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The 3D printing revolution

3D printing makes almost anything possible – in art as well as life

30 November 2013

10:41 AM

30 November 2013

10:41 AM

Did you know we were in the middle of another industrial revolution? Perhaps, like me, you’ve been too busy fretting about house prices and thinking about dinner to notice.

Well, here’s what you need to know: this industrial revolution is just like the last one, but in reverse. It’s the 19th century through Alice’s looking-glass.

Things we’ve grown used to being mass-produced in foreign factories are becoming bespoke again: particular, and made right under our noses. It’s sometimes called the home manufacturing revolution, because what passes for a factory is the size of a -microwave (give or take), and it could easily, if you fancied (and probably will some time in the nearish future) fit in your house, just next to the spin dryer.

These new mini factories work just like a printer — well they are printers, except they print in 3D, building up layer after layer of plastic (or metal, or glass) into whatever the computer tells them to. They’re a godsend for any industry that needs fiddly spare parts: medicine, say, or model plane-making.

_MG_0502        _MG_6117Tim Zaman’s 3D printer creates flawless replicas of grand-masters 


If you need a new knee or a reconstructed jaw, rather than adapt an ill-fitting mass-produced part, the doc can now simply scan in your own knee or jawbone. Once the computer has your exact measurements, it’s a simple matter for a 3D printer to design and ‘print off’ a plastic or metal part that fits you exactly. Bespoke — and cheaper too, because the hospital doesn’t have to buy in bulk, or wait for delivery. It works the same way for mechanics. They can wait for you to call, download the design, then print off the missing screw for your 1950 Humber Hawk.

Dentists, model-makers, architects, opticians… they’ll look back on the pre-3D days and laugh at the simple crudeness of what went before. But here’s a question: will this be a revolution for art too? There’s plenty who swear it will.

Because you can scan almost anything and reproduce it in 3D, it’s possible now to replicate an old -master with frightening ease. A Dutch chap called Tim Zaman has developed a technique of capturing all the brushstrokes, lumps and bumps on a work of art — he started with Van Gogh and Vermeer — and printing off flawless replicas. So it has implications for art (and art fraud), but what about original 3D-printed work?

Well, everything is by definition machine-made in layers, (usually) out of plastic, so the surface of a ‘printed sculpture’ can be a little difficult to love. The art’s all in the original concept, not the execution, and for the moment at least, most of the original concepts seem to have been dug out of the props cupboard of 1980s sci-fi flicks, pre-CGI. A disproportionate amount of 3D ‘art’ uses biological forms, so everything’s gluey and organic. ‘Pneuma 2’, for instance, by Neri Oxman: inspired by lung structure, evocative of phlegm.

There are some terrifically arresting pieces of printed art — I mean, of course there are because you can scan anything, adapt it and print it out. I could scan a squirrel, then print it out 6 inches high in yellow plastic with a telephone embedded in its head.

But they too often leave a viewer thinking: well yeah, but… why? In the Science Museum, until early next year, there’s an exhibition of 3D ‘art’ which includes a piece called ‘Inverse Embodyment’ by -Tobias Klein, which says it’s the artist’s brain melded with bits of St Paul’s Cathedral. There’s also a tiny horse with tits and wings hanging a touch sadly from the wall. I watched the hordes of half-term families as they looked once, twice, then frowned and -drifted off.

One exhibit did seem interesting. As part of a demo explaining the technology, the Science Museum has scanned in a selection of visitors to the Science Museum (women with shopping bags, men in suits, children holding hands) printed out hundreds of these punters in little ridged replicas, and stuck them to the museum wall. There was something fascinating about this: civilians as toy soldiers. Visitors paused to run their fingers over the figures — over other visitors in effect — making the tiny plastic people seem vulnerable, pinned to the wall like moths.

I don’t think the Science Museum meant to make an artistic point. It would be a little sinister, if excitingly subversive, of them to poke fun at their own visitors. But it made me reconsider the possibilities of printed art.

3D: Printing the Future will run in the Antenna gallery at the Science Museum until May 2014. Entry is free.

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