3D printing is one of the latest technology trends to enthuse the public and excite the journalist. Universities are using them for research tools, manufacturers for rapid prototyping, and schools are starting to buy them for their design and technology classrooms. Indeed, earlier this year, Festival-alumnus Luke Johnson called for help in an FT article to place one in every UK school, rather than just the privileged few that could afford the investment.
And 3D printing is certainly worthy of attention. For once we are starting to consider building complex structures in an additive way; brick-by-brick on a much smaller scale. This is second nature to those brought up on Lego, and this is also second nature to Nature herself. We as humans grow by the slow but accurate deployment of new cells, seashells extend by the gradual deposition of mainly calcium carbonate, and striking geological formations build up by sedimentation of rock and debris.
So we have been witness to additive manufacturing since the day we were born, yet we tend to manufacture most artificial things using subtractive techniques on moulded or extruded billets. This is a little wasteful of material, and not particularly elegant. Imagine if trees began life as solid 100-foot-tall blocks of wood and gradually eroded to reveal their structure with a large pile of waste shavings at their foot?
As we get to grips with 3D printing, one of the key milestones will be our ability to manipulate materials during the process to create continuously changing compositions. Look carefully at that tree again, and you will see that the deposited cells create a structure that transcends through root, wood, bark, softer wood, leaf, and fruit. And these themselves have complexities visible only on the micro-scale.
So our ability to slowly 3D print a lump of plastic, albeit in a complex shape, is not really enough to congratulate ourselves about. When we can control the self-assembly of a series of structures that seamlessly change from metal to polymer to ceramic so as to provide functional mechanical and electrical properties in just the right places, we are getting there. The test, for example, might be to 3D print the electric lightbulb. Any bright ideas?
Adrian Burden, Festival Founder