The New Tech Bringing 'Impossible' Designs To Life
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because with 3D printing, if you can imagine it, you can make it.
By Laura Chubb
OZY and GE are partnering to bring you an inside look into how additive manufacturing is changing the way things are made across industries and across the world.
When Janjaap Ruijssenaars revealed his Landscape House design to the world, everyone went nuts. The Dutch architect’s proclamation that his visionary building would be 3D printed made international headlines, as did the shape it could take thanks to 3D-printing software — an M. C. Escher–esque infinite loop; a house with no beginning and no end; a Möbius strip curling in perpetuity. “For me personally, what is most exciting about 3D printing is freedom of form,” Ruijssenaars tells OZY from his home in Amsterdam, a city that has embraced the communion of architecture and 3D printing with gusto (see last year’s micro canal house by DUS Architects, printed from bio-plastic and plonked in Amsterdam-Noord).
Ruijssenaars cuts to the heart of what makes 3D printing truly revolutionary: not merely the giddy futurism of conjuring anything you please out of thin air, but the fact that it liberates design. Ruijssenaars’ “freedom of form” means we can now produce things that previously were impossible to make. And that could change, well, everything.
I haven’t found an industry yet where it doesn’t move the needle.
—Joshua Mook, GE Additive
“We have hit the threshold of what is capable with the old techniques,” asserts Joshua Mook, engineering manager for additive technologies at GE Additive (additive is another term for 3D printing, as the process makes objects by adding material, rather than subtracting it). Based in Cincinnati, Mook is the guy who designed the 3D-printed fuel nozzle — cheaper, lighter and more durable than anything before it — for CFM’s best-selling LEAP jet engine. In his own words, he is now an additive “evangelist.” Mook and his team are at the forefront of the additive revolution, working with a range of companies to help them revolutionize the design of their products through additive.
“Think of the fantastical contraptions you imagined as a child,” he says. “As you grow up, you unlearn that creative side of design [to be practical]. But additive is opening that back up. All those ideas we’ve suppressed because they can’t be manufactured are back on the table.”
Take building a table. Traditional manufacturing has you connect the different parts — the tabletop and the legs — at right angles. These unnatural, forced connections are weak points in the design. But manufacture a table with additive and a table leg can grow organically from the tabletop, in a sort of arch, so the two are inseparable; there are no parts, just one shape. In a design like that, “no point is more prone to failure than any other point,” Mook notes. “It’s much more efficient.”
This new ability to “grow” objects has inspired designers to shoot for the formerly unthinkable. At New York Fashion Week AW16, avant-garde label threeASFOUR debuted their “Biomimicry” collection, which featured dresses eerily akin to alien skin growing on the models. One dress spiraled crazily around the body, mimicking a mathematical sequence; the other appeared like natural armor, inspired by the pangolin, a creature covered in plate-like protective scales.
“It was impossible to make these without 3D printing,” Gabi Asfour, one of the label’s three designers, tells OZY from the label’s New Jersey studio. Even the weave used to craft the pangolin dress could not exist without the technology. Teaming up with 3D-printing company Stratasys and architect Travis Fitch, they used an algorithm that simulates cell division to produce it. “You’re thinking of each thread, whereas when you weave a garment you’re not thinking about the small threads,” Asfour says. “It’s a whole other way of looking at something — the way the thread formation works with the movement and the structure of your body.”
Asfour concedes the dresses are more “study cases” than everyday outfits — though that hasn’t stopped the likes of Björk from wearing them. But he’s confident 3D-printed clothes will be the norm once technology advances enough to make finer fabrics (for now, the best he can get is a rubber-like material). He foresees a 3D-printed future where garments are made from carbon, and new weaves produce bulletproof and space-proof fabrics.
Ruijssenaars and his firm, Universe Architecture, are yet to realize Landscape House, though he printed a bench in the same shape last year. He is now working with Spanish infrastructure conglomerate Acciona and construction group BAM to bring it to life. Despite the delay, Ruijssenaars thinks 3D printing will be commonplace in construction within the next decade: “People like it, and it’s too fun not to explore every corner of it,” he says. Like Asfour, he notes there’s much to be done on material: “Light and superstrong is, I think, the ultimate material innovation.”
The technology, however, is evolving rapidly.
“If you told us five years ago that 35 percent of a jet engine we made would be additive, there’s no way we’d have said that’s possible,” says Mook. He’s not worried about 3D printing’s technological process (“That’s just a matter of time,” he says). The holdup, he says, is people.
“The No. 1 challenge we face today is the engineers and the designers accepting the technology. And it’s not because they don’t want to — it’s more they’ve been trained not to accept that way of thinking.” He explains GE is tackling that by “uneducating” engineers, pairing up additive newbies with converts to work on designs and “strip out everything they once knew.”
And if they can do that, they can do anything. “I haven’t found an industry yet where it doesn’t move the needle,” Mook reckons, predicting it will change everything from cars to kitchen appliances to how we generate power. He explains that the old paradigm of design is taking three desirables — cost, performance and speed — and attempting to allow for two. Additive, he notes, gifts you all three. Mook says that could allow for incorporating aerospace technology into cars — something that today is “cost-prohibited” but could make them “lighter, faster, better.”
When it comes to the possibilities, Mook says, “we’re only limited by how creative people can be.”
- Laura Chubb, OZY Author Contact Laura Chubb