The printable future

As agency projects continue to push the boundaries of interaction, 3D printing enables designers to bring their imaginations to life, and quickly – Matt Fisher considers the place of the 3D printer in a modern office

While 3D printing is relatively new to the majority of the population, chances are you’ll at very least have seen a YouTube video of some kind of 3D printer at work. What’s more, the technology is accelerating at an exponential rate, meaning the 3D printer is fast becoming an essential tool for every creative office.

If you had a 3D printer right now, what would you print? Most people I ask have a hard time coming up with an answer to that question, and that’s where Makerbot’s Thingiverse comes in. The mainstream printer brand has created this online portal of open source, ready-to-print 3D models of pretty much anything you can think of, from homemade prosthetics to a dashboard fan knob for a Mazda RX-8.

Many of us have experienced the pain of investing in some sweet Lego set only to lose a piece. A 3D printer means you can easily print off a replacement, but it’s a likely bet that Lego won’t be too happy about it. Really, an entire Lego set could simply be scanned and exist as an easily-shareable file – potentially creating a situation similar to the current state of the film and music industries. At this point in time there is nothing illegal about creating 3D models of existing physical objects – the law only applies when you press the print button and actually produce the object.

However, when used with caution, a 3D printer can be a great tool for a creatives. When Jam3 acquired a MakerBot last autumn, it ran non-stop for the first week as my curious colleagues and I printed out all sorts of shapes and models. Aside from being a total creative refresh and a reason to get excited about technology, it soon become instrumental in a pitch.

We were tasked with creating a complex customised mechanism for a client, and with the help of our 3D printer, we had a working prototype within the first day of tackling the pitch. It was at this point that it became clear that the value of the printer was in both inspiring innovation and demonstrating a competitive edge. The fact that the majority of the elements were printed out not only impressed the client, it showed off the capabilities of the agency in a quick turnaround time.

What’s more, in only a couple more years, the capabilities of this tool will have moved on quite considerably. Soon we will be printing not only objects in mediums other than plastic, but the electrical components that give them life, all from a single print job. And agencies will have the freedom to design, develop and fabricate more content in-house.

From prosthetics to Lego and everything in between, the popularity of 3D printing is both a huge win for the consumer market and a huge challenge for government and business to navigate. If we’ve learned anything from the past, companies and governments need to find a way to adopt and embrace and thrive with new technology, or be left behind.