New Technologies - 3D Printing Homewares

You can't ignore technology. It's everywhere. And more importantly it's changing the way we do every single thing. Probably exponentially. Over the next few weeks I'm going to be exploring how technological advances could potentially affect interior decorating and the way home-dwellers buy homeware products or use their homes.  The rise of 3D printing, home automation and internet shopping are affecting interior design alongside many other industries. And it's set to pick up pace in the future.

I want to start with 3D printing. Mainly because I've wanted to write about it for a while after meeting a very inspiring designer who owns Avargadi, the makers of a unique collection of botanically inspired lamps made from a corn-based material that is 100% biodegradable. I was so excited when I first found this range of products, I practically whooped in the middle of the market. It's not very often you get a product that ticks so many sustainable boxes. I was beside myself.  

 Daffodil Side Lamp Made With a 3D Printer Using Corn Based Material . Image Source  http://www.avargadi.com.au/

Daffodil Side Lamp Made With a 3D Printer Using Corn Based Material . Image Source  http://www.avargadi.com.au/

The box-ticking caused a fascination with the whole 3D-print movement. I'm overwhelmed with the potential this has to change the manufacturing process of homewares in the future. Additionally, the environmental and social gains of it are equally as big. So, how will 3D printing affect the way you go about designing and decorating your home? Why does it have such positive environmental and social gains?

So far, 3D printing has been left to the technical people to fathom out and use. The first time I came across it about 8 years ago, the printed item in question was practically useless (a lump of formed plastic) and I put it in the "geek' category of my brain and moved on. But 3D printing technology has developed and the industry grown to a point where you can really see the potential of it being in your life. Everyday. Sure there's still an element of "geek" and technological hurdles for us common lay people to leap over, but we can no longer hide away from the fact it's going to change the way we do business. Just like the internet did.

At the moment computer automated designs are developed using fairly complex software packages and sent to expensive, and often sensitive and complicated, 3D printers to create products and objects to sell. This includes basic homeware items. We're at a very embryonic stage, where those that are embracing it (and understand it) are making 'stuff'.  But the products are out there and we should be interested.  Buying a locally-made 3D printed product over another alternative has many positive outcomes. 

  Martha Stewart has teamed up with Makerbot to launch a collection of 3D-printed homewares. Image Source - www.designtaxi.com

Martha Stewart has teamed up with Makerbot to launch a collection of 3D-printed homewares. Image Source - www.designtaxi.com

Firstly, the actual construction method is an additive production method. What I mean by that is the raw material is used to create the actual shape of the product right from the outset. As a result there is no, or very little, waste. Many products at present are made using a subtractive production method, whereby the raw material is in a sheet or block and the components or sections are cut out, or moulded and removed. This results in left over material. Even if the waste is recycled or reused, a waste is generated and energy consumed to create another use for it. The additive production method is far superior in terms of efficient use of energy and material use.

 All of the raw material is used to create the form. There is no or little waste. Image Source - Youtube

All of the raw material is used to create the form. There is no or little waste. Image Source - Youtube

The other three major changes really affect the cost of a final product and bring even more benefits.  With 3D printing you have the potential to do small production runs (or even just one offs) which traditional forms of manufacture have not been able to do efficiently. This eliminates the need for storage,  a considerable cost factor in bringing products to the consumer. The trend of offshore storage with online interior / homeware companies is testament to that.  In addition, 3D printing has the potential to shrink the supply chain, bringing the production closer to the customer. If products are being printed closer to the customers home (and eventually in them - I'll get to that bit in a minute) then the reduction in transport costs and associated embodied energy is dramatically reduced or potentially eliminated. Finally, due to the automated nature of the process, after the initial design stage the actual cost to make the product in terms of labour is minimal. Many would argue that this is a bad effect with links to unemployment. But I disagree. One of the biggest blocks to buying Australian products are the labour costs increasing the price of the product so that it's not competitive compared to imported brands. 3D printing flips this on its head. Not only that, but 3D printing is likely to create a swath of new, different jobs as it restructures the way we do things.

