New technology
3D Printing and Prototyping

Project marble game
Project marble game | Photo (detail): © Lippert Studios

More and more designers in Germany are using 3D printers to help them with their models and product studies, but the device is not simply a magic box for everyone. And also the debate concerning the artistic approach raised by this new technology has yet to get off the ground.

Project marble game Project marble game | Photos and © Lippert Studios Everything looks a little disorderly at the “Raumfahrtagentur” (Spacelab) - a hackerspace in Berlin’s Wedding district, where hobbyists and programmers from all over the city meet up. Here in one large room there are three 3D printers standing next to each other. They rather resemble rustic cabled-up beer crates with thick lead harnesses protruding from the blank casings and above these there are brightly coloured spools with strands leading back into the printer. The plastic material drawn from the spools is heated and then, using a moving nozzle, a three-dimensional model takes shape, layer by layer. Small figures, spare parts and prototypes are created before one’s eyes. It all has the charm of imperfection but is nevertheless considered a technology on the verge of a mass market breakthrough. Companies such as MakerBot from the U.S. or the German company Sintermask and German RepRap have just started to introduce low-cost basic models on the homeware market. The idea of printing a missing shower hook yourself is, of course, amazing – but professionals in this sector are rather more cautious: “It’s just not that simple” says Maximilian Bauer, a programmer who has been dealing with these printers for some time in “Astronaut-Space”, and puts a damper on any high expectations – “unless the person also knows a lot about programming and is technically minded“ he adds.

He is well-versed in 3D programming, nevertheless both he and his colleagues took some time before they were able to grasp the technology of these printers that are usually delivered as a construction kit: “There are always problems and you have to search hard for the solutions.“

Project marble game Project marble game | Photos and © Lippert Studios

Open-source plays a key role in the community

Project marble game Project marble game | Photos and © Lippert Studios Maximilian Bauer, like many others from the hacklab scene, is ready and willing to share these solutions. The open-source concept plays an essential role in the 3D printing community. Sharing knowledge, exchanging programmes, looking for solutions in forums – this is all part of the system and popular sites such as offer instructions on the 3D printing of shower hooks or dog biscuit moulds. Besides providing assistance on the web, the Astronauts also offer support to those seeking advice in the real world, at their hackerspace. On his website “Camgeeks” Maximilian Bauer allows people to upload own ideas for 3D prints and, if need be, he will also help them implement these ideas on the spot. And there is certainly no lack of interest and demand outside of the hacker scene.

Design studios benefit from prototyping

Peter Lippert, of the design studio that bears the same name, knows that there is a keen interest in this type of 3D printing. He himself set up and started one of these printers six months ago.

The 3D printer quickly became an important tool in his everyday work. Together with a team of seven Peter Lippert creates product designs for medium-sized companies. The range of designs extends from an award-winning sheet metal desk, to door handles up to marble runs for children.

Raumfahrtagentur Berlin Raumfahrtagentur Berlin | © Spacelab Berlin Iris van Herpen’s 3D-Design, Voltage-Look Iris van Herpen’s 3D-Design, Voltage-Look | © van Herpen The 3D printer is particularly well suited for the development of small-part construction sets, like the Hubelin marble game. This work differs from the activities in open community labs and creates prototypes on which the properties of the final model can be simulated and tested. “You can try out the product with different material qualities”, Peter Lippert explains, “First you start with rough sketches and finally produce a high quality model that you can then present as a design.“ For the marble game, for instance, his designer team used the 3D prototypes to test parameters such as inclination, the height of the building blocks or ways in which to connect the blocks. “The industry has been using these methods for some time, but this is not so common in smaller offices”, he adds. Like the Astronauts, he also encountered problems in the printing technology and likes to catch up on solution options in the open source community. For this reason Peter Lippert is rather sceptical about the mass market compatibility of these devices.

More an auxiliary support

With designers like Peter Lippert only using 3D technology for prototyping it can be said that 3D-printing currently only appears suitable as an auxiliary support for creative people. In the actual design process and the search for new solutions, this technology only plays a subordinate role. One exception, of course, being the Dutch fashion designer, Iris van Herpen, who draws some of her Avant-garde creations straight from the 3D printer.

A limited selection of materials

Iris van Herpen’s 3D-Design, Voltage-Look Iris van Herpen’s 3D-Design, Voltage-Look | © van Herpen It is clearly the selection of material that is baring the way to a great breakthrough, also in the creative sector. The properties of plastic material are limited, even ecologically-friendly plastics made of maize starch. As soon as enhanced properties are required, such as the ability to withstand high temperature fluctuations, for example, even designers like Lippart turn to the 3D printing service providers such as Shapeways, Sculpteo or i.materialise.

Design students tend to use printing service companies

According to Ben Seidel at the Berlin University of the Arts Design Faculty, students in product design are increasingly seeking the services of 3D printing providers. This trend appears to be unbroken – so we will probably have to wait a while before we experience these printers in private households and the controversy concerning the creative approach.