3D tech: a new dimension

While 3D film has struggled to find its place, other forms of 3D technology could revolutionise the way we make things – from precision engineering to living tissue. Vision considers the latest innovations

For most of us, our experiences with three-dimensional technology (3D) start and end at the cinema: wearing the garish red-and-green specs popular in the 1970s and 1980s, or watching James Cameron’s record-breaking 2009 blockbuster Avatar. We’ve yet to experience 3D in other, more meaningful ways – but that’s all about to change.

Whereas 3D film is about depth perception – creating the illusion of something in three dimensions – 3D printing allows the construction of precise, complex 3D objects without the need for laborious hand-modelling or machining. Though 3D printing has been used for some time in engineering and industrial design, recent advances mean the cost of the technology has reduced dramatically.

“This is the most exciting time ever to be an engineer, an industrial designer, or an architect. We’ve put the factory into a little box. The factory can be one person at home again,” says Bre Pettis, CEO of MakerBot, a brand of 3D printer.

Growing capabilities

At its most basic level, a 3D printer is a modified ink-jet printer that deposits successive layers of material until a three-dimensional object is built up. It typically uses only a tenth of the material used from machining a part from bulk, and any waste material can potentially be reused. The material used for printing can be a thermoplastic such as acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS), polylactic acid or polycarbonate, metallic powders, clays or even living cells, depending on what you want to use it for.

Inside a clean, quiet office in Dubai Investments Park, Lothar Hohmann, the CEO of PRECISE, is using the newest 3D printers to make tiny versions of you, a tenth of the size, in just a few hours.

The TIM (This Is Me), introduced in 2012, is made by taking a scan of your entire body using a combination of scanners, lasers and camera equipment, taking typically just two to three seconds. The composite image is then fed into a printer as a digital file, and the machine will print a layer of powder just 0.0875mm thick, followed by an ink-jet machine to give it colour. The process is then repeated thousands of times to create an accurate version of you.

Architects no longer have to spend hours painstakingly constructing models of their projects for clients. Building designs created using CAD software can simply be sent to a 3D printer. Dutch architecture studio Universe Architecture, however, is taking that concept one step further, by attempting to print an entire, liveable house in the same way they print models.

With the help of a giant printer, the Landscape House will be printed in sections of up to six by nine metres, using a mixture of sand and a binding agent to create artificial sandstone. The house, designed as one surface folded into an endless Möbius band, would be printed in as little as six months with assembly taking another six.

“In traditional construction, you have to make a mould of wood, and you fill it with concrete, and then you take out the wood – it’s a waste of time and energy. [Now] you can print what you want – it’s a more direct way of constructing,” says Janjaap Ruijssenaars, an architect working on the project.

Multi-material possibilities

But while Hohmann and Ruijssenaars have been exploring how 3D printing can help make solid shapes, designer Iris van Herpen has been tapping 3D printing’s ability to make more fluid objects.

At Paris Fashion Week this year, the designer, along with printers Stratasys, created an 11-piece set made without a bolt of cloth or string of thread in sight. Using multi-material 3D printing technology (a combination of hard and soft materials), they created clothes that could move and flex like any other, but with intricate forms that traditional techniques would struggle to replicate.

“I believe it will only be a matter of time before we see the clothing we wear today produced with this technology, and it’s because it’s such a different way of manufacturing, adding layer by layer, it will be a great source of inspiration for new ideas,” says van Herpen.

The rapid evolution of 3D is already changing other industries. In medicine, scientists are developing ways of printing living organs including kidneys and hearts, which could potentially solve the organ donor crisis. In the US, researchers at Wake Forest University in North Carolina have collaborated with the Armed Forces Institute for Regenerative Medicine to bio-print cells directly onto skin wounds of mice to accelerate the healing process.

3D, it seems, is only limited by our imagination. Gabor and Andras Forgacs’ company Modern Meadow is working on printing meat for human consumption and has produced a prototype for producing hamburgers that don’t require farming, slaughter or processing.

“Will the future involve us going into a shop and asking for a green bucket and the shopkeeper printing it? No. But what this technology offers is an opportunity to create products perfectly tailored to one person’s needs,” concludes Hohmann. The future then, is not only three-dimensional, but printable, too.