3D vision

The field of 3D printing is expanding rapidly, with new applications and technologies emerging all the time. Libby Peake surveys the scene and describes some of the more significant developments 

This article was taken from Issue 83

By now we’ve all probably come across at least the concept of 3D printing or ‘additive manufacturing’, whereby successive layers of material are laid down under computer control to create an object of almost any shape, based on electronic data. With prices starting in the hundreds of pounds (having dropped from the tens of thousands a mere five years ago), it’s possible that some of you out there might even have your own home printer – capable of making everything from plastic figurines to jewellery and ceramics or even guns (though not legally, of course!).

To date, the technology has largely been the preserve of hobbyists making trinkets and large companies making prototypes, along with some very successful personalised medical applications. Many in our industry, though, have seen great potential for it to save resources – predominantly through its ability to make replacement parts to extend products’ lifespans. Indeed, speaking to Resource about designing for the circular economy in 2013, Sophie Thomas, Director of Circular Economy at the RSA, noted: “I think 3D printing could have incredible potential for designing things for longevity. Opening up the operating manuals, getting that information online, would allow you as a user to go and print new pieces for your electronics instead of having to throw them away. So, actually, the potential’s not for the designer, although it could potentially change the way we design things, but really for the user because it will give them more control over how long their machines last and they can make bespoke elements.” She added that designers would need to think about “futureproofing” their designs, to allow people to build upon and repair devices with new patterns that come out, “instead of having to upgrade by chucking something away and getting a new one”.