New developments in 3D printing

Reporting from South by Southwest Interactive, Martin Cooper explores how this rapidly-evolving tech will lead to exciting new possibilities for designers

We’re about to witness the third industrial revolution. At least, that was the talk around town at South by Southwest Interactive, the gargantuan annual gathering of digital creatives in Austin, Texas. This year’s opening keynote saw MakerBot’s Bre Pettis announce that his firm is on the verge of launching the MakerBot Digitizer, which measures physical objects and 3D-prints a perfect replica.

In an exclusive briefing with Computer Arts, Matthew Fiedler – a founder of 3D printer manufacturer re:3D – was effusive about the possibilities of 3D printing. “We can now make things that were previously thought to be impossible,” Fiedler told us. He presented a vision of the world where every community would have a 3D scanner and printer, and broken products could be quickly mended by printing replacement parts.

Part of this movement, Fiedler’s start-up launched Gigabot, a $2,500 Kickstarter-funded, open-source-powered 3D printer. Watching Fiedler’s device at work, it’s easy to understand the possibilities presented for creatives by 3D printing. Fiedler’s machine is essentially a computer-controlled glue gun that creates a product in very thin slices. Other more sophisticated 3D printers work by repeatedly laying down layers of powder and drawing a shape with a laser. Whatever the material level process, the result is the same: we can now make 3D objects in a way that existing crafting and manufacturing simply can’t.

Peter Weijmarshausen, CEO of 3D printing firm Shapeways, sees massive creative, culture and industrial significances in the new malfunctioning process. “You have the power of creativity in your own hands,” he explained to a huge and persuaded SxSWi audience. He outlined a view of our industrial future in which 3D printing would become a dominant mode of making products, challenging today’s mass production economy.

As 3D printing becomes more commonplace and accepted, he argued, costs will be vastly reduced. His firm Shapeways enables users to upload CAD files to its servers and, for around $20, a finished design is posted to them. The reduction in cost, he explained, was down to ongoing advances in technology and growing economies of scale.

During his talk, which was co-presented by Wired magazine’s Mike Senese, the pair pointed to how 3D printing is already shaping creativity. Nike has launched a printed shoe, while Nokia has turned the plans for a mobile phone case over to its community. Both speakers foresee a future in which today’s mass manufacture could be replaced by ‘just in time’ processes. Short of neither ambition nor drama, they’ve dubbed it “Industrial Revolution 3.0” – and it just might be.

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