Redesigning Reality: How 3-D Printing Is Shaping the Future of Art, Engineering, and Everything Else

A 3-D printed prosthetic leg by Bespoke
(Photo by Eva Kolenko)

Two interesting things happened this year. First, doctors in Belgium performed the country's first face transplant. Second, Asher Levine, a young avant-garde fashion designer for the likes of Lady Gaga, produced a pair of radical sunglasses on-site during his New York Fashion Week show. What do a surgical procedure and a line of shades have in common? Both were made possible by additive manufacturing, also known as 3-D printing or rapid prototyping, a technique whose quickly expanding accessibility may have as much of a revolutionary influence on how we relate to manufactured objects as Ford’s assembly line.

It's a space-age sounding process: The same way a printer produces a document based on a computer file, additive manufacturing devices create made-to-order objects based on a CAD file. There are a few variations to the technique, but they all operate by building an object layer by individual layer in a single process. Some 3-D printers pipe melted plastic through a nozzle in a process called fused deposition modeling (FDM); higher-tech methods, like stereolithography (SLA) run lasers through a vat of powdered material — metals, nylons, concretes — solidifying anything they touch; and then there's selective laser sintering (SLS), which similarly runs a laser through a resin and solidifies it into a single object by binding each layer together. All of these allow for the creation of extraordinary complex designs with extraordinary ease for the average person.

Hailing from the 1980s, the technology isn't exactly new, but it has been making inroads lately in both art and engineering, being used to manufacture prosthetic limbs, car parts, furniture, and jewelry. It’s also subject of "Print/3D," an exhibition of objects at New York’s Material ConneXion that opened this week. "3-D Printing breaks away barriers in design that are challenged by the constraints of standard manufacturing or manual production," show curator Susan Towers told ARTINFO. While the process still has some definite kinks to be worked out, it's already being put to revolutionary use.


Levine’s sunglasses are a fun example of how 3-D printing is expediting the prototyping process. Eschewing the costly and time-consuming steps of sketching a design and mailing revised models back and forth to a manufacturer in Italy, Levine used the Replicator, an affordable (relatively, at $1,749 a machine) home hobbyist tool by Brooklyn's MakerBot to create his experimental sunglasses, made entirely of plastic, including the lenses.

"The fashion industry is stuck in this archaic method of manufacturing, while we’re on the cusp of a new method," Levine told us. He also let us in on a secret: "I can't sketch sunglasses." Instead, he molded models from clay and subtly tweaked the designs using a CAD program — "move this in a bit, move this out a bit, make it a quarter-of-an-inch shorter" — input them into his Replicator, and had a revised version in just nine hours — more quickly, efficiently, and cheaply than the traditional method. The machine took the design and extruded melted ABS plastic through a nozzle onto a platform, building the sunglasses layer by layer via FDM (think '90s, line-by-line dot-matrix printers, but in three dimensions). Thanks to Thingiverse, Makerbot’s open source website, you can actually download Levine’s designs and make them at home — the only catch is that it's BYOMB. Bring your own MakerBot.


If MakerBot is like the home dot-matrix printer of additive manufacturing, Shapeways is the Kinko’s — and while we're making analogies, a high-tech version of Etsy, too — an easy and cost-efficient way for designers to establish themselves on the market. Users digitally upload their designs — avant-garde iPhone cases, intricate jewelry, or the world's smallest Rubiks cube — and Shapeways does the rest. Founded in the Netherlands, the company's services are already used worldwide. They "print" a model in the designer's material of choice: silver, alumide, glass, or ceramic. One popular material is nylon, which, at .7 mm can be used as a fabric, and at 3 mm is strong enough to make furniture. The designer decides the markup, and the object is posted on the site to be ordered by potential consumers. Because objects are only created once they've been bought, there's little investment on the designer's part and almost no waste on the manufacturer's.

"We have designers in Brooklyn who make beautiful cufflinks. They said it only took about the cost of three bad dates to figure out what design they liked," Shapeway's Carine Carmy said. “It's similar to the music industry's content creation online — more and more people became creators of that content. As we democratize access to these tools with design, regardless of your background you can make your own products." As a mark of its cresting popularity, the Netherlands-based Web site opened up a new outpost in New York in 2010. 


Far beyond printers and copy services, Materialise, the Belgian company that made that facial transplant possible, doesn't quite have a present-day equivalent yet. It constructs objects of a higher level of quality, size, and intricacy, perfect for medical products like implants, hearing aids, and prosthetic limbs  — not to mention models that replicate the anatomic details of a patient's face, allowing doctors to map out the intricacies of delicate surgical procedures beforehand.

"Shapeways is really specialized in smaller pieces, and there's a difference between these two markets," said Joris Debo, creative director of .MGX, Materialise's creative division. "When I speak about the high-end market, I'm talking about a seven-foot chaise longue that we couldn't finish with Shapeways technology." .MGX, the service of choice for the blue-chip art-and-design world, constructs furniture, lighting, and artwork. It has made sculptures for Frank Stella, as well as the geometrically complex Fractal Table and the bust of Lady Bellhaven's elaborate hat for gallerist Murray Moss’s highly imaginative V&A show glimpsed at the last London Design Festival


The world of additive manufacturing spans a wide array of possibilities — we didn't even mention the fluorescent-colored plastic hermit crab homes to preserve the ocean’s shell supplies, or fossil reproductions for building dinosaur robots, or customized automobiles a la "Pimp My Ride."

If 3-D printing is so miraculous, why is it still a novelty? The truth is, according to Debo, that it still has a long way to go before all the kinks are worked out. "I think this is one of the first new technologies from the last 20 to 25 years that really changed how you approach designing, transporting, and buying objects," he said. Yet, although processes and materials have made technological leaps and bounds in recent years, "it's still a question of time before they get cheap enough." Because of the layer-by-layer nature of 3-D printing, large-scale products don't quite come out perfectly smooth and still need finishing, a costly process. And because mass manufactured products become cheaper as more of them are made (3-D printing costs remain stable), old-fashioned manufacturing techniques are likely to remain king.  

Certain industries, however, are shifting toward 3-D printing gradually, the same way in recent years the market has shifted toward online shopping. Additive manufacturing's influence is mostly likely felt in arenas that most benefit from its greatest strength: the ability to produce bespoke products, like hearing aids that are designed to fit individuals, rather than one-size-fits-all. "It's going to allow us to offer new types of products to people. Why can't we bring that custom element to every single consumer?" Levine asked.

In the next five to ten years, Debo believes in the possibility of downloading a design from a sneaker company like Nike and printing it at home to your exact measurements and color choices. Taking things a step further, Levine dreams of standing in front of your computer, scanning yourself, and downloading an outfit. A faster method of getting ready in the morning is possible, and by the looks of things, it's well on its way.

To see objects manufactured by Shapeways, Materialise, and MakerBot, click the slide show, or visit Material ConneXion's "Print/3D," on view through May 11.