3D printing: novelty or necessity?
As D&T teachers, we have all seen new technology develop as well as watching numerous inventions fall by the wayside. Yes, Sinclair C5 I am looking at you, but perhaps the most significant development in our subject, in terms of manufacturing, is the introduction of Computer Aided Manufacture. CAM is that wonderful acronym applied to any device that can produce something from a drawn design and covers everything from simple vinyl cutters to complex laser cutting but currently there is one process seemingly grabbing all of the headlines. Apparently 3D printing will revolutionise the way that we live. Is this really true or just another technology fad?
Regardless of your opinion on the matter, the technology is developing rapidly, and not just within design, so let’s take a look at what the technology has to offer.
One advantage of 3D printing is that it’s an additive rather than subtractive process so rather than cutting away at a block of material, you start with nothing and build up a layer at a time. Good for budgets, good for the environment.
Health and Safety
Basically it’s a printer that prints layers of plastic rather than ink. What could be simpler? As long as you don’t touch the printing nozzle you’re fine and you don’t need any particular training.
Stereo lithography, which is a similar process in terms of creating layers, has been around for decades but was a messy process involving liquid resin and lasers and the outcomes were often crudely finished and delicate. Many 3D printed products are usable straight out of the printer and liquid resin 3D printing is actually making a comeback now called CLIP and with much faster results.
Accessible and cost effective
CNC machines were once groundbreaking as were laser cutters 20 years ago but were also ridiculously expensive. However, if you consider that 20 years ago a laptop, ancient by today’s standards would have set you back nearer £2000 and can be had today for just a few hundred pounds. While CNC equipment may still break the bank, desktop laser cutting and 3D printing are now available in the home for under £1000.
Ease of use
If you can feed in a spool of plastic and use a simple CAD package, you are pretty much ready to go. No expensive lasers or complex calibration, limited user servicing or expensive components. If you lack 3D CAD modelling skills you can even get models for free off the internet.
Because the 3D printed object is constructed layer by layer, the outer shape and inner structure are not confined to what we already know nor are we limited by existing manufacturing techniques. Take for example the Airbus where recent experiments with 3D printing resulted in the door handles being re-engineered to take advantage of internal honeycomb based structures which meant the resulting product was up to 55% lighter with a reduction of materials up to 90%. No casting technique can produce complex internal structures like this and we have since seen a multitude of products from bicycles to artificial limbs taking advantage of the same technology.
Despite being limited to ABS or PLA in most classrooms, 3D printing is capable of making objects in edible ingredients, metal and even organic materials such as skin and bone. Once mere science fiction, the transporters in Star Trek are edging closer to reality….well at least for materialising a pizza out of thin air!
It’s in the production of skeletal parts, joints, artificial limbs and organs that 3D printing is grabbing many of the headlines but if you can imagine and model it, a 3D printer can essentially produce it. One remarkable and very practical use of the technology was placing a 3D printer on the space station allowing tools to be produced without the need for a space launch to deliver the required parts. Amazing!
With my training as a 3D printer salesman complete, what are the real implications of the technology in the classroom?
Well, perhaps most importantly is the subject of cost which, at a time when budgets are being squeezed tighter than ever in D&T, means you can have a several machines for the cost of a replacement lens for the laser cutter. The technology requires students to think in 3D space and use CAD modelling techniques to develop their designs. The use of PLA with reduced wastage can teach students the need for more environmentally production methods but really these are all rudimentary reasons for investing in the technology.
Where 3D printing comes into its own is the ability to produce objects we haven’t seen before and this is evident from the explosion of creative ideas for the technology that pop up on the internet daily. At the time of writing, a heart has been printed so that surgeons could practise surgery in order to save a baby’s life and the technology is helping to complete the Sagrada Família in Barcelona after 133 years. Concrete houses are now being printed and a full size working car was printed in less than 50 hours! Scientists have even used the technology to print 3D versions of famous paintings so the visually impaired can experience the beauty of art.
Much of this is beyond the scope of the classroom but the inspiration is very relevant to design & technology students for whom this will likely be a common, or possibly even archaic, method of production in their adult life. The technology is already sat there in many classrooms and soon the only limit will be their imaginations. We need to inspire them to challenge convention and think beyond what they, and their teachers, already know about structures and the way objects are created.
So, whether it’s a novelty or a necessity depends on how you use it. Print 3D puzzles and models of your teacher’s head and it will only ever be a novelty; which will soon wear off. As this is undoubtedly the year when virtual reality finally arrives, there are now more immersive ways of exploring design within a 3D space. For thousands of years the way we have fashioned objects from raw materials has changed very little but 3D printing, more than just being a means to make objects, is a tool to question how objects could be designed and made in the future and for that reason it’s not just necessary but invaluable.
Paul has taught design and technology for 23 years in a range of schools with stints as HOD and Head of a Creative Arts Faculty. He writes and illustrates children's books and works as an examiner and moderator of resistant materials for the AQA.
His Subject Genius blog is shortlisted for the 2016 TES Awards.