On my radar: I’ve seen the future, and it’s in 3-D

2013-10-07 12:00

Trends and new technologies don’t always evolve simultaneously. Sometimes the technology is there, but the commercial implementation takes longer to filter through.

I read recently that we don’t so much adapt to or adopt new technology, but rather co-evolve with it. That made a lot of sense.

Unless the technology fulfils a need or, more importantly, solves a problem, it will always be a nice-to-have but remain a nonessential, and history is littered with good ideas that never reached that crucial tipping point.

At 100% Design in London two weeks ago, I saw the tipping point for 3-D printing. This technology has been around for some time – the first working 3-D printer was created in 1984 – but the past 12 to 18 months has seen the use and implementation of this technology gain ground exponentially.

At the design fair, 3-D printing received its own section, aptly named “The Home Factory”, where they displayed not only remarkable finished products like chairs, shoes and home-décor objects, but also provided a glimpse into the near future with full-body scanners that are able to print, in full colour, mini figures of whomever was brave enough to be scanned.

The results are eerily accurate.

[gallery ids="77884,77886,77887"]

The speed of this trend, rather than the trend or technology itself, is what is really fascinating.

Usually, even when a technology and trend converge and provide a commercial tipping point, it still takes years of evolution.

Take the cellphone, for example. We’ve moved relatively quickly (in two decades) from the old, cumbersome bricks that were the first mobile phones (in the early 1990s), to small slip-into-your-pocket phones (early noughties), and now to “phablets” – the smart phone/tablet hybrid, which we will all soon be using as a standard mobile device.

The evolution of 3-D printing, on the other hand, seems to be moving at a far quicker pace. The awkwardness of the first printed objects – fascinating rather than beautiful and practical – is already a thing of the past.

The restriction of printing out only plastic objects is in the process of being overcome with new materials such as sandstone, metal and food compliant ceramics already being tested and used.

The fact that there are now cheaper, smaller and therefore portable 3-D printers available is the bellwether that signifies that this trend is being adopted commercially.

In the Netherlands, they are already converting some post offices – fast becoming obsolete – into 3-D printing hubs where they are already promising a two-hour turnaround time for your 3-D printing needs, and those needs are growing.

At 100% Design, one of the 3-D printed items on show was a scaled architectural model of a townhouse complex. Gone are the days of using materials like cardboard, wood, polystyrene or foam, which needed to be laboriously glued together.

Now, an architectural model can simply be printed in 3-D in a fraction of the time.

But by far the most remarkable, and helpful, use of 3-D printing I’ve come across is in a school for the visually impaired children in Japan.

There, they have a 3-D printer set into a machine that acts much like a vending machine, but in this case it is voice activated. Developed by online media company Yahoo Japan, this machine was created to provide a physical version of its popular web-search tool.

The young learners simply say the word of what they would like to find – for example, ‘giraffe’ – and the 3-D printer prints a small plastic giraffe, which they then feel and touch, providing a physical rendition of something that they could never see.

When chatting to someone about this “home factory” revolution, she voiced a concern about what would happen to designers and the design industry if people were soon able to print anything from pieces of jewellery to home-décor items?

My reply was that 3-D printing is a revolutionary manufacturing process that enables anyone to manufacture one-off pieces in the comfort of their own homes, but it still does not make them a designer.

Like dressmaking, you might be able to buy a pattern and replicate what a designer has created, but a designer still owns the creative process.

3-D printers can’t to that – yet.

»?Chang is the founder of Flux Trends. Visit www.fluxtrends.com

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