3D printing is a technology that was cresting the hype cycle several years back, and that has since mostly remained in the trough of disillusionment phase. While many technologies witnessed a marked acceleration in their adoption as the result of the global pandemic, the slow progression of advancement in various use cases for 3D printing techniques seems to have been mostly unaffected. Still, we’re starting to see some applications approach the plateau of productivity, and there may be viable uses yet for the technology in the experience economy.

What’s in a name?

Various methods of “additive manufacturing” have been used for making 3D solid objects from computer files since the 1980s. That term is now used interchangeably with the more common name “3D printing” – though technically that refers only to the printing part of the process. Semantics aside, creating and using digital files, and programming a printer to turn them into a solid, tangible object, layer by layer, is now something that’s familiar to most people.

For the purposes of this article, I will specifically exclude a few applications that often get called 3D printing in order to focus on the core of the technology. One such exception is the additive “printing” of food, such as pizzas. The fact that food is a different type of product than what we think of as manufactured items makes such efforts a very different kind of industry. And the health and sanitary considerations in preparing food meant for human consumption further separate these technologies.

Somewhat similarly, there is the bioprinting of human organs and other body parts. That’s a fascinating topic and one that’s easily worthy of an article all its own. The technology has potentially huge benefits for multiple areas of medicine. Some medical uses such as surgical implants or 3D printed prosthetics actual fit squarely within the definition of manufactured items. Others, such as spinal scaffolds for use in surgeries blur the line a bit more. Nevertheless, the avoid any confusion, we’ll leave here and further consideration of medical procedures.

One last exclusion I’ll invoke is building construction – while the use of additive techniques to pour concrete or other materials into a structure based on a model is exciting and decidedly similar, the scale of such endeavors puts it into a slightly different realm. And the overall complexity of construction projects complicates such conversations. The technologies here are evolving rapidly and I’d say this might be the most likely to merge into some of the more traditional manufacturing methods.

In any case, I will skip over all those things and concentrate on some more mainstream uses of the term “3D printing.”

Our current state

3D printing technologies are available for printing objects in a variety of materials, from metal to stone. These printers have become extremely sophisticated in recent years. But when most of us think of 3D printed items we picture plastics. Printing with plastic and resin filaments is indeed becoming both more affordable and more common.

I recently bought a property that had a large plastic storage shed that was old but in fairly good shape overall. Unfortunately, however, several of the screws holding it together had snapped due to their age and a defect in their manufacture. The screws were an unusual proprietary item and the original maker of the shed was no longer in business so replacement parts were not readily available. But I was able to inexpensively scan and reprint those screws in a more durable ABS for a tiny fraction of what it would have cost to replace the whole shed.

That’s just one example of a practical consumer use for 3D printing that’s available today. They can even print damaged parts from old machines as large as old B52 Air Force bombers and as small as vintage cameras. Combined with improved photogrammetry processes, one can easily imagine many more. In that previous article I wrote about my dentist, who used a CNC-like machine to cut down a crown to match my tooth. Sure enough, a quick check of Gartner’s hype cycle curve shows the 3D printing of dental devices already into the slope of enlightenment in 2019.

Just a few years ago it seemed that everyone was promising that 3D printers would soon be in every home, or at least in every business. That may have been overly optimistic, but it’s still reasonable to think that we’ll see a marked increase in their personal and commercial use over the next several years. Many types of businesses do already use them for creating rapid prototypes (manufacturers, engineers) and small-scale models (architects, automakers).

The ability to send a file across the world and have it printed locally can reduce both shipping and travel, especially helpful during pandemic travel restrictions. It could help architects show building models to overseas clients and help engineers collaborate with far-flung manufacturing facilities. In some cases artists could even send sculptures to be printed for display. And, if desired, these objects can even be destroyed (or recycled) after use, because they can be easily recreated in the future.

Art and math

For creatives, the uses of 3D printing are seemingly endless. To some artists the process is about using new substances as mediums for expression. They think about these filaments just as they do ceramics or other materials that can be molded to their will, based on their unique set of skills. Others approach the use of computer software and printers to make art from a more algorithmic direction. One need only look at the variety of forms created by 3D printing to get some idea of the diversity in the creative processes.

Math has a long history in art theory, and many natural forms, from pine cones to nautilus shells, follow complex mathematical principles. Modeling mathematical forms in software comes naturally, and 3D printing them is a logical next step. So there are an abundance of fascinating projects involving “math art” and 3D printing. I’m partial to cubic trefoil knots (important for mathematical know theory) personally. Hilbert cubes and gyroids are some other mathematical objects that can be quote aesthetically pleasing.

3D printing can allow us to visualize mathematical principles like fractals via beautiful designs. For instance, Sierpiński triangles can be formed into a pyramid of ever-smaller triangles. As a tactile object, this makes a nice conversation piece, and it simultaneously make fractals easier to conceptualize. Similarly, Klein bottles are complicated 2D surfaces that resemble a bottle folding back on itself. They are mathematical similar to the more commonly know Mobius strip.

