Showing in 3D

2013-06-06 09:30

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Never thought you’d be able to print an entire house from your computer? Well, think again: 3D printing has arrived!

The gunshot has been fired. The first-ever from a gun made on a 3D printer.

Following eight months of development by 25-year-old Texas law student Cody Wilson, the world’s first gun made entirely from plastic has announced – rather loudly – that 3D printing is out of its starting blocks.

Within hours the US government voiced strong concerns regarding safety because plastic can’t be detected by security scanners.

Cody uploaded a video and the blueprint for making your own gun on YouTube – two days and 100 000 downloads later, the State Department ordered him to take it down.

How does it work?

3D printers are similar to standard 2D printers, but with a crucial difference – they add a vertical dimension.

They work by creating layers of material, mostly from nylon. Like the pixels in paper printing, the layers are tiny, measuring between 0,1 and 0,05 mm. The printer’s resolution determines the amount of detail it can give an object.

Industrial manufacturers have used the technology for more than 30 years to create prototypes, and in the 1990s aeronautical, medical and other precision-based industries picked up on it.

British designer Ron Arad was the first to draw attention to the possibility that the technology could be used for production itself. The jewellery pieces he designed in 2000 were humourously called ‘Not Made by Hand, Not Made in China’.

Sharp thinking

Paris Fashion Week headlines this year all lauded Dutch designer Iris van Herpen for 3D printing her entire range.

In Manhattan, burlesque dancer Dita Von Teese showed off a 3D printed dress, right, designed by Michael Schmidt and generated by architect Francis Bitonti.

Back in Africa, urchin-inspired 3D printed spikes featured prominently in fashion designer Gert-Johan Coetzee’s spring/summer 2013 collection, left, launched at SA Fashion Week.

With 3D printing, Gert-Johan says, ‘I could create lightweight, flexible pieces with spines as long as I wanted.’

Although intended as a conceptual range, the provocative skewers popped the catwalk bubble when TV personality Jennifer Su appeared at the recent South African Music Awards in one of Gert-Johan’s spiky gowns.

Mini factory

The tipping point was in 2007 when the first RepRap self-assembled 3D printer (which could print its own parts!) made the idea of a personal 3D printer a reality.

There’s also the MakerBot, and you can order one for between R7 600 and R14 200. These models are pretty small and low-resolution, but 3D print shops like Shapeways want to make high resolution printers more widely available.

Question is, what would you actually produce? Up until now, the options have been frivolous – some designer lights, candlesticks, jewellery and studs for Nike soccer boots.

Nokia recently released open-source files so people can print out customised cellphone cases for the Lumia 820.

Of more significance are the medical applications such as implants, bone replacements and prosthetics. Labs are also looking at printers that can print human tissue – and therefore body organs.

And then, of course, there are weapons. As Cody Wilson told Forbes magazine, ‘Anywhere there’s a computer and an Internet connection, there’s the promise of a gun. It’s scary, but that’s what we’re aiming to show.’

If there is some comfort, it is that the plastic gun still needs a metal bullet that is nowhere near being produced on a printer.

A printed house?

Even before the gun, three separate teams were in a race to complete the most ambitious 3D printing project to date – a house.

The Dutch company Universe Architecture is working on a two-storey sandstone house, to be printed on-site, while British architects Softkill Design are proposing a structure that can grow like bone and be printed in plastic sheets before being assembled.

But the Dutch firm DUS Architects is winning the race. They are already busy printing a Dutch canal house, room by room, with their shipping container-turned-3D printer.

Called the KamerMaker (‘room maker’), the printer produces 3.5m sections at

a time, which clip together with Lego-type joints and steel cables. According to the BBC, the front facade of the building will be completed by the end of the year, but it will be a while before the entire building is finished.

The plan is to have a fully furnished house, from the attic to cupboards in the bedrooms. The problem is money, since the project is experimental (in a tongue-in-cheek attempt to raise funds, DUS Architects are selling 3D printed champagne glasses on their website).

Universe Architecture’s ‘Landscape House’ is perhaps more commercially viable. It has asked Italian engineer Enrico Dini, who invented the world’s largest 3D printer, the D-shape, to help.

The D-shape is as big as a warehouse and uses a chemical reaction to convert sand into synthetic sandstone.

Enrico printed the first habitable structure – a 3m high pavilion – in 2009 and in 2010 he printed an unsophisticated one-room hut that included a sink, work surface and bed.

However, Dini and Universe Architecture’s Landscape House is not entirely 3D printed, as their competitors like to point out.

The printer will produce a hollow 3D printed shell that will then be filled with concrete for reinforcement.

Softkill Design’s house looks like a bird’s nest, but it is a bold assertion of a new aesthetic for a new technology.

Modelled on the fibrous structure of bone, Protohouse 2.0 is a chaos of plastic fibres, some as thin as 0.7mm, which completely challenges the limitations of steel-and-concrete buildings that require rectilinear beams.

Whether the 3D printing craze sparks a consumer revolution that sees us ordering plans from furniture suppliers and printing our own bookshelves and tables at home remains to be seen.

For now, the technology remains out of reach for most and the number of domestic applications is limited.

» Get your copy of iMag in City Press on Sundays.

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