3D printing is the buzz word of the moment. Some say we will all soon be printing out nifty little plastic things on our home 3D printers. It is already possible to replicate body parts for implantation in the human body. There is no doubt the technology is changing how we think about manufacturing and making things. But if you have only just heard of it, you might be interested to know that it has been around for quite some time.
First patented in the 1980s, 3D printing, often called additive manufacturing, builds parts one layer at a time to create a three dimensional object. In contrast most traditional techniques involved removing layers of material to form a shape, also called subtractive manufacturing. Early 3D printing machines were quite expensive and were initially used in industry for rapid prototyping, allowing designs to be made and tested quickly without the need to create expensive moulds or tools. This enabled designers to quickly refine their ideas before they were presented to the toolmaker or manufacturer.
The Powerhouse Museum collection includes a number of objects made using 3D printing techniques. Probably the earliest example is the prototype for the body of the Dolphin torch (2001) made using a rapid prototyping technique called Selective Laser Sintering (SLS). This method builds plastic parts or objects a layer at a time by tracing a laser beam on the surface of a tightly compacted bed of powdered thermoplastic material. Heat from the laser melts the powder and bonds it together to form a layer of the object. The entire bed of powder is moved down one layer thickness and a new layer of powder spread over the surface. The laser is then applied again to create the next layer. This process is repeated until the entire object is fabricated. After the object is fully formed the excess powder is simply brushed away and some final manual finishing may be carried out.
The Cochlear ‘Freedom’ oversized design model (2003) is an example of one of the earliest and most widely used rapid prototyping techniques, stereolithography (SLA). The model of a curved behind-the-ear (BTE) speech processor and earhook is made from photopolymer and consists of three parts: the ear hook, speech processor and internal battery holder. The use of 3D printing enabled the Freedom speech processor to be developed in record time. The first fully functional clinical devices were available only six months after the electrical and mechanical design began. The very first devices available for clinical trial were assembled in SLA prototype shells, rather than in moulded plastic shells, however these devices exhibited all the design features and were fully functional.
Stereolithography uses data from a 3D computer model to build plastic parts or objects one layer at a time by tracing a laser beam on the surface of a vat of liquid photopolymer. This material quickly solidifies wherever the laser beam strikes the surface of the liquid. Once a layer is completely traced, it is lowered a small distance into the vat and the next layer is traced on top of it. The self-adhesive property of the material causes the layers to bond to one another and eventually form a complete three dimensional object.
This prototype for the Breville citrus press juicing cone or reamer (2003) was used by a designer at Breville to juice citrus fruit in a working prototype and determine the optimum shape for the reamer. More than 20 prototypes were made using 3D computer data. These were tested and modified by hand to obtain the perfect shape for juicing all types of citrus fruit. Each prototype was made overnight in a fused deposition modelling (FDM) rapid prototyping machine in the Breville design studio. The designer modified this original prototype by hand and then digitally scanned it back into the 3D computer model to complete the final design. The 3D data for the final design was sent to the toolmaker and manufacturer in China for testing and production.
As 3D printing technology has developed, machines have become cheaper and more refined. The technology has moved beyond prototyping into production across many industries including aerospace, biotech, fashion and medical technology.
The Museum’s collection includes a contemporary reinterpretation of lace made using 3D printing techniques. The ‘Fin de Siècle‘ work by Gwyllim Jahn won the student category in the Powerhouse Museum’s International Lace Award in 2010. A recent acquisition of jewellery by Bin Dixon-Ward explores explores ‘the capacity in this technology to create fine structures that could be wearable and flexible’. The ring and necklace are made of 3D printed interlocking square shapes of different sizes, which when linked create the overall form. The ‘Crossbox (4) 2013‘ necklace was made specifically for the Powerhouse Museum. It will be displayed along with other 3D printed jewellery in the upcoming exhibition A fine possession: jewellery and identity from September 2014.
Now 3D printing is capable of producing objects made from a range of materials. New multi-material printers can produce objects that change over time – dubbed 4D printing. This technology is making it possible to design and make objects that are dynamic and respond to their environment. 3D printing of biological material, including human tissue, is a potential application with far-reaching implications for the future of medicine.
Find out more about 3D printing at these upcoming events at the Powerhouse Museum: 3D Print Sydney (10 June), Hothouse (18 June), Sydney Design (16-24 August) and A fine possession: jewellery and identity (September 2014).
Angelique Hutchison, Curator