Thing-o-Matic. It is, you’d have to admit, a pretty good name, writes Edwin Heathcote. It sounds like something Wile E. Coyote might attempt to clobber Road Runner with. Or perhaps some device from Dr Seuss. But it is, according to Chris Anderson, editor of Wired magazine, the harbinger of a new industrial revolution.
The Thing-o-Matic is a flat-pack box costing as little as $1,000 with very clever machinery inside. Its manufacturers’ name, MakerBot, gives a clue to what it does. It is a rapid prototype machine: designs are fed in, things come out. Anderson, in his book Makers: The New Industrial Revolution, suggests that these personal manufacturing robots will radically democratise design. With one in their garage, everyone will be able to envisage an object and realise it.
It is a seductive vision. The dream of creation, invention and production all in a single package. Anderson is not the only one to have been seduced. Just as the internet has revolutionised the media, putting comment and distribution into the hands of the masses, so, the thinking goes, the “Maker Movement” espoused by Anderson and others will fundamentally shift design and production from the factory to the home.
It might. Then again, it might not. Predicting how technologies will change everyday life has a ropey history. Professor Erasmus Wilson declared in 1878: “When the Paris Exhibition closes, electric light will close with it and no more will be heard of it.” “Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?” asked Harry Warner, one of the Warner Brothers in 1927. “There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home,” stated Ken Olson, president and founder of the Digital Equipment Corp, explaining why the PC would be a non-starter. Or, more recently, take text messaging. This was an engineers’ add-on to mobile phones, originally used for testing systems, yet it became the essential mode of communication we all know.
At the moment, it certainly looks as if rapid prototyping, which has been in wide use in industry for more than two decades, is going to radicalise production. There is even now a machine, the RepRap (deliciously tongue-in-cheek), which is designed to do nothing else than to reproduce itself, creating clones as it goes. It has made the creation of prototype parts, from machine parts to furniture components and coffee cups, hugely simpler. The CAD details are fed in and the machine is left sintering overnight, so that a ready-made 3D part can be found in the morning. It is like a spider spinning a web. It has also transformed architectural and furniture models: there is no difference between the making of a simple and a complex form, and the most intricate and curvaceous of designs can be manufactured with the same ease as a simple solid cube.
The technology is also, now, beginning to have an impact on the final product. Young designers who have grown up with the technology are beginning to use it directly not just to prototype but to manufacture. Dutch designer Dirk van der Kooij has built his reputation on it. His Endless Chair is made from a continuous string of material recycled from the insides of scrapped refrigerators. To continue the analogy of the spider’s web, the chair is spun in a continuous motion by a robot arm and the production process itself becomes part of the theatre of the object.
As it is all one process, there are no joints or junctions, just a seamless form. Colour can be added into the material during production so painting or finishing is not necessary, and if a customer wants a slightly smaller child-size version, or a larger one for a tall adult, it is just a question of adjusting the percentage setting to enlarge or shrink the final product.
The result is an intriguing design – but one which, perhaps, has gained more attention for the process than the product. Manufacture through rapid prototyping technologies is still, in its way, a fad.
It has proved a remarkable boon for anyone who has set up a garage business making customised model soldiers or chess pieces and the occasional novelty item like the first item made by a reproduced RepRap, a custom mobile phone holder for a Ford Fiesta. But it lacks some advantages of traditional industry. The old model was that prototyping was expensive, as was tooling up for production, but once that cost had been incurred, objects could be produced cheaply and in huge quantities, and the unit cost became far less. With rapid prototyping the millionth product costs as much as the first – and would emerge from production a few hundred years later.
But the idea of mass customisation appeals to a computer literate segment of the design world that sees the future in open-source software and designs that will allow users to tailor products to their own tastes and needs. The question, perhaps, is does everyone want to be a designer? It is easy to imagine an initial outpouring of creativity as people customise their iPhone cases or make funky jewellery, but will it ever be more than a hobby? Now, with the capacity to create website pages, everyone is a designer. With the self-assembly rapid prototype machine, everyone can be not only designer, but manufacturer.
Even so, to call it an industrial revolution, as Anderson does in his title, is to confuse industry with craft. The rapid prototyping machine is just a tool, a sophisticated one but a tool nevertheless. The more interesting version of its future is not in garage batch production of kitsch but in biotechnology. When the machines are able to build organic proteins it will be able to build hamburgers or beefsteaks or perhaps even human organs for transplant. It will come into its own, but perhaps not yet.
