They may seem like the stuff of science fiction, creating detailed three-dimensional objects apparently out of thin air, but in fact the technology is over 30 years old.
Inventor Chuck Hull was working for a business that used UV light to layer thin plastic veneers on furniture when he came up with the idea for stereolithography, or 3D printing.
The process traces a design in layer upon layer of photopolymer, a liquid plastic that sets when exposed to light, to eventually build up a three-dimensional shape. Initially intended to speed up the production of prototype components for the furniture business, when the first commercial machines came out in 1988 they were snapped up by car manufacturers including General Motors and Mercedes Benz, aerospace companies and medical equipment specialists. But surprisingly the fashion industry appears to be leading the way with the new technology. This is already happening on a small scale but as we move forward 3D printing is changing fashion.
From prototypes to prêt à porter
Today, more powerful processors, cheaper memory and faster bandwidths mean the same basic technique can now manufacture a huge range of fully finished products, from shoes, jewellery and accessories to designer clothing.
There are already a number of shoe manufacturers, including Feetz, Nike and United Nude, using 3D technology to create bespoke footwear in store while you wait. Nike has even developed high-tech football boots that combine 3D shoe printing with its own ‘Flyknit’ 3D knitting process to create a lightweight sock-like shoe that gives players greater speed and control.
Selective laser sintering (SLS) takes 3D print technology even further, fusing nylon powder into spectacular designer fabrics that are already stunning audiences with breath-taking bridal wear at technology fairs and crystalline eveningwear at Paris fashion shows alike. The only limitations are the designers’ imaginations.
3D printing finally comes home
Now, 30 years on, the everyday consumer can begin to look forward to using this inspiring technology thanks to retailers like Staples, who have introduced a 3D printing solution that’s affordable for business rather than for home use. Will.i.am, Coca Cola and 3D Systems are launching the Ekocycle Cube, which aims to make 3D technology simple and affordable for the general public. But at almost £1,000 for their entry model, up to over £100,000 for an industrial printer, many may prefer to stick to their standard 2D printers for now.
So what’s next for 3D printing? Perhaps it will be making your home rather than being taken home. A construction company in Shanghai, China has already unveiled the world’s tallest 3D-printed building. Made using an ‘ink’ comprised of recycled construction waste, the five storey apartment block could be the answer to the worldwide housing crisis. There really hasn’t been a more exciting time to click ‘print’.