You Can Print That?

By Evan Backer


How can one produce a magnificent piece of art without ever touching it? The distance between your computer screen and the “real” world is getting smaller and smaller with each day. With the advent of better and more precise 3-D printing technology, architects, designers, and a wide range of other artists are jumping at the opportunity to explore new realms of production. You have probably heard of 3-D printing, and you might have an idea of how it works as well. Artists use various programs to digitally render an object in three-dimensional space – this could be almost anything, and the possibilities seem to grow more and more as technology advances. This software then communicates with 3-D printing hardware to bring the object to life by “printing” it. This past October, the Museum of Arts and Design in NYC opened up a stunning exhibit called Out of Hand, featuring a myriad of digital artworks, most of them directly related to 3-D printing. The exhibit is ongoing until the first day of June.

clone_chairNow, the sort of printing you may be used to is two-dimensional. Imagine your typical printer – you send it an image from your computer and it rolls ink out onto paper, producing a physical version of the two-dimensional digital object you sent it – whether that be text or an image (such as a jpeg, png, gif, or bitmap). Now imagine that same printer, sans paper. The ink is replaced by, well, whatever you’d like. Some examples include polyurethane foam, polyethylene, recycled plastic, and polyamides (such as nylon). The printer works in layers. Basically, the printer envisions the object you sent it in slices, and it produces these slices (usually through a nozzle on a precise robot arm) stacked on top of one another. This is also referred to as additive manufacturing. It’s a truly unbelievable process that, if you’re like me, might remind you of cheesy science-fiction gadgets like Star Trek’s replicators. 3-D printers can also work negatively, with the same effect. What I mean by this is that instead of adding material, the robot arm is capable of removing it with a laser beam (yes, lasers!), which allows a much higher degree of precision than past machining techniques.

For instance, Materialise’s .MGX series includes extremely detailed designs that betray the eye and tend to confuse our sense of organic substance. One of Wertel Oberfell’s designs, featured at the Out of Hand exhibit, is a fractal .MGX table, made easily enough with epoxy resin and printing hardware, yet appearing almost like some otherworldly mineral growth, beginning at a simple polygonal base and branching upwards to become incredibly complex and patterned.


Further, Bathsheba Grossman’s Quin.MGX lamp, also produced through Materialise and seen above, also appears to have a fractal “quality” to it, with interlocking starfish-shaped structures that spiral into one another. The cell-like latticed surfaces allow light through while throwing enough shadow to accent the gorgeous mobius-band curves of the lamp.

While 3-D printing is not quite at the stage of being able to mass-produce objects such as cars or buildings (the ability of printers to use multiple materials is limited, for now), the future possibility is definitely there. Softkill Design has put forth an idea for a modular home, which would be printed in sections at a factory and pieced together onsite. Seen below (and appearing a uncannily like a modernized spider’s nest), the Protohouse 1.0 would be porous to allow for rainwater permeation, with internal waterproofing rather than external. The point is less labor-intensive construction with less material with the same amount of function. Apparently, the house would be assembled in a day.


For now, it is possible to print articulated joints and complex objects that require no subsequent assembly once they’re out of the printer. In fact, 3-D printing is being used for prototyping, biomedical engineering, fashion, interior design, and more. For example, design company Nervous System takes inspiration from organic structures, digitally renders them, and prints them. Their Hyphae pendant lamps are present at the Out of Hand exhibit, and they look uncannily like branching cellular structures, casting beautiful, fractured patterns on the surfaces around them.


Also present at the MAD was the Rapid Racer. Made by Andreas Schultz, Barbara Kotte, Johannes Zäuner, Rebecca Wilting, and Nicholas Eggert, the Rapid Racer claims to be the first functional vehicle printed in one piece. It is about the length of a bike, but it sits much closer to the ground and looks like something out of The Matrix or Blade Runner. It’s much too strange and impractical to see much use in day-to-day life and remains something of a novelty, but this is just a first step. And yes, an electric hand drill powers it.


Art and design that incorporates new technology always introduces new questions – questions that can be fun and interesting to ask. No more are the days of the digital attempting to mirror reality. With the advent of 3-D printing, some interesting philosophy of mind and knowledge is at hand as we see works that attempt to reproduce a computers reproduction. Putting an object through several perspective distortions and enhancements is what makes a lot of digital art so interesting. Seen at the beginning of this post is Julian Mayor’s Clone Chair. He used several descriptions and specs for a Queen Anne side chair, and used them to render an image of one digitally. What he then did was lower the image resolution, giving us a blocky, almost 8-bit reproduction. Then, slices of the chair were laser-cut into plywood, and stuck together to create what you see.

chairgenics3-D printing and additive manufacturing open up so many possibilities for us. Aesthetically we can have objects that were previously impossible or extremely impractical to produce. It gives us more outlandish (at least they seem so now) geometries and structures. It confronts us with logically grey areas, and follows them to their sometimes absurd end.

As additive manufacturing becomes more and more accessible through easy-to-use software and inexpensive hardware (you can get your own basic 3-D printer right now for about $100, although higher-end performance and industrial models can run you thousands of dollars), it might be that the 3-D printer will become a household object, with almost limitless possibilities. The opportunities that this new technology presents are astounding. We have seen plans for printing houses, vehicles, and furniture. What’s more is the ability to print clothes, jewelry, utensils, articulated prosthetics (limbs and even faces), and so on. The only question left to ask is whether or not a printer could print a smaller version of itself.

On the 30th of this month, there will be a presentation at the MAD by three design professionals – Mike Szivos of Softlab NYS, Jan Vingerhoets of FLOS North America, and Nicholas Domitrovich of ICRAVE Design. They will cover the creation of cutting-edge environments, transformation of interior spaces with light, and what’s next for designers as far as planning a futuristic interior. It will be held at 7:00pm, and you may pay whatever you like. It’s a wonderful opportunity to learn more about design and the interesting consequences of advanced fabrication technology.


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