Last Thursday I attended the 3D printing event held at the Merchiston Campus of Napier University in Edinburgh and organised by the Scottish Plastics and Rubber Association. The speaker was Ralph McNeill, founder of the 3D Print Works based in East Kilbride, a retailer of 3D printers and consumables and manufacturers of their own brand of filament, Elefilament PLA. Ralph had brought an array of 3D printers to the event for demonstration purposes, and it was quite interesting to see some of models I had only been reading about online in the flesh, particularly a RepRap Rostock they had built themselves. While the talk was interesting, it catered to an audience completely unfamiliar with 3D printing, and a lot of it was just a reiteration of familiar facts for me. However, towards the end things became more interesting, when Ralph passed around samples and a prototype of a large scale direct drive extruder printhead they had been developing in their workshops.
Now that FDM, or more precisely, FFF (Fused Filament Fabrication) is increasingly moving into the consumer market, thoughts are turning to how to scale this technology to make bigger (read: more immediately useful) things. While everybody loves their ‘Marvin’ keyrings and PLA Iphone cases, these are consumer products of a non-essential nature. Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could print tables or chairs with a giant 3D printer, or even whole housing estates as has recently been touted in China? Of the two obvious points of development that are being tackled in relation to FFF – quality of materials used and scale – the latter just has a more monumental, immediately impressive and immensely profitable ring to it. Imagine ramshackle shanty towns replaced by clean, cheap, 3D-printed housing! Imagine constructing structures that were impossible to even imagine a few decades ago in weeks rather than months. Free 3D printed furniture for all!
For anyone who has engaged with the ideas of Le Corbusier and his Urban Utopia, the rhetoric behind these ideas sounds awfully familiar. And the flaws become immediately apparent. While it is wonderful to imagine a world in which we all live in beautifully designed, open-plan housing developments featuring huge communal spaces and walkways in the sky (and anyone who knows me knows that I would love to do nothing more), these lofty ideals always get corrupted by the desire to either save or make money. While a future in which you custom design your own house complete with furniture and then take residence a few short weeks later when it has been beautifully printed by the contractors is immensely appealing, I fear that this approach will more likely lead to aesthetic abominations driven by a desire to cut costs and a race to the bottom. As of yet, scaling up the process of FFF comes with its own, very physical, realities – when increasing the nozzle size, you end up with thicker layers that tend not to blend together so easily.
Scaling resolution to achieve a desirable finish will be a huge issue – one the Chinese appear to have solved by encasing the 3D printed shells in layers of plasterboard in a very traditional fashion. But then, the question arises, what’s the point of 3D printing a house in the first place?