What if I tell you that one day you're probably going to have access to a 3D printer yourself and will be printing items all by yourself? Let's just look at the way 3D printing is set to change the way we acquire a product.  Take a simple cookie cutter. Today, if you wanted to buy a pineapple shaped cookie cutter you would probably hop on the internet, google "pineapple cookie cutter" and source one pretty quickly. You would either buy it online and get it delivered to your home (from a local or overseas source) or find a local shop that stocked it and popped in to pick it up if you were in a rush for it. In the future you are more likely to jump on the internet, pay for and download a 'pattern', send that pattern to a 3D printer and then pick it up hot off the press.  Some of us might be brave enough to have a 3D printer at home, and for those of us that aren't, we'll be hooked up into a 3D Printing Community Hub or such like.

 You too could have a Dinosaur Shower head, if you had a 3D printer. Image Source: http://www.digitaltrends.com/

You too could have a Dinosaur Shower head, if you had a 3D printer. Image Source: http://www.digitaltrends.com/

The shrinking of the supply chain alongside the rise of the maker movement brings some very interesting new ways in which communities will work together. There's a long way to go yet, but already many more consumers have access to 3D-printing through open-source hardware at maker centers, DIY clubs and hacker spaces. They're like a technological version of mens' sheds, which have boomed in recent years.   An example of this is the 3D hubs network.  Through its website www.3dhubs.com it's connected more than 7,000 3D printers in less than a year. Combined with easier access to 3D modelling software and apps, which are accessible on every single piece of smart technology available, many more individuals have the capacity to 3D print in their community than ever before. This is where the social element kicks in. Imagine turning up to a printing co-operative to pick up your product and whilst you're there stay for a coffee and chat with whoever is hanging out there. Seeing what they are printing. Finding out how they're doing it. Swapping tips. A learning journey has started.  It's very empowering. Plus there's no more rushing about sourcing and comparing associated with the current traditional shopping experience. 

 More accessible 3D printing, with coffee! Image Source -  www.ibtimes.co.uk

More accessible 3D printing, with coffee! Image Source -  www.ibtimes.co.uk

As well as the community model there's the business model. Increasingly 3D-printing marketplaces and service centres are being opened by forward thinking entrepreneurs.  They know the market is set to explode over the next few years.

Still not convinced it's going to impact on how we buy homewares or use and construct our homes? Cutting to the chase, there are two 3D printing developments that aren't just printing homewares, they're printing entire buildings. An american based research operation is developing technology that will automate the construction of whole structures and all their components. What that means is 3D print technology will be used to print a building in a single run and embed the electrical, plumbing, heating and cooling systems at the same time. Boom! Over in China a company has already developed and printed ten single-story houses in a day using four massive 3D-printers which utilised a mix of cement and construction waste to fabricate the walls. When you consider this, practically everything inside could be made via a 3D printer too. Furniture, architectural features, doors, balustrades, lamps, kitchenware, taps, basins, toilets, not to mention "accessories"... have a look around. Anything that has a 3D form and isn't made from fabric or timber could potentially be printed. And then, that's probably just a matter of time!

 3D printed house in China. Image Source - www.3dprint.com

3D printed house in China. Image Source - www.3dprint.com

It's not just the technological advancements that are throwing 3D printing into the manufacturing lime light, it's the increased diverse range of 3D printable materials coming to market.  Any material that can be ejected out of a jet and dried could potentially go through a 3D printer.  As the technology and raw material develops, the printing size and speed increases; the printing capacity shrinks and costs decrease, the world is going to be the 3D print industry's oyster.

 3D printed Oyster. An opportunity too good to miss. Image Source - www.shapeways.com

3D printed Oyster. An opportunity too good to miss. Image Source - www.shapeways.com