent two rounds of layoffs, according to a report by Fortune magazine. The futuristic vision of democratised manufacturing, which early adopters had found so compelling, failed to materialise for a number of reasons. First, the printers proved difficult to use, requiring experience in non-intuitive modelling software. Second, materials had poor structural properties and finish. Finally, consumer printers were slow, error-prone, and restrictively small.

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Commercial manufacturers also discovered that older technologies were in many cases more efficient. For a time, it seemed that 3D printing might be just another fad. However, while home-based 3D printing has proven limited, industrial applications have surged into a US$7bn industry, thanks in part to an unorthodox approach to 3D printing that exploits its strengths, according to insights offered by industry advisory firm, Wohlers Associates. Instead of treating printers as specialised equipment within a traditional factory, companies such as Adidas, Porsche, and Boeing have adopted a new factory concept, dubbed the ‘3D printing farm’.

Taking inspiration from the computer server and datacentre model, printers are physically clustered together, digitally networked, and operated from a central source location. It offers manufacturers unprecedented adaptability when compared to traditional injection molding. Capital investment is lower and more incremental. Expensive physical moulds are replaced with digital models which evolve and iterate faster. Facilities can shift between products quickly, and smaller runs become financially feasible. In short, the possibilities are promising. Recently, my colleagues and I were able to apply this concept to furniture design. Our team from DIDI sought to reimagine Verner Panton’s 1967 Panton chair — the first all plastic production chair — using a cluster of 12 entry-level printers.

Large format printers have already been used to produce gallery-quality furniture, such as at AR Gallery’s recent exhibition of 3D-printed furniture by Spanish brand Nagami in Dubai Design District. We aimed, however, to demonstrate an approach to the mass market. The original Panton chair was made of a single piece of moulded plastic. The 3D-farmed version was split into interlocking honeycomb-shaped components. Once an appropriate digital model was developed, we discovered it was relatively straightforward to apply 3D farming techniques, but also allowed for improvements over traditional methods of fabrication. The printed chair weighed half the original’s weight, customisable by scale, shape, and colour, and had a material cost of just US$25 per chair.

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Beyond the economic considerations of 3D farming, ground-breaking advances in materials engineering will lead to better results at the product level. Digital networks and cloud computing place software and modelling capabilities at designers’ fingertips, letting us simulate, optimise, and fabricate parts that perform identically in the virtual and physical worlds. Plastics can now be embedded with carbon fibre filaments to provide strength exceeding that of steel.

The power to print ever more finely capacitates the 3D printing of functional textures (for comfort, grip, and insulation) and even optical properties — think light housings and reflective finishes — embedded sensors, and smart technology. Printing farms are not a one-size-fits-all solution, but part of a digital transformation of the manufacturing chain.

When Verner Panton designed his chair, public perception of plastics was low, due to a lack of design examples using them authentically. The Panton Chair helped reveal the unique value of plastics: free- form design for the mass market. Today, we are experiencing a similar gap in perception and understanding with 3D printing. Even with the introduction of printing farms, the commercial and design possibilities remain nascent.

In the region, the strong vision for 3D printing can act as a key driver to improve productivity, and strong demand for new public experiences, interaction, and spectacle. As designers and researchers living here, we have a special opportunity to move this technology beyond the lab and gallery, and into tomorrow’s marketplace.

About the author:
Sayjel Vijay Patel is an architectural designer, software developer, and researcher. He is a founding assistant professor of the Dubai Institute of Design and Innovation (DIDI) and a graduate of the MIT School of Architecture and Planning. Recently, Patel received the Red Dot Design Concept Award for his Voxel Harvest project — a digital platform for 3D printing bespoke medical orthotics with functional microstructures and textures. The 1967 Panton Chair has been re-imagined for the 3D Printer Farming project by the author in collaboration with Mirko Daneluzzo and Sheikha Al Mannaei at DIDI.

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