The Biggest Revolution in 3D Printing is yet to come

Highlights from the Disruptive Innovation Festival

3D printing can deliver a revolution but not if we continue to use the obsolescent materials palette of the 20th century. This is the crux of a thought provoking session at the Think Dif festival, led by Dr Alysia Garmulewicz, Associate Professor of High Tech Entrepreneurship at the Facultad de Administración y Economía, Universidad de Santiago de Chile.

In Alysia's words: "3D Printing unlocks a new paradigm in design that allows us not only to replicate how nature designs structures, but also to mimic what nature uses to build objects." In other words, unless we get smarter about choosing materials, all 3D printing will be good for is churning out tat for destined for landfill. 

If you're looking for an enlightening way to spend an hour I'd highly recommend watching the full session. But if you can only spare a few minutes, read on for a summary of my three key take outs.

The future is distributed fabrication - but it comes with a risk

The 3D printing revolution means that anyone, anywhere can fabricate - and that trend is not going to slow down. However, although we have the capacity to make amazing things, we are grafting a networked fabrication system onto supply chains of 20th century - to massively simplify: petro-chemicals. This means that there is a risk that we might end up creating more stuff that’s just destined to become junk. For this reason it is vital to rethink the material palette we want to build with.

The future is naturally abundant local materials

Alysia believes that now is the time to seize the opportunity to create a worldwide database of local, natural materials. "Lying at our feet is an abundance of natural materials that are ‘systems smart’: they are already designed to fit back into a productive materials cycle - the same can’t be said for most of the plastics, metals and alloys that we use." Currently, there is work being done to build up a recipe library that offers natural alternatives. The library is open source which means that anyone can adapt and improve recipes and feed back the results to the network. One caveat is that some natural resources raise ethical questions - for example the use of shellfish for chitin, a polymer found in their shells. Alysia believes that this can be overcome by ensuring a “non-extractive mindset” which is founded upon locality, respect for the eco-system as well as making use of waste materials.

The future is distributed testing

The biggest hurdle facing the adoption of a new materials palette is lack of data. The recipes simply haven’t been sufficiently tested to be useful to product desigers outside of the hack community. And while the new recipe library is undergoing testing at key sites in London, Santiago and Barcelona, Alysia believes that the future lies in distributed testing through the network of maker spaces and Fablabs. "If we’re all going to participate in making things with locally abundant materials, we need to add data and information." To achieve this, they have created an open source universal testing machine, which makes it possible for anyone to feed back useful data to the network.

Watch this space

There is no doubt that distributed production, and especially 3D fabrication, is the future. If you're interested in exploring the alternative materials palette described by Alysia then keep an eye out for Materium - the recipe library platform that is due to launch in the next few months. As she says, "there is a lot of work to be done. Designers need to link up with materials developers, makers and small labs to help invent a a future where anyone can fabricate amazing things with the abundant materials we have around us."