When the new furniture galleries open at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London on December 1, visitors will see the history of 600 years of design told through 200 pieces, writes Caroline Roux. Near the end of this marathon journey, they’ll arrive at two complex and intriguing objects that demonstrate what the future of furniture might look like.
The shiny brown Fractal table, designed by a German duo, Gernot Oberfell and Jan Wertel, with Matthias Bär in 2007, sits on massive branches which grow into increasingly smaller ones that finally form a dense top, mimicking the fractal patterns found in nature. And the One Shot stool by Patrick Jouin (2006) is a fully articulated twiggy-looking seat that twists into one neat stick for storage.
Both were created using 3D printing, a rapidly advancing technique that is changing the way products can be made. “Neither would be possible using any other technology or technique,” says Jana Scholze, the V&A’s curator for modern furniture and product design. “This represents a new design language.”
In 3D printing, a computer-controlled glue gun gradually layers up epoxy resin according to a 3D design contained in a CAD file. The specialists in this technique are a Belgium company called Materialise, which produced both the Fractal and the One Shot.
“In the past,” says the company’s creative director Joris Debo, “people worked with mathematicians to see what kind of complex shapes you could make. But now the design must speak for itself and we’re interested in craftsmanship and materials. It won’t be long before we’re using ceramics and glass.”
In the meantime, various creatives are making the most of the technology. Michael Eden, a ceramicist who says he spent “20 years sitting in a barn in Cumbria, making pre-industrial slip-decorated earthenware”, put himself on the contemporary map a few years ago when he started using 3D printing to create what he calls “culturally recognisable objects”.
He’s taken the famous Portland Vase, an exquisite black and white Roman glass vessel from AD25 that was reproduced by Wedgwood in 1790. Eden has recreated it in nylon and with facets – “like an origami version,” he says. “The idea came from the Google Art Project, where you can virtually walk through a museum and get up close to objects, but you’re still seeing them through a screen.”
Eden says he couldn’t work with technology without his previous experience. “I grew up whittling sticks. I need to understand materials.” Neither could the Suffolk potter Jonathan Keep, whose clay vessels are literally decorated with the sound of music. The making of a coil pot (where a “rope” of clay is layered on itself to form the pot shape) can be done from a computer file sent to a machine, and Keep contaminates the programme with sound from an MP3 file to create wiggles and disturbances in the final product. Steve Reich’s Drumming and Clapping result in a fairly smooth surface, while Benjamin Britten’s music gives a more frantic finish.
Keep has to stand by with a hairdryer to stiffen the extruded material as it is coiled upon itself to make sure the vessel grows straight. And as for the consistency of clay that he uses, “that’s intuitive,” he says. “I’m a potter. I know when it feels right. A machine can’t help with that.”
Jo Hayes Ward uses 3D printing to create the moulds for her gold jewellery. The pixellated look is a coincidence, she says: it comes from her love of building larger pieces out of small elements. She leaves the machine marks on the metal: “It adds a beautiful texture.”
The possibilities for 3D printing technology are enormous – once we can apply it to concrete, large parts of buildings could be printed on site. Materialise, meanwhile, is working with the aviation and automotive industries. But for the moment, the technology is at its most engaging for small creative projects. When Lola Lely wanted to create original cutlery for a Royal College of Art project last year, she couldn’t find a cutlery maker in Sheffield – the home of British steel – to take it on. But she did manage to send 3D files to a stainless steel printer in the UK who more usually makes aircraft parts.
Where a traditional manufacturer needs quantity to make a new product viable, a 3D one does not. “Now I’ve created a real product, the first factory I went to is becoming interested,” says Lely. “That’s the amazing thing – once you can create something real in a tiny quantity from a computer file, it opens up other possibilities.”
In fact, at the domestic level, a shift change has occurred. In September, the US company MakerBot launched the Replicator 2, which offers the same access to desktop manufacturing that the PC did to desktop printing a few decades ago. It costs $2,199 and works with PLA (a material made of biodegradable cornstarch) or the more industrial ABS (what Lego is made of) and means you can create toys, or jewellery, or little parts missing from damaged household gadgets (if you’re lucky, the files are buyable online). The company won’t divulge sales figures, although it has sold at least 13,000 of previous versions since 2009. It has also got development funds of around $10m from investors including Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon.
The results of the home printer are unlikely to end up in the V&A soon, but it probably won’t be long before we stop being bewildered by how it actually works, and are simply enthralled by what it can do.