So you mean I can print in chocolate….?

Breakfast television is sometimes a duty but rarely a joy.  This morning however the BBC featured a working full size bicycle that had been printed.  Don’t worry if that sentence doesn’t make much sense, what I am talking about is the relatively new technology of rapid prototyping; ways of making accurate, functional products in hours rather than days.  It has been around for a while now, the basic idea is that you use a computer controlled machine to deposit or harden material in the right place gradually building up a fully three dimensional design.  You really need to have a look, take a moment and follow the link.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/daveharvey/2011/03/new_from_airbus_a_bike_to_tran.html

Get it?  Of course the technology has been around in industry for quite a while now, saving the huge cost of hand fabricating components to test them.  Like most technologies it is likely to become much cheaper over time and serious articles have been written proposing the idea that developed versions of these machines will soon be in every home allowing consumers to buy the design file online and download it to their fabricator at home.  Basically what we are talking about is a Star Trek replicator.  And, yes, you can print in chocolate.  However the technology opens up some amazing possibilities,  not just for the designer who can now turn a CAD file into a working hairdryer casing in a matter of hours.  If you do an image search for “rapid prototyping” you will very quickly see what I mean.  From replacement hip and knee joints produced from a scan of the patients bones to designer jewelery,  from a wind tunnel model of your latest car to a high fashion shoe.   What makes the bike that featured on BBC Breakfast so special is that as the engineers who made it say, “everybody gets it” and is amazed.

The directions in which individuals and companies take this technology are hugely varied but one group in Cornwall have been a part of the development of new applications, they are Autonomatic, a research cluster based at University College Falmouth (http://www.autonomatic.org.uk/)  Not limiting themselves to just one technology they are exploring “what happens if” approaches to digital manufacturing techniques from a craft and design perspective.  Inevitably these experiments produce interesting results and sometimes startlingly beautiful ones. If you design an object and then strip out some lines of code from the file before sending it to the rapid prototyper what will happen?   If you design an interesting shape and then let the computer morph it, capturing files every so often and using a laser sintering device to produce them in titanium will you get some stunning one off pieces?  They are producing some quite remarkable result, as are other groups and individuals around the world.  For me the interesting developments are outside the parameters of manufacturing industry whose interest is primarily cost benefit based.  Have a look at the work of Geoff Mann, http://www.mrmann.co.uk/ and see digitised  scans of a moth in flight produced in solid form.

Another project that featured in Crafts magazine issue 218 was developed by recording the sound of someone speaking, turning that into a three dimensional graph and then using a 3D printer to make a wax from which an investment casting in silver can be made and worn as a necklace.  The marriage of the developing technology with traditional and sometimes archaic craft production methods is producing some wonderful objects.  I am still wondering at the fully articulated chain mail handbag printed in one shot; no assembling components, just take it out of the machine and walk away.  Now this all sounds quite high tech and probably expensive but don’t worry, someone out there has thought of that, Rapman will sell you a do it yourself kit from which you can construct a functional 3D printer for your garden shed, or of course for your school for a few hundred pounds.  Even more wonderful a generation of hardware hackers out there see no problem with making their own.

So is this the end of craft skill as we know it?  I think not.  There is of course a new set of skills to be learned and a new paradigm for craft and I suspect art.  I wonder what would result if you locked Antony Gormley in a room with the technology for a while?  Of course the structures and conventions surrounding art and craft will be redefined but they are already changing and have no great value in themselves except perhaps to protect the investment of rich collectors.  A thing of beauty is just that surely, the mind and hand of the maker are equally discernible in something fresh from the table of a 3D printer and from the kick wheel.  What is in my estimation going to change are the patterns of manufacturing that we have grown used to over the last century.  In its most developed manifestation mass production has relied on the uniformity of its products, with these technologies we are embarking on a period when production can be individualised.  Rather than going on line and “designing” your own training shoe by selecting from a series of limited menus and choosing your own lettering we are now at the point where you really could design your own shoe.

The great news for me as a teacher of design is that schools in the UK are already using this technology with pupils.  The capacity for young people to make objects of truly professional quality is now considerable and the opportunity for our pupils to be creative is hugely expanded.  So many times in my career I have had to rein in a young person who has had a great idea and is buzzing with excitement with the careful phrase, “We need to think of a way of making it simpler so you can finish it for your exam.”  Now,almost every day I find myself responding to the question,”Can we…” with the answer, “I don’t know but lets give it a try.”    What a wonderful time to be teaching design technology.

Professional quality in schools. More work from our pupils.

 

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