Certain people in certain circles are talking about a revolution. Not quite a political uprising, but something which could apparently change the nature of manufacturing relations on a global scale, not to mention fundamental rules of design. This agent of change is known as rapid manufacturing and it’s born of rapid prototyping, a system that has increasingly aided product design since its introduction in the mid 1980s.
At its most poetic, rapid manufacturing builds the ‘unbuildable’. It creates geometric forms that can be imagined and sketched, but never rendered physical using conventional tooling processes. In more industrial terms, the process dramatically compresses the time it takes to produce a finished product, ready for sale, direct from design. The commercial expedient is obvious. But there’s corollary to this too, a possible social and economic gain where manufacturing is drawn back from the crucible of the Far East and RM facilities are installed in towns and villages like latter-day blacksmiths, let alone in each and every home.
But that’s jumping ahead. Firstly, what exactly is RM and what does it mean for designers? ‘Throughout history we’ve only ever used a limited number of techniques to make parts. You take a lump of stuff and then chip it, carve it, bash, mould or press it. These are all processes of subtraction [from the original material] and they impose rigid design rules – rules designers have had drummed into them from a very early age and will probably take to their graves,’ says product designer and RM exponent Geoff Hollington.
Both RM and rapid prototyping build models by laying down materials in thin layers, fractions of a millimetre thick, in a process that is additive rather than subtractive. From resins, powders or metals objects ‘grow’ in three dimensions. Within minutes or hours designers may hold an accurate model of a design iteration developed on computer, without use of specially constructed moulds or machine parts.
‘Rapid prototyping has certainly changed the design process because you can get a model very quickly and cheaply and you’re not asking a client for tens of thousands of pounds for it. You also get a hands-on physical tool much earlier in the design process,’ explains Miles Hawley, head of industrial design at PDD.
Emerging possibilities now see that same technology creating complete products in a single ‘3D printing’ step. This is rapid manufacturing and it’s bound neither physically, by the requirements of moulds and tools, nor geographically, by the costs of manufacturing infrastructure. ‘It’s going to change the whole process of design,’ says Philip Phelan, director of product design consultancy Phelan Associates. ‘It means we’re going to have designers and engineers sitting together because all the elements need to be truly integrated [for direct output in a single process].’
Virgin Atlantic head of design Joe Ferry anticipates great benefits to the airline industry. ‘If they can get it right it could eradicate huge wastage and regain time that could be invested in design or delivery. I think eventually they will and it will be very interesting to see how industrial designers respond,’ he says.
Designers are already responding, says Matthew Lewis, manager of London Metropolitan University’s digital manufacturing facilities Metropolitan Works. ‘It’s clear that when you give this kind of technology to a creative designer, they’re very keen to explore what they can do. And I think we’re getting a new kind of design language, more organic, more freeform shapes; people like Future Systems and Zaha Hadid.’
Another RM facility, the Royal College of Art’s Rapidform centre, claims to be the largest of its kind in the world. But in most cases they are still producing relatively basic prototypes in a single material, rather than finished products. ‘The real Holy Grail,’ says Hollington, ‘is multiple materials. Wouldn’t it be nice to print an iPod? There are a lot of people who want this very badly.’
And there’s been a breakthrough. ‘A manufacturer has now made the leap from one to two materials,’ says Rapidform manager Martin Watmough. More will be revealed at an RCA event next week (25 September), but this is a step closer to more intricate RM. Theoretically – that is to say, within the laws of physics – there are no parts that cannot be made by RM processes, including circuitry and microchips. It also becomes possible to produce a product with a manufacturing run of as little as one unit. Adaptations to the data are made before the next product is formed and mass customisation by consumers becomes a reality: a chair formed precisely to the measurements of your back, or a set of loudspeakers tailored to the awkward curve of a living room perhaps.
And Watmough believes that domestic versions of these ‘3D printers’ will be available within ten years. He describes a future scene in which the hosts of a party design and produce a dinner service especially for guests, or another where a washing machine repairer downloads a broken part’s design data and ‘RMs’ it in the back of the van there an then. But why stop there? Why not make a new dinner service every weekend, or just build a whole new washing machine? And here another, darker corollary emerges: ‘I think the environmental consequences are of great concern,’ says Watmough. ‘What’s to stop people just making whatever they want, throwing things away and making a new one?’
As ever, technological advance brings reward and challenge. For designers, businesses and consumers alike RM may ultimately demand a whole new approach to production and consumption, tantamount, in Hollington’s eyes, to a second industrial revolution.
This article was written for Design Week, 20 September 2007.