Sunday, June 26, 2011

We're Way Past Buck Rogers Now

Good morning.

“And the beat goes on…………………..”

Sci Fi Reality - 3D Printing

This is mind boggling to me.  It seems so science fiction.

From the February 12, 2011 issue of the Economist
"FILTON, just outside Bristol, is where Britain’s fleet of Concorde supersonic airliners was built. In a building near a wind tunnel on the same sprawling site, something even more remarkable is being created. Little by little a machine is “printing” a complex titanium landing-gear bracket, about the size of a shoe, which normally would have to be laboriously hewn from a solid block of metal. Brackets are only the beginning. The researchers at Filton have a much bigger ambition: to print the entire wing of an airliner.

Far-fetched as this may seem, many other people are using three-dimensional printing technology to create similarly remarkable things. These include medical implants, jewellery, football boots designed for individual feet, lampshades, racing-car parts, solid-state batteries and customised mobile phones. Some are even making mechanical devices. At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Peter Schmitt, a PhD student, has been printing something that resembles the workings of a grandfather clock. It took him a few attempts to get right, but eventually he removed the plastic clock from a 3D printer, hung it on the wall and pulled down the counterweight. It started ticking."

3D printing is science fiction become reality. It is a form of additive manufacturing technology where a three dimensional object is created by laying down successive layers of material. A 3D printer works by taking a 3D computer file (a file that can be created or downloaded to your computer) and constructing from it a series of cross-sectional slices. Each slice is then”printed” one on top of the other to create the 3D (actual / real) object. Any number of materials – from polymers to resins, from glass to ceramics can be used to create the “object” being printed (it’s kind of hard to grasp that an actual physical object can be “printed” at all).  The printers range in size depending on the size of the object that will be printed.

A large number of competing technologies are available to do 3D printing. Their main differences are found in the way layers are built to create parts. Some methods use melting or softening material to produce the layers, e.g. selective laser sintering (SLS) and fused deposition modeling (FDM), while others lay liquid materials that are cured with different technologies. In the case of lamination systems, thin layers are cut to shape and joined together.

As the Economist noted: "Printing in 3D may seem bizarre. In fact it is similar to clicking on the print button on a computer screen and sending a digital file, say a letter, to an inkjet printer. The difference is that the “ink” in a 3D printer is a material which is deposited in successive, thin layers until a solid object emerges. However it is achieved, after each layer is complete the build tray is lowered by a fraction of a millimetre and the next layer is added."

Each method has its advantages and drawbacks, and consequently some companies offer a choice between powder and polymer as the material from which the object emerges. Generally, the main considerations are speed, cost of the printed prototype, cost of the 3D printer, choice of materials and colour capabilities.

In 2006, Sébastien Dion, John Balistreri and others at Bowling Green State University began research into 3D rapid prototyping machines, creating printed ceramic art objects. This research has led to the invention of ceramic powders and binder systems that enable clay material to be printed from a computer model and then fired for the first time.

In short, 3D Printing is a fabrication process, originally designed for low cost, fast creation of one of a kind prototypes. It is quickly developing into desktop home applications, and like every other technology, the size of the machines is shrinking as is the cost. We are really quite close to all being able to download a computer file and “print” or create an object (at least a small object) from that file in a wide range of materials right at home. Larger objects will have to use common 3D Printers that will doubtless be available for short term rent.

Indeed, commercialization has already begun.  Freedom of Creation is a website seeking to enable 3D Printing - from creation to marketplace.  And Open City Design is a combination of space, community and resources that includes the 3D Printing platform option at an affordable price.   Click here for a video You Tube link to a rap about Open City and the concept. 

I cannot but imagine that this will be an extraordinary development for artists and for access to art. It is likely to have profound impact on (at the least an expansion of) who creates and what they create. For the most part, 3D Printing has initially had applications in the design world, but it won’t be long until it becomes a part of both creation and distribution of sculpture and perhaps even other art forms.  And not just for a few, but for everyone.

I suppose it will herald debate as to what constitutes art and the artist. For example, as long as sculpture has existed, great artists were those who had not only the vision as to the finished work of art, but also those whose talent and skill in the manipulation of hammer and chisel or clay or whatever was unique and extraordinary. 3D Printing may well allow for the creation of exemplary works without the latter skills of dexterity, emphasizing almost exclusively the visioning process. And the programmer as artist.

As to access, how might that change if instead of seeing a picture of a Ming Dynasty vase in a book, or going to the museum where the original might be on display – one could afford to simply “print or make” a copy and add it to one’s home collection? Or the artist could sell limited numbered editions of works without  the expense of an initial inventory.   Like all art forms I doubt any replication process can ever replace physical proximity to the real thing (and that is why television cannot fully replicate the experience of the movie theater, and the movie theater cannot fully replace seeing a live play, and viewing a photo of a Picasso is not the same experience as seeing the original). Nonetheless, this may be somewhat of yet another technological game changer.

At the least it will allow for many, many more people to create new works, and for many others to have a different kind of experience in viewing certain art. I leave to others critical review of what might someday be produced and criticism of the methodology.

What does it mean for us? I’m not sure. But I think it is one more example of how technology is developing so rapidly and in ways so unanticipated, that our relevance in nurturing both the creation of art and its widespread access has to start taking all of this into consideration in everything we do.  This is but another example of the changes happening around us while we continue to talk about the past.

Have a great week.

Don't Quit.