An adventure with 3D-printing in Brighton
In one form or another, 3D-printing has been around since the 1980’s, but it is only now maturing from its industrial heartland into a plethora of applications and through to our homes.
Of all the technologies coming our way this one has the potential to challenge the world we live in.
Inspired after reading online about advances in 3D-printing, I’d remembered I had something that needed fixing: a LOCK; ceiling lamp.
A piece of Swedish design I’m not really too keen on but nonetheless one that’s not mine to dislike.
The lamp had broken about a month after moving in. One of its plastic clips become brittle with age, and snapped in the process of changing a light bulb.
I imagined this must happen quite often and presumed there must be spare parts available. I envisaged reams of plastic clips at hand to replace their broken counterparts, but this turned out not to be the case.
Replacing the entire unit was the only option. Though the cost would be small, out of principle it wasn’t replaced; I mean, what a waste of mostly functioning lighting unit.
When searching for a replacement I’d stumbled across a 3D Design of the clip I needed which seemed useless at the time.
I began to rummage through the internet in hopes of finding the design again as I wasn’t sure how well I could design it myself.
I eventually found the design on Thingiverse, a website that primarily hosts open-source 3D designs for 3D-printing.
It had 8 likes and someone claimed they’d made one and hadn’t posted a disparaging comment about it. Marvellous I thought, now to find someone with a 3D-printer.
Aware of the maker movement that has grown in recent years and the rise of hackerspaces and Fab Labs that have appeared worldwide, I found it wasn’t really a problem.
Another hunt through the internet and I came across the website 3dhubs.com, a website that allowed me to get in contact with local printers.
I uploaded the design of the clip from Thingiverse and was presented with a choice of manufacturers, the materials, colours, delivery options and the cost.
Wanting to see the product being printed, I didn’t go through with the online order. I chose the cheapest option which was by Solutions Inc in Hove, and cycled out to their shop.
Arriving with the design on a USB stick, it wasn’t long before I was stood in front of the printer choosing a colour, watching it heat up and print a clip, layer by layer. The process took around 16 minutes.
I had the part I required; no fuss, no postage costs and it didn’t come with 99% of a lighting unit that wasn’t needed, so with a lot less waste as well.
Upon arriving home I proceeded to fit the clip into the light and put it all together, it all worked exactly as I wanted it to.
Admittedly though, printing a part to fix a flimsy piece of Scandinavian design is not the most exciting thing that has been 3D-printed.
The articles that inspired me to finally fix the light were far more interesting. One was of a 3D-printed jet engine, another about complete houses being printed in China.
These are, of course, printed using more advanced printers with differing technologies that enable them to print with metal or other substances.
Interestingly, 3D-printing has found a use in regenerative medicine. We already have 3D-printed implants: from jawbones and vertebrate to partial skull replacements.
The development of bioprinting is an area developing rapidly that will endow us with the ability to print working organs, and other body-parts that patients need.
So whilst the type of commercial 3D-printers aimed at hobbyists and the home might not yet be able to print your own organs, they do have a massive (positive) disruptive potential.
For example, NASA has recently emailed a spanner to the International Space Station which was then printed onboard.
This raises the question, how much of what we need could we print? If this technology enables us to print the items we need at home there will be less need for us to shop, meaning less tax income for government.
It could empower us all to become makers and menders of the things we own.
This could disrupt the capitalist mode of production as we know it, potentially ushering in a new decentralised-libertarian-paradigm of production, empowering people whilst challenging businesses and governments.
There are downsides, however. The machines use lots of energy, and usually a plastic-filament.
There are also regulatory (or lack of) problems such as the fact people seem hell-bent on producing 3D-printed guns.
It can also be a little costly depending on what you need, though the price will come down as it becomes more ubiquitous. The technology is coming, and coming fast.
Last week I attended a talk by Professor Helga Nowotny who claimed that science/technology brings the future into the present.
When my plastic clip was printing, I did feel a little bit like I was actually in the future.