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Living in Three-D // Real-D

The most outrageous-seeming science fiction constructions have a rather amazing longstanding habit of becoming reality. It’s actually almost impossible [for me at least] to imagine that in the not-so distant past space travel // robots // the Internet existed solely in the imaginations of sci-fi writers + consumers. Despite being a Millennial, well-versed + up-to-date in the latest-and-greatest innovations and gadgetry, I can’t help but have my mind utterly blown each time science fiction becomes fact. My latest obsession? 3D PRINTING.

3D printing blood vessel networks out of sugar using the Rep Rap at University of Pennsylvania.

As its name suggests, 3D printing creates an object from a three-dimensional digital model, known as a CAD [Computer-Aided Design] file. To print a 3D product out of this virtual blueprint, the CAD file is sliced into a series of 2D cross-sections. Successive slices are printed, stacked, and fused one on top of the other much like a standard inkjet printer, but instead of ink, 3D printer cartridges deposit drops of materials like rubber, plastics, metals, and more.

Because 3D objects are printed + stacked layer by layer from the ground up, 3D printing is often referred to as additive manufacturing to distinguish it from traditional manufacturing methods that build by cutting or drilling away parts + pieces to create a final product. By building up instead of paring back, 3D printing has blown open the doors for creating structures that were far too intricate + complex to fashion by machine or hand. [Just imagine if Michelangelo printed The David instead of chiseling away at a slab of marble for months and months!]

The ProtoHouse

The miniature 1:33 scale model of the fibrous ProtoHouse by Softkill Design printed by the larget available 3D printer.

By making certain technical limitations obsolete, 3D printing is rapidly [and literally] reshaping what is possible in design. As designers and engineers experiment with materials and methods of manufacture, shapes + structures that once only existed deep within our wildest dreams are now becoming a reality [within reason*]. The ProtoHouse, designed by London-based design firm Softkill Design, is one such dream-turned-[pending-]reality. In an effort to build a structure using minimal materials to maximize efficiency, this fibrous architectural fabrication is fashioned after an algorithm designed to mimic bone growth.

A 1:33 scale model of the biologically inspired design was  assembled in October 2012 out of 30 intricate 3D-printed pieces using highly flexible // lightweight bio-plastics without any adhesive material. With the ProtoHouse prototype in place, Softkill is in the process of scaling up the design to create a line of one-story, market-friendly homes that require only 24 hours for assembly, entering the race to build the first 3D-printed home. With such fantastical structures rapidly becoming a feasible reality, I can’t help but wonder how we will continue pushing the limits of our imagination as our dreamed up concoctions become the new normal.

Prosthetic design by San Francisco-based company Bespoke Innovations.

Amazingly, 3D printing technologies have already begun changing our relationship with that which is most sacred: our own bodies! By performing a body scan, San Francisco-based company Bespoke Innovations can 3D print prosthetic covers–known as fairings“that perfectly mirror the sculptural symmetry and function of the wearer’s remaining limb.” In other words, the Bespoke team can essentially fabricate an artificial limb that looks like a real one. Nevertheless, even with this option available, several Bespoke clients choose to make a statement with their prostheses, turning them into custom-tailored beautiful works of art that reflect their personalities: “We envision a day when people are invited to participate in the creation of the products that have meaning to them on a fundamental level, a day when bodies are consulted directly in the creation of the products that enhance or complement them.”

Of course, beyond simply spurring on a design revolution, additive manufacturing stands to have a huge impact on all areas of our lives, from printing medications + edible wonders with the click of a button, to the considerably darker potential for copyright infringement + 3D-printed weapons. Though 3D printing was invented almost three decades ago, the idea has only recently entered the zeitgeist due to increased support from government funding and commercial startups, substantially dropping its cost. As 3D-printing capabilities continue to grow and evolve, so too will the discussion and debate surrounding the Pandora’s box that goes hand in hand with such a powerful technology. Though it certainly remains to be seen how far the so-called “3D printing revolution” will go in reshaping the metaphorical landscape of the future, I can’t help but remain [guardedly] optimistic about what 3D printing has in store!


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* 3D printing technology is still very much in its infancy, and while it holds a great deal of potential, there are still a great many limitations. The most important to note is that it takes a great deal of know-how to design structures for 3D printing. After all, 3D printed products are still subject to all the restrictions of the physical and chemical world we live in. As a result, in addition to a strong foundation in CAD software, designers must also have a strong background in mechanical engineering, architecture, biology, chemistry, etc., depending on the product for manufacture.