3D printing such objects makes them much more understandable, and many lovely examples can be found. Beyond their beauty, the printing of impossible shapes often allows the creation of objects that would be otherwise very difficult to manufacture.

In many ways, 3D printing pushes the boundaries of art in a good way, allowing us to make once-impossible shapes. Researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology have created a one-step approach to fabricating complex origami structures. This methodology allows the printing of complex geometry with no assembly required. And by creating objects and forms that mimic nature, researchers have been able to explore nature in a whole new way – duplicating it layer by layer.

3D printing can be merged with other technologies as well. Ioan Florea’s 3D Printed Tactile Art collection is composed of interactive GLB digital files sold off as NFTs, utilizing the blockchain in and interesting way.

History and preservation

Cultural institutions and archaeologists have also found interesting ways to utilize 3D printing. The whole process of additive manufacturing has not only been used to bring computer files to life but to reanimate architectural and artistic objects that have been worn down by time or demolished altogether.

Lost cities can be scanned with ground penetrating radar and scale models printed for study. Partial skeletons and fossils can be recreated as they would have existed when new. Iranian artist Morehshin Allahyari responded to the destruction of cultural monuments by ISIL by recreating them via 3D printing so they can be preserved for posterity.

Museums such as the Smithsonian have used the technology to recreate pieces from their collections. The new models can then be used in education and study. Since the duplicates are not one-of-a-kind artifacts, they can be handled by children or those with visual disabilities allowing for a more personal and tangible experience.

Fashion plates

The idea of sci-fi-esque 3D printed clothing has been intriguing people in the fashion world for years. In recent years, some designers have really embraced the technology and are driving interesting innovations.

Dutch designer Anouk Wipprecht has become known for using new technologies to design clothing with unexpected features. Early in the pandemic she used 3D printing (and other tech) to create the Proximity Dress, which could sense movement near the wearer and respond by expanding to create a kind of barrier. This built upon work the designer has been doing for years, having several years earlier introduced the robotic Spider Dress, which also responded to those invading the wearer’s personal space.

Many designers have been experimenting with 3D printing in more mainstream clothing. Danit Peleg decided to design an entire fashion collection and 3D print it herself, demonstrating a departure from the traditional manufacturing process of the fashion industry. Julia Daviy has used 3D printing to create biodegradable fashion and to produce clothes in more sustainable ways. Her “Zero Waste” 3D printed personalized skirt is claimed to produces less than 1% waste during production by using recyclable filaments.

Such experiments are also able to be uniquely personalized and fitted to each individual customer. Ministry of supply has offered a 3D printed knit blazer for several years now, even flaunting the printer at its Boston flagship store. The say that the 3D printing process allows the pieces to be more adapted to the body and to its movements.

Accessories too

3D printing of footwear is fast becoming a lucrative industry. Sneakers are somewhat on the forefront here, given their materials, need for shock absorption and relatively sizable market. Last year Adidas introduced the STRUNG 3D printed running shoe. Nike’s Vaporfly used a 3D printed upper several years earlier. Reebok and New Balance used 3D printed elements in some of their shoes even earlier than that.

These days, pretty much all major sneaker manufacturers use 3D printing for rapid prototyping, so adapting the technology into their manufacturing processes makes sense. A little further from the traditional fashion world, some of the most high-end bicycle saddles are now 3D printed. I very nearly bought one recently.

High-end fashion and women’s shoes are also getting in on the act. Annie Foo is a designer of who uses 3D printing technologies in the manufacturing process. Her 3D printed shoes clearly embrace the aesthetic inherent in the medium. Iris van Herpen is another designer that has created high fashion 3D printed shoes. VIP TIE is an Italian company known for 3D printing ties. The company’s stated goal is to offer fashion accessories that are highly personalized so as to satisfy customer desires.

Jewelry makers are also getting in on the fun by making far more intricate designs on smaller pieces thanks to the precision of these printers. Those can be used as models before creating a final piece in precious metals or to create the final piece itself. VOJD Studios is one startup that creates 3D printed accessories and jewelry to challenge the perceptions of conformity.

Marketing plans

But what about use of 3D printing as a marketing tool? It once seemed reasonable to think that every large trade show booth would be outfitted with a bank of 3D printers, churning out personalized swag for customers to take home. We definitely saw early implementations along those lines – personalized figurines of customers made from submitted photos or customized models based on customer preferences.

Such elements may someday make a return, but for now brands have concluded that such giveaways are both too expensive and too slow to make sense as part of their event strategies. Most technologies do become cheaper and faster over time, so realization of this vision may just be a matter of time. In the meantime, we’ve mostly seen 3D printing at events where it relates to the brand’s business or manufacturing processes.

Auto brands in particular make prodigious use of the technology. We’ve seen numerous 3D printed prototypes at recent auto shows. Fashion week events featuring some of the aforementioned designers have also occasionally made a splash. We’ve even some shows crossing the boundaries of fashion and industrial design such as Rolls Royce’s Black Badge campaign in 2019.

3D printing technology has advanced enough in recent years that it’s a potentially powerful tool for driving engagement and starting interesting conversations. For the right brand with the right brief, there are a lot of creative possibilities to be explored.

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