Johannesburg – Even if you’re not a gadget freak, you will have noticed that 3D printing has entered the mainstream in a big way.
The process of making a physical object from a 3D digital model is a big leap forward from depositing ink on paper, and promises to be game-changing technology.
It usually involves additive manufacturing, which means the printer deposits many successive thin layers of a material to form the item. The material can be anything from melted liquid resin to wax or even chocolate.
A more advanced technique called sintering sees the printer deposit powdered materials, like nylon powder, in layers and fuses them with laser to create the object.
The sky is the limit in what you can create, says David Mauchline, manager of additive manufacturing at the Vaal University of Technology (VUT), which has been at the forefront in South Africa of harnessing the power of 3D printing since the mid 2000s and has invested millions in top-end printers. It is building its own multi-use 3D printer that will use local components and materials rather than expensive imports.
Mauchline says: “Imagine, in the future you could be throwing a dinner party and decide to make customised crockery for each of your guests.
“So you create the designs on your computer and print them out on your 3D printer. After the party, you can recycle those plates and turn them into, say, a vase.”
Mauchline says 3D printing technology is transforming every aspect of life, be it from how primary school children learn to conceptualise, through to pushing the boundaries of art and design and even to reducing the cost and upping the access to everything from low-cost prostheses to aircraft components.
Nasa intends sending a 3D printer to the International Space Station this year. It will allow astronauts to print what they need as they need it, instead of taking spare parts into space.
This on-demand capability of 3D printing is one of the technology’s wow factors. The other, Mauchline says, is that 3D printing makes mass customisation a reality.
That sounds like a contradiction in terms, but he explains: “You can make personalised items in large quantities, just by adjusting a computer program rather than a machine component. It makes customisation at reasonable speeds and cost a reality.
“People are looking to individualisation in a mass-manufactured world and the rise of 3D printing and more machine manufacturers entering the 3D market is a response to this shift.”
VUT has a service bureau that makes available its top-end printers to public partners such as industrial designers, engineers and artists. In turn researchers and students get to work with clients to turn their ideas to product in a real-world context.
The university has worked with leading 3D artist Michaella Janse van Vuuren. The Pretoria artist is the creator of the 2009 South Africa Design Indaba’s most beautiful object – a 3D printed chrysanthemum centrepiece that functions as either a bowl or a candle holder, depending on which side of the design faces up.
She is also a key proponent of the Agents of 3D Revolution, which showcases the world of 3D innovators, and has just returned from New York where she showed her 3D-printed corset and platform heels on the Big Apple’s runways.
Janse van Vuuren has a PhD in electrical engineering and in the mid-2000s stumbled across innovations in 3D printing on the internet. What she saw was the beautiful alchemy that could merge her engineering training with her artistic soul.
“I am a designer artist and engineer; 3D printing not only allows me to seamlessly combine seemingly disparate interests, but lets me explore my creative passions and try my hand at many different disciplines. I have designed lighting and jewellery, I have created acclaimed art works and I have done a postdoctorate in medical implant design. This year I become a fashion designer,” says Janse van Vuuren.
“This is the start of a wave and 3D printing means people will have to think differently about manufacturing and about meeting supply and demand for a customer with changed demands. With 3D printing, I have become part of the software supply chain as an artist,” she says, and all from the comfort of her home office.
For the Garden of Eden 3D fashion collection that hit the New York catwalk this month, Janse van Vuuren included a stained-glass corset, a pair of serpent shoes, and accessories including a serpent belt and her fish-in-lilies bracelet. It took her six months to design and was a virtual collaboration with people spread across the world.
It began with her doing the 3D sculpture and design in South Africa and then hooking up with Israel-based Daniel Dikovsky and Tal Ely from the company Stratasys to print on their sophisticated Objet500 Connex 3 printer. The printer’s triple-jetting technology allows a mixture of three base materials to be used simultaneously. It creates unlimited combinations of rigidity and flexibility and varying degrees of transparency in the colours in a single print run. Customisation for her designs was done by Turlif Vilbrandt of the company Uformia in Norway.
“This kind of global collaboration is another exciting part of 3D design that opens you up to what is happening around the world,” says Van Vuuren.
Global connections, improved base materials and the rise of open source software for 3D printing are powerful drivers for 3D printing. Non-patented software brings down costs, increases accessibility to the technology and tweaked base materials are making things like low-cost prostheses a reality.
South African carpenter Richard Van As lost four fingers to a circular saw in 2011 and couldn’t afford a top-end prosthesis that would have cost him tens of thousands of dollars. When he saw a low-cost movable prosthesis on a YouTube video, he contacted the designer, Ivan Owen, in Seattle. Mostly through Skype, email and phone chats as well as the power of 3D printing and open source software, Van As built his own low-cost customised prostheses.
Not only was he able to resume his woodwork career, but he set up Robohand to produce or help others produce artificial hands, fingers and arms. He has, according to his website, “enabled” more than 200 people.
Van As has also created the newly launched RoboBeast. It’s meant to be a rugged 3D printer adaptable to harsh conditions such as war zones and remote terrain where often low-cost prostheses are most needed but least readily available. It will work without a lot of mechanical and software tinkering.
It’s clever thinking and adaptive solution finding that puts cutting-edge technology through its paces. It’s the kind of thinking Colin Northmore, head of Sacred Heart College in Joburg, say has to be instilled in kids from a young age.
In 2012 the school invested in an entry-level 3D printer set up for its primary school children.
“It’s in the primary school because it’s about helping children grasp concepts of concrete and abstract thinking and it’s about preparing them for an uncertain future and for jobs that haven’t even been invented yet,” says Northmore.
In the computer centre, 11-year-old Leatile Molepatsi, a Grade 6 pupil, is creating a car of the future on his Google Sketch program. Teacher Rina Basson takes his 3D drawings, scales the design, saves the file as a “cubify file” on a USB and plugs it into the printer. What will be printed in a few hours is a plastic model of Leatile’s design.
Basson says with 3D design programs pupils can virtually explore their 3D designs to made additions and modifications. She says they learn about scale, about modifications and how to put imagination and design at the heart of finding solutions.
“The young ones have taken to 3D design and printing like fish to water. Being able to see their designs come to life really helps them understand the concepts – they love it,” says Basson. – The Star