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3D Printing: A Technological Revolution?

3D Printing: A Technological Revolution?

As the world’s first 3D printed architectural component is used in construction, Sophia Hickinson takes a look at the new technology and what it means for the design industry.

Foliates  ring by Ross Lovegrove. Source:  Dezeen

Foliates ring by Ross Lovegrove. Source: Dezeen

The arrival of 3D printing has brought a wealth of possibilities to the world of technology: 3D printed body parts, food, mobile phones and even guns have made headlines recently.

Originally associated with creating basic plastic prototypes, the additive process that builds up layers into a three-dimensional form can now create products in a variety of materials from metals to ceramics. The technology has actually been around since the 1980s, but the printers only became widely commercially available in 2010, hence the rapid increase in 3D printed technology in recent years. 

Rapid prototyping has given designers completely new mediums to work with. After a few years of getting used to the technology, exquisite work is now being produced within all specialisms.

3DPrintUK is one of the UK’s leading 3D printing services and their clientele is mostly designers. Founder Nick Allen said: “3D printing helps designers get their products to market quicker and easier than ever. Producing highly accurate prototypes enables them to ultimately produce better products.”

But the new technology isn’t just used for prototyping; one specialism that has experimented heavily is jewellery. 3D printing allows architectural style jewellery to be created easily, such as the 18 carat gold rings by designer Ross Lovegrove. The rings come in the form of large yet delicate leaves unfurling around the finger. The collection shows how 3D printing can easily create seamless and visually perfect jewellery.

Taking things a step further is Nervous System, a Massachusetts design studio that recently unveiled their 3D printed jewellery and clothing that automatically changes shape once removed from the printer. The designs are made from tessellated triangles with articulated joints that allow the design to be printed in a compressed form that then unfurls into the intended shape once removed from the printer.

A 3D printed necklance by Nervous System. Source:  Dezeen

A 3D printed necklance by Nervous System. Source: Dezeen


On a larger scale, architect Adrian Priestman revealed this week that he has designed the first 3D printed architectural component to be approved and used in construction. This is the first major 3D printing step in architecture; studios are currently experimenting with the technology with the aim to create entirely 3D printed houses.

Henry Franks, BDC New Designer of the Year 2013, said: “The rise in 3D printing within the design industry gives people a fantastic opportunity to realise their designs if they previously couldn't easily make their ideas in 3D; this helps with the next step in terms of development. It’s a great way to prototype difficult-to-make parts accurately and saves valuable time because the machines can run over night.”

While 3D printing brings new possibilities to the world of design, it is still a relatively expensive process. The industry is a tough domain for young designers trying to make their own unique mark on the industry. As the trend for 3D printed products grows, talented young designers without access to the latest technology could be in danger of being left behind, disadvantaging both designers and the industry.

Sheffield University Jewellery Design student Fenella Spence said: “There will always be a high demand for handcrafted jewellery. However as a young designer trying to find work or a commission, companies want to see examples of conceptual work that tests limits in design. With the growing 3D trend there is a shift towards a desire for 3D printed jewellery, but not everyone has access to 3D printing facilities.”

Adrian Priestman's 3D Printed architectural component. Source: Dezeen

Adrian Priestman's 3D Printed architectural component. Source: Dezeen

On the other hand, 3D printing is becoming cheaper and more accessible throughout all industries. As the manufacturing industry increasingly invests in the new technology, there is a possibility that in years to come hundreds of employees could easily be replaced by one 3D printer: The jewellers who spend days carefully crafting their intricate designs or the product designers who spend weeks perfecting their bespoke chairs could be replaced by a machine that can print the designs in a fraction of the time.

However, this view isn’t shared by all. 3DPrintUK founder Nick Allen said: “I don’t think 3D printing will ever be used for the majority of production, but it will remain a key tool for prototyping. Consumers want high quality, handcrafted designs and not low quality plastic products. The global industry is predicted to be worth $5billion by 2020, which is not that big in the grand scheme of things. It’s ultimately a niche industry.”

Whether 3D printing will dominate the manufacturing industry remains to be seen. While some people will welcome the practicality of 3D printed furniture, there will always be others who appreciate a beautifully handcrafted wooden table or a painstakingly soldered necklace. Hopefully there’s room for all in the future of the design industry. 

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