The rise of 3D printing

The rise of 3D printing

At time of writing, an iconic piece of public art is being created for our city. Standing an impressive 12m tall, the contemporary sculpture destined for the Hemo gorge roundabout will be the largest and arguably the most significant in Rotorua’s public art collection or experience.

Initially, plans were to build it from stainless steel, but it transpired that no machine on our planet could bend the pipe as artistically specified. This was a tricky one.

Fortunately, an innovative solution presented itself:

‘Let’s just go ahead and print it then – life-sized.’

Local company, Kilwell Sports has a bank of 3D printers currently working around the clock printing the nearly 800 sections to be assembled and finally wrapped in carbon fibre. Once completed, the sculpture is tipped to be stronger than its stainless steel equivalent.

In the last few years we’ve seen digital media influencing the public art realm more and more. Not too long ago we commissioned our first digital mural. Since then we’ve seen a number of sculptures and architectural embellishments created from wood, steel and stone using digital files and waterjet cutting.

Turns out, 3D printing is quite a different critter. Technologically speaking, this process is still in its infancy, but when you consider the achievements already made, and the forecast of what’s to come, 3D printers are almost spooky – and certainly here to stay.

The principle for 3D printing is much like icing a cake. You’ll fill your piping bag with appropriate product, and go around and around building layers slowly till your creation develops.

Hence its other name – Additive Manufacturing, or AM.

Additive manufacturing of food, for example, sees a 3D printer squeezing out chocolate or other ingredients, layer by layer into three-dimensional objects.

Just a few years ago, a Chinese company developed a giant 3D printer, put concrete in the nozzle, pushed a few buttons and created the world’s first 3D-printed five-story apartment block.

And just a few weeks ago, the world’s first mass-producible 3D-printed electric car was unveiled in Shanghai, China. The ‘LSEV’ will be in production next year, with global orders already stacking up.

3D printing has even colonized the clothing industry, where fashion designers are printing bikinis, dresses and shoes – so there’s no question that the 3D printing phenomenon will play a pivotal role in the future of on-line shopping.

Jump on-line now and you’ll find a number of sites offering 3D digital files to download. Behold an incredible array of printable gizmos, gadgets, and complex contraptions only two clicks away.

And how about Frisco, the one-legged duck from Canterbury? I hear he’s off to Wellington shortly to have his new 3D-printed plastic leg fitted. Lucky duck.

In the medical world, 3D bioprinting has been all over the news lately with breakthroughs in printed human skin, synthetic bones and even a fully functional mouse thyroid gland. Given it’s expected that 3D printers will one day create replacement organs, the mind simply boggles.

It certainly seems the possibilities are boundless – from buildings to bones to burritos.

So today in Rotorua, as 3D printers whirr away tirelessly in a factory just up the road, we are indeed witnessing a fabrication experience nothing short of revolutionary.