FEATURE18 February 2014

Plastic fantastic

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iMakr’s Sylvain Preumont tells Brian Tarran how 3D printing will transform our consumerist society into a creative collective.


Opinions are split on the subject of 3D printing. Those who see it as ‘a good thing’ will point you towards the story of the University of Michigan doctors who quickly created a custom-made splint to prop open the windpipe of a two-month old baby, thus saving its life.

But then there are stories like that of Cody Wilson, an American law student and self-styled crypto-anarchist, who has set up a non-profit organisation to promote, develop and publish open-source gun designs, allowing anybody with a 3D printer to arm themselves. To some, this makes 3D printing a potentially dangerous and worrisome technology.

Sylvain Preumont, founder of iMakr – a 3D printing shop on London’s Clerkenwell Road – scoffs when we mention both stories. “Oh yes,” he says, “and have you also heard the one about Nasa investing in 3D printers in order to print pizzas? Come on!” he exclaims. Preumont, it’s fair to say, is equal parts amused and enraged by the way 3D printing has been presented in the press. Yes, he says, the technology has virtually limitless potential. But guns, splints and pizzas are not the story here.

The real story of 3D printing – the one in the process of being written – is of a technology that could radically alter our behaviour as consumers; that stands to change the relationship we have with products. “The big thing about 3D printing is not what it does, but what it enables,” says Preumont.

Print ready

Preumont is an engineer, first and foremost. He was active in the internet industry and the outsourcing industry, which is where he first came across 3D printing, way back in 2006. Preumont developed an interest in the process when he discovered that his skills in SketchUp, a 3D modelling program he’d used for architectural design purposes, could also be applied to this futuristic technology.

But at the time, 3D printers were too expensive for all but the wealthiest of individuals to consider owning. People could create their own designs easily enough, but those would have to be sent to service bureaus for production.

“So I went back to another venture, this time in the mobile industry – iPhone application development, that sort of thing – and it wasn’t until 2011/12 that I came back to 3D printing, by which time I thought, ‘Wow. Now the technology is ready’.”

In six years, prices had come down enough that it was realistic to imagine a future where most homes could afford to own and run a 3D printer. For Preumont, this was the spur he needed to invest. He set up iMakr and opened his shop to sell printers, printing materials and pre-printed objects, as well as training courses to get people started with their new devices.

“People keep telling me we are brave to be doing this. I like that, but it’s not true,” he says. “I don’t see this as a risk. It’s an opportunity. The only thing I’m wondering is why people doubt that. 3D printing is coming.”


“The big thing about 3D printing is not what it does, but what it enables”

Heating up
iMakr’s printers are entry-level machines, priced from £700 to £3,000. At this price range, the printers use a process known as fused deposition modelling (FDM). Each printer is different, of course, but the basic principle is the same: a thin rod of coloured plastic filament is fed into the printer head, which sits above a horizontal bed. The filament is heated until it melts, at which point it makes its way out of the print head and onto the bed below. Typically, the head moves back and fourth, building up layers of plastic until the object is complete.

The object design itself is created in SketchUp or other similar 3D computer-aided design packages, before being converted into an STL file, which the printer then reads and processes.

Other forms of 3D printing are available, including selective laser sintering (SLS), which uses a laser to heat up and fuse together small particles of plastic, metal, ceramic or glass – however an SLS printer will set you back about £50,000.

“FDM machines are very promising, even if they are cheap, because they have an inherent flexibility,” says Preumont. “Right now, they’re used to print plastic things, bits and bobs. But in the future, with the improvements in technology, we’ll be able to print electronic things, for example. Let’s say you print an object with two heads, using two different plastics – one that is insulate, one that is conductive. Within that object you already have the wires, so all you need to do is put a battery on the bottom and an LED on the top – and you have an object that is active.”

As part of its R&D efforts, which includes working with university PhD students, Preumont says iMakr is looking to bring a machine to market for printing metal that costs less than £3,000. “We think that’s going to be disruptive,” he says. Other FDM advances, still in development, include the ability to print in silicon, as well as a method of printing in plastic and then depositing metal onto the plastic.

Other printers that are being developed have print heads capable of dealing with five separate colours at once; printers with drill bits; and printers with robotic arms for picking up and plugging together multi-part designs. It’s clear that tomorrow’s machines will look very different, and will be capable of much more, than today’s machines are.

From consumer to creator
But what of the people who buy these machines: what will they be capable of? “3D printing will enable people to design and think for their own needs,” Preumont says. “Right now, we live in a time where people are good at buying, and that’s it. If you need something, you buy it. If you can’t find it in one store, you visit another. Marketing and advertising are there to tell you what you need and what to buy – and you go and buy it. We’re going to move from this way of thinking to one where, if you need something, you design it and print it.”

Preumont draws parallels with social media and mobile technology, and how both have led to an explosion in creativity – people writing their own blogs, and shooting and editing their own movies.

“Tomorrow we’ll be designing our own things,” he says. “That doesn’t mean professional designers will disappear, in the same way that the internet doesn’t mean that journalism has disappeared. It’s quite the opposite in fact. There are now more journalists than ever before, and it’ll be the same for designers.”

The point is that people will respond differently to their needs and how they fulfil them. There’s evidence of this already in the iMakr store. While fitting it out, Preumont and his team needed a device to allow them quickly and easily to adjust the height of some pendant lighting. Rather than buy something off-the-shelf, they designed their own and printed it.

Kids especially will adapt to this way of thinking relatively quickly. Preumont says his own children already use the printers for a variety of reasons: one to print jewellery for herself and her friends, another to print accessories for her dolls. And with the UK education secretary Michael Gove altering the curriculum to include lessons on the use of 3D printers, the machines might well make their way onto Christmas and birthday wishlists.

The future of manufacturing?
Does all this set us on a path to a future where, eventually, 3D printing replaces manufacturing as we know it? No, says Preumont. “That won’t happen. The point of 3D printing is not to replace manufacturing. The point is that today, some things – some products – don’t exist because there is no reason to mass-produce them.

“Today, there is no point in creating something for only 500 people,” Preumont says. “But that product will exist tomorrow because we’ll have a way to reach those 500 people – through social media – and if they each have a 3D printer, you can sell that design on to them.” Alternatively, the designer might choose to do small-scale runs in their own home and sell their designs on that way.

Preumont sees 3D printing co- existing with manufacturing in yet another way. “Think of a computer mouse,” he says. “The technical part of it is a laser and a bit of wire, but then you have the case, which you could customise to your own hand by making a mould out of modelling clay, 3D scanning that, then printing it. Or think of flatpack furniture like you get in Ikea. You have the choice of maybe 20 different styles of furniture, but the hooks, knobs and handles are all things you could personalise with 3D printing. That’s how manufacturing will mix with 3D printing,” says Preumont. “It’s mass customisation.” And he’s adamant that it’s the future.

First time for everything


Sylvain Preumont’s early adventures in 3D printing

“The first thing I designed for printing was back in 2006. The idea was to 3D print coffee capsules for the Nespresso machine, so I could make my own rather than keep buying them. But when I called the service bureau to check the melting point of the plastic I had to abandon the idea because the capsules would have started melting in the machine. I could have done it in metal, I suppose, but that wasn’t an option then.

“The first thing I printed was a download-and-print design: a rook piece for a chess set. The design came with the printer. But my first bespoke print was a print of my face. I brought a machine at a fair in Frankfurt, called EuroMold (the ‘World Fair for Moldmaking and Tooling, Design and Application Development). At the fair I also 3D scanned myself, and that’s what I used to print my face.”

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