In “Designers, Makers, Users: 3D Printing the Future,” the Museum of Design Atlanta is presenting an educational examination of the past, present, and future of 3-D printing. The importance of 3-D printing can’t be overstated, and the exhibition offers up a great overview of the technology and what it can do, but as a panel of informative text so eloquently states, “the dream of the Star Trek Replicator may not be immediately at hand.”
3-D printing technology and definitions can get highly complex, but as a general primer for the uninitiated, 3-D printing is a form of additive manufacturing that creates forms by stacking and binding layers of material from the ground up until the desired form is reached — as opposed to such subtractive manufacturing as CNC routers or laser cutters, which remove raw material to create the intended form. In art terms, you could think of it like layering coils of wet clay to form a ceramic pot (additive), versus carving a marble block (subtractive).
The most common form of 3-D printing for the average consumer is called Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) and is analogous to a computerized hot glue gun. This is the MakerBot you may have heard about. A digital 3-D model is sliced by software into lots of very small layers, which are then sent as instructions to the printer. Plastic filament in spools of (typically) plant-based PLA or petroleum-based ABS (though many new materials are emerging, including brick, wood, metal, and even pancake batter) is pushed through a heating element to its melting point, then extruded through a nozzle onto a build platform. The nozzle then moves up slightly, and repeats the process, continuing until the object is complete. A crucial requirement for 3-D-printing material is for it to cool quickly enough that, by the time the nozzle is finished extruding one layer and moves up to the next, it can support the layers above.
MODA has dedicated two rooms and a hallway to the exhibition, with gobs of informational text and video that showcase examples of 3-D printing in several areas, including space exploration, medical, architecture, product design, and fashion. The only art-for-art’s-sake display I saw was a short stop-motion animated film by Gilles-Alexandre Deschaud called Chase Me, wherein a monochrome ukulele-playing girl is chased by a malevolent blob of nastiness. Hijinks ensue. The film used what’s called replacement animation, where instead of animating a single articulated puppet bit by bit for each frame, character statues were printed whole for every single frame in whatever pose was needed and swapped out each time a new frame was shot, resulting in probably hundreds of individual character figures (the Jack Skellington character from The Nightmare Before Christmas used a combination of puppet and replacement: his body was articulated but 400 unique heads were created to swap in and out each frame to create his facial animation). Several were on display next to a monitor showing the video, including eight slightly different versions of the girl lined up in a row. I assume from context that this arrangement was intended to show all the parts needed to execute an animated walk cycle, but a couple were out of order and listing dangerously close to falling over. This exemplifies a common occurrence throughout the exhibition, where the rough edges start showing through from wear and tear, tarnishing the polish of the initial presentation. With the museum’s emphasis on hands-on education, I’m surprised everything has held up as well as it has, considering how many kids have gone through the place.
The exhibition includes numerous examples of 3-D-printed objects, from DIY prosthetics to a 3-D-printed dress to giant (in 3-D printing scale) architectural forms and even a desktop bio-printer. During my visit, a borg of various brands and kinds of desktop 3-D printers were whirring away throughout the exhibition. Some were printing parts for a 3-D–printed puzzle-chair, others looked like parts for a prosthetic hand, and others I couldn’t discern at all because at the time they were a mess of spaghetti-like strands. An onsite technician was vigorously running around, trying to keep up with all the printer failures; having built and used my own 3-D printers, I didn’t envy him his task. This brings us back to our initial concern: though 3-D printers are revolutionizing production, they’re not yet appliances. You don’t have to troubleshoot your toaster, or know how sugars caramelize with heat to create toast. You just put in your bread, and out comes delicious and tasty toast. Not so with 3-D printing.
If toasters were at the technological level of a typical consumer 3-D printer, the toast-making process would be much different. First, you’d have to make your own bread. Sure, you could probably find someone who could make the bread for you, but if you want true production freedom you’d need to invest in learning how to make bread in its various forms, using specific bread-making tools and techniques.
In 3-D printing, you can download 3-D files that someone else made, but if you want to make your own unique objects, you have to learn 3-D CAD software.
Next, you have to know how your particular toaster works, and coordinate your toaster’s heat, time, and spring tension to perfectly match your particular piece of bread’s chemistry. Get something wrong and you have to toss your ruined bread and start over.
In 3-D printing, each material melts at specific temperatures, and even the dyes used in plastic filament can cause the heat requirement to vary by degrees. Get the temperature wrong and your print is ruined.
Then, once you’ve got your bread’s protein chemistry and your toaster’s electronic settings synced up, you’re ready to toast. Insert slice, push lever. But you can’t leave yet. Oh, no. You have to sit there and watch the toaster start toasting for at least the first 30 minutes, otherwise the bread could get jammed, or fall out of the toaster entirely, or decompose into its component parts.
In 3-D printing, the first layer is crucial. If it doesn’t go well, the rest of the print probably won’t either, and you’ll have to start over. Or sometimes the print gets unstuck from the print bed, and you can’t just put it back on and continue where you left off, you have to start over and toss the ruined print.
Now that you’re sure everything is running smoothly, you can let the toaster toast that yummy bread and go do something else. For three to twenty hours. Or more — it’s called rapid prototyping, but “rapid” is a very relative term. Oh, and at any point during the toasting process, your toaster might screw up your bread, and you have to toss it and start over, but not before troubleshooting and repairing your toaster yourself. The toaster’s manual is pretty sparse, and might even relate to a model of toaster you don’t even own. Good luck on the forums.
Don’t let my nightmare toaster story deter you from the potential and wonderfulness that is 3-D printing. Manufacturers are getting closer and closer to that appliance stage, so it won’t be long before we all have desktop 3-D printers in our homes, next to our toasters and inkjet printers. MoDA has presented an almost-comprehensive survey of 3-D printing; I would like to have seen more examples of purely artistic uses of 3-D printers, but regardless, “Designers, Makers, Users: 3-D Printing the Future” is a must see for all ages and levels of technical savvy.
“Designers, Makers, Users: 3D Printing the Future” at MODA is on view through January 10.
Nathan Sharratt is an artist and writer based out of Atlanta, GA.