Absolutely, positively 3D printing: the future, here now in Wellington

Wellington boasts some of the world's leading 3D printing designers. A new noses from Victoria University, Weta made film props, shoes and dresses - what else is there? Leigh Stockton investigates.

2014 begins: fun 3D printed objects filter into our Facebook newsfeeds – hexagonal gowns with matching bracelets, a grumpy cat figurine, even sex toys personally tailored to your body. 

Mid-2014: Idealog installs a 3D desk printer – it takes three hours of loud, clunky whirring to spit out a feeble plastic dog the size of a matchbox. “We’re looking at the future,” says the boss, but older staff members grumble about the noise. The 3D printer is relegated to the back of a cupboard.  

2014 ends: NASA successfully produces the first 3D printed object in space, allowing astronauts to travel lighter among the stars and create equipment when needed. Cunning designers use the technology to print chocolate, candy, wood and ceramics. 

2015: A Shanghai construction firm unveils a five-storey apartment building made with a 3D printer. The Strati, the world's first 3D printed car, tours Chicago. Analysts Canalys predict the worldwide 3D printing market, including printer sales, materials and associated services, will ,