3D Printing Leads the 'New Industrial Revolution' at London Museum
One of the Makerbots on display at the Design Museum of London.
CREDIT: Design Museum, Makerbot
The revolution will not be televised. It will be 3D printed.
Or at least that's the way it looks in a new exhibit entitled "The Future is Here" at the Design Museum of London.
The exhibit contains technologies such as a robot arm that 3D prints full-size chairs and a carbon fiber loom that "weaves" car parts.
But the overall story the exhibit tells is the shift from mechanical to digital modes of production. [See also: What is 3D Printing?]
"It's basically turning ones and zeroes into a finished product — essentially turning digital into physical," Alex Newson, the exhibition's curator, said.
In mechanical production, before you could mass-produce a product you had to make the physical structures such as molds, assembly lines and robotic arms that in turn make the product. These physical structures are highly specialized design feats unto themselves.
The downside of mechanical production is that changing a product becomes highly expensive, because you first have to change the specialized mechanical structures that make it.
The machines exhibited in "The Future Is Here" have found ways to replace these physical structures with digital designs. A digital design is infinitely easier to edit—resizing a piece can be as simple as a single click and drag of a computer mouse. In fact, you can make every part different that way, allowing customized production on a massive scale.
"You don't need to reinvest in [molding] to make a new product," Newson said. "You just give better instructions to the machine. That's what makes mass customization affordable and a genuine possibility."
Dutch designer Dirk Van Der Kooij's 3D-printing robot is a perfect example of how new production modes are overtaking the old.
Nicknamed Fanuc, the machine uses a repurposed robotic arm from a car factory as a dispenser that pumps out melted plastic similar to the way a baker squeezes icing onto a cake. It's programmed to lay this plastic in the form of a chair.
Called the Chubby Chair, these custom-designed seats were the first commercial plastic chairs not made from a mold. They are also one of the largest single-piece 3D printed objects.
The carbon fiber loom, also featured in the exhibition, works in a similar way. Lexus invented this device in the late 2000s to "3D weave" parts for their 2011 Lexus LFA. The loom weaves carbon fibers together to create highly durable frameworks for the car's chassis. The frameworks are then dipped in resin or plastic. [See also: Audi Debuts Self-Driving Car]
Carbon fiber reinforced plastic is an extremely strong and light material. It's not cheap, though — that's one of the reasons why the the LFA costs $400,000.
Lexus's carbon fiber loom is the first of its kind, but Newson pointed out that looms were actually some of the first programmable machines.
The Jacquard loom, for example, was an industrial loom that could mass-produce custom textiles based on the patterns printed on punch cards. To create a new pattern, the user would simply create a new punch card — which here served as a sort of analogue computer program — and input it into the machine.
Another focus of the exhibition is "cradle-to-cradle design." This term refers to products made from natural, straight-from-the-earth materials that are returned to the earth at the end of the product's useful life. Those materials can then be reincorporated into future designs or, as Newson put it, "re-enter the ecosystem in the same way that they were taken out in the first place."
One such product featured at "The Future Is Here" is a pair of biodegradable sneakers developed by Puma. The parts of these sneakers not made from plastic or metal will biodegrade — essentially rot — after approximately nine months.
"The exhibition is about making, and how making is made, and it's about unmaking," he said. "I don't think we can continue making products and then losing all the raw materials into landfill sites…["The Future Is Here" is about] ways to apply the high-tech processes we use for making to unmaking as well."
"The Future Is Here" exhibition opens July 24 and runs until Oct. 29. For more information, see the Design Museum's website.