The shape of modern manufacturing

The 3D printer may be the next big thing but only 6 per cent of Britons actually want to own one, according to a survey by London’s Design Mus­eum.

I know how the others feel: if I want to refill, curse and eventually as­sault a machine for failing to print what I asked it to, then a 2D version will do just fine.

The museum, however, takes a dim view of such Luddite attitudes and is out to reform them. Its new exhibition – The Future Is Here – seeks to show how new technologies such as 3D printing and robotics can become big business with a little help from stylish design.

The curators are in no doubt that we are on the brink of a new industrial revolution, with the dem­ocratisation of design and production blurring the boundaries between des­igners, manufacturers and consumers.

The exhibition starts with a recap of human manufacturing to date bef­ore leading on to a couple of models of 3D printers, which visitors are encouraged to use. These devices, which are increasingly prevalent at corporate events, were most recently in the headlines because of their ability to create a gun in the comfort of one’s own living room.

Perhaps with that in mind, one visitor at the press preview asks an attendant what it is possible to print on a 3D printer. “The only limitation is volume,” is the reply: the machine can produce anything so long as it fits within the printer.

Unfortunately, this turns out to be a simplification because soon the printer is also limited by its inability to communicate with the MacBook next to it. Two assistants scramble round for a different computer or cable.

When this hiccup is eventually addressed, the printer whirls into action. It works by using lasers to turn liquid resin into solid, plastic-like frames.

A few visitors eagerly await the result – only to be told that the model will take four and a half hours to complete. This is a rude awakening for most of us, who have to be somewhere else for lunch.

But nitpicking is probably unfair. This exhibition makes clear the bumps are part of the journey: its theme is a visceral excitement in what may or may not be possible in a couple of years. “What if digital manufacturing could challenge the established economies of scale?” says some blurb on a wall.

There is evidence that it already is. Vitamins, a design studio in Shoreditch, east London, uses open-source electronics to design ideas and then quickly churn out a prototype. “In the future you’re going to be able to change all the products around you to do exactly what you want them to do. It’s going to shift power into the hands of consumers,” Adrian Westaway, co-founder of Vitamins, says in a video in the exhibition.

The show also raises aesthetic questions about “mass customisation”. You can now buy a 3D printer for less than £800, but it is unlikely to offer the quality of more expensive factory machinery. Will we accept a few rough edges in return for a more customised design? Or will the revolution peter out when people decide that mass-produced is good enough?

The exhibition suggests a third path: gradually, we will cease to notice the difference bet­ween what is made by 3D printers and what isn’t. To make that point, it includes Bouncing Vases – sculptures by Ron Aran, the artist, which were among the first products to be made on a 3D printer.

“The fact that they’re 3D-printed is incidental,” says Alex Newson, the curator. “That’s where the real smart designers are working.”

These are interesting points, although overall the exhibition feels a little small and a little vague. Yet the point remains: Luddites, we have been warned.

The exhibition runs until October 29

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