A new dimension: does 3D printing have a place in the signage sector?
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By Morwenna Kearns
27 January 2012
HP expects 3D printing machines to become household products – but will they make a dent in the signage manufacturing arena?
Chocolate, violins, scale models of buildings – they've all appeared in news and magazine articles in the past couple of years, with the rather sci-fi sounding link that they've all been manufactured using 3D printing equipment. The concept that a machine similar to your desktop printer can create solid objects is still futuristic enough to make it into the nationals, but 3D printing, a form of additive manufacturing, has been used for some time to create prototypes in a number of industries.
More recently, designers and artists have caught the 3D bug, with a 3D-printed dress among last year's London Design Week exhibits at the V&A, for instance. While not the most practical of applications, these pieces demonstrate the tactility of the medium – and also that the technology is becoming more affordable.
Additive manufacturing works by building up layers of materials such as plastic, distributed in a powder form, to create sometimes very complicated items – indeed, it is being used in the manufacture of computer hardware that would be impossible using separate parts. In some ways, the technology shouldn't be alien to display producers: it has links with the layer-printing of Braille and other tactile finishes capable on wide-format machines such as the Mimaki JFX-1615plus and Roland LEC-540; a reversal of etching or engraving; even the potential for design modification similar to variable data printing (VDP). Yet 3D printing has not made an impact on the graphic arts sector as some predicted it might.
One of the major benefits of 3D printing is that there is none of the waste usually produced by subtractive methods like engraving, giving it some green credentials as well as reducing its overall cost; it is predicted that household plastic waste could even be used as a material. According to The Economist, the price of a basic machine – also called a fabricator or 'fabber' – has a smaller price tag than a laser printer did in 1985.
Another advantage is that 3D CAD software, again, familiar to many sign-makers, is used with programs similar to VDP software to enable subtle or drastic alterations to existing designs. So, for instance, a series of tactile waymarkers could be produced with the same logo or picture and destination, but with various figures for differing distances.
One issue highlighted by some industry commentators is that of intellectual property, as once a design is computerised it is in danger of being shared. New Scientist reported on this concern following the launch of a new type of digital download – 3D objects, or 'physibles' – by file sharing site PirateBay. The site owners insist that the ability to copy physical objects is good for both society and the environment – as not having to manufacture and transport products would eliminate poorly paid labourers and transport emissions – but the concept is likely to have legal obstacles to overcome in the same way as downloadable music. In any case, these issues tend to refer more to copyrighted designs and the integral structure of machine hardware, which is rarely a concern for sign-makers whose work is fully visible anyway. Where it may be an issue is sign-making equipment itself: there have been several headline-grabbers of 3D printing machines that can print 3D printing machines, after all.
A number of equipment manufacturers that display producers will know from the printing arena have already spotted the potential for 3D. Epson's chief executive Minoru Usui, speaking to the BBC in November, stated: "3D printing is very possible, we're developing 3D at the moment. We think in a few years it will be possible to print on demand in 3D. We have to check the market as well – it's just a development project at the moment. We think it's possible that it may exist in the home one day, but the first step would be business, or the office, or industry."
HP, meanwhile, already offers desktop 3D printers considered early models of machines for the design engineering market, but pitching them as household appliances for the future. Indeed, 'future' and 'imagine' tend to be the keywords in this area; as the technology develops it will be able to handle items from complicated devices used in medical environments to everyday objects like clothes and toys, but, as the newspapers are keen on telling us, the 3D printers of the present are capable of producing simple pieces – such as signage, for instance, and indeed tools for its installation. It may still be a way off, but it may also be impossible to ignore.
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