Rapid manufacturing: an overview

However fantastic rapid prototyping technology may be, it is what designers do with it that counts. This is a challenge that forward-thinking designers such as Ron Arad have been rising to for years, but its rich potential as a manufacturing medium is now being realised more widely, as a new generation of tech-savvy designers begins to take it up.

Several of these have been working with Belgium-based prototyper Materialise on the MGX collection, conceived to showcase the creative scope of rapid prototyping. Such freedom of design is both exciting and daunting, according to Assa Ashuach, one of this new breed of designers fluent in both conventional design and rapid prototyping software. ‘You can produce anything you can imagine… we have to be very careful because as designers we need constraints sometimes,’ he says.

This freedom of expression brings us to the question of aesthetics. A glance at designs in the MGX range shows a tendency towards fluid, intricate designs with lots of honeycomb-like forms – from Lars Spuybroek’s pierced blob-like My Light to the fluid hexagonal structure of Arik Levy’s Silver Honey and the complex patterned form of Ashuach’s AI chair. There’s a decided lack of straight lines. Ashuach says, ‘Straight lines come from the saw. Now, when we create a straight line we have to ask, why?’

There’s certainly plenty of dynamic forms – such as Arad’s sinuous PizzaKobra light for iGuzzini, and Amanda Levete’s Especially For You fruit bowl for MGX with jagged contours that conceal a handwritten message to the recipient. Indeed, why go for plain and simple designs that can be achieved via other methods when with rapid prototyping you can do so much more?

And that’s just what design group Freedom of Creation, created in Finland and now in the Netherlands, did with its Electric Light Shoe – an intricate, multi-layered universe of Japanese urban culture created as a 1m-long shoe. It was devised for Onitsuka Tiger’s Electric Tiger Land ad campaign as a way of promoting the sports shoe brand. Tiny miniatures for USB memory fobs were manufactured in intricate detail as part of the campaign.

Rather than explore the new aesthetics opened up by rapid prototyping, designer Hector Serrano used his Reduced Carbon Footprint Souvenirs project to question the ethics and nature of production. Serrano’s concept minimises carbon production by using rapid prototyping to ‘print’ the souvenirs in recipients’ homes. With a push of the button, they could get 3D souvenirs for cities including London (Big Ben) and Paris (Eiffel Tower), each with a personalised message on the base. Pie in the sky? Not so, says Serrano, who reckons it won’t be that long before 3D ‘printers’ are as commonplace as the inkjet – enabling designs to be manufactured easily in the home direct to the customer.

The creative possibilities of rapid prototyping are even greater when combined with other technology. Visitors to the Brit Insurance Designer of the Year exhibition at London’s Design Museum may be astonished at footage of Front’s Sketch project, where the Swedish designers ‘draw’ furniture in the air. With the help of motion capture technology, the movements are replicated into furniture via rapid prototyping. ‘There are no limits in this technique,’ says Charlotte von der Lancken of Front, which has been giving live ‘performances’ of the process and creating pieces for galleries.

Motion detectors are combined with Ashuach’s rapid prototyping-delivered AI lamp – developed with Rabih Hage Gallery – to create a light which physically adjusts to its environment. A larger version is being made for The Hub craft and design centre in Lincolnshire.

Will this mind-boggling stuff really lead to a new era of creative experimentation and consumer personalisation? Will we all be printing off furniture in our home offices? These are still quite early days for rapid prototyping, and time will tell. But in this fast-moving arena, we won’t have to wait long to find out. l

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