Complex, intricate work in less time and with less errors – that’s the promise of rapid prototyping, a relatively new design paradigm that allows concepts to be visualised, tested and realised via three-dimensional (3D) printing technology.
“Rapid prototyping enables ideas to be optimised and conveyed more accurately,” says Roderick Bamford, an artist and lecturer at the School of Design Studies at the University of NSW’s College of Fine Arts. He uses the technology to print works in porcelain, bone china and clay, and in his experience, rapid prototyping works to reduce faults because, “The correlation of data between drawing, model and visualisation – shared among collaborators or project stakeholders – reduces the incidence of error through misinterpretation of information.”
Rapid prototyping also allows for the creation of forms not possible with traditional or analogue techniques. “For example, objects that have moving joints can be created through printing in one piece rather than by creating sections and then joining them,” says Bamford. “This is the interesting, creative spectrum associated with the technology.” It’s also the reason rapid prototyping has been labelled by some as the future of manufacturing and consumer shopping, with people one day able to print out their purchases from home.
Three-dimensional printing technology first became available in the late 1980s, when it was used to create model parts and prototypes. A decade later, Johannes Kuhnen, head of Gold and Silversmithing at the Australian National University’s School of Art, travelled to Ohio in the United States with a colleague to inspect and purchase a rapid prototyping machine.
“We ended up buying what was called a ‘fuse disposition modelling machine’ – a hybrid machine that was cross between an inkjet printer and mig welder,” Kuhnen says. “It produced a stream of plastic that ran out of a heated nozzle and put down each layer.”
The machine cost the university in excess of $350,000. The printing materials themselves were also expensive and, “it was only rapid by name,” says Kuhnen.“You could have watched grass grow at a faster rate!”
Of course, the technology has evolved and advanced at a rapid rate. Today the School of Art has a smaller, polymer-based machine in a jewellery scale. “The jewellery industry has embraced rapid prototyping,” says Kuhnen. “A lot of conventional jewellery is now done on these machines – although they’re still using the same designs they’ve used for hundreds of years. I always admire people who use the technology intelligently. It gives you the ability to do pieces you can’t do by hand.”
His case in point: Sydney-based artist and metalsmith and School of Art graduate Cinnamon Lee, who melds traditional gold and silversmithing techniques with 3D computer modelling and rapid prototyping technology to create enigmatic jewellery and lighting designs. “Her rings you can’t do by hand,” says Kuhnen. “They’re really clever.”
Bamford points to award-winning American studio .MGX by Materialise, and Massachusetts-based studio Nervous System, which both use 3D printing methods using epoxy and polyamide to create MC Escher-like lighting, furniture and accessories. The shapes and concepts are based on natural phenomena –such as fingerprints, mathematical sequences and the honeycomb structure of insect eyes –but would be impossible to produce by hand. Bamford’s own experiments with rapid prototyping technology have led to direct printing of ceramics using a paste-dispensing print head he’s developed by “tinkering with machine settings. It’s interesting as it offers a whole new aesthetic territory to be explored,” he says.
As the scope and possibilities for rapid prototyping continue to increase – “Plastic car parts are now produced by 3D printing,” says Bamford – and the technology becomes cheaper and more accessible, its influence on how we design will surely continue to grow. Yet, while the potency of rapid prototyping lies in its ability to help creatives explore and realise ideas, “There is much more to design or art than the act of creating a physical object,” says Bamford. “Concepts behind the work and their relevance and impact are fundamentally important, and as such will remain the driving force of future art and design.”
Kuhnen agrees: “While rapid prototyping is an essential tool for the future, it only works if students have a material understanding – materiality is so essential for design. Rapid prototyping removes that to some extent and that’s a big danger. The people who design now, they don’t have the connection to materiality, they’re all using computers,” he says. “It only works if students have a material understanding of design. You can’t replace hands-on training in studios with rapid prototyping and computer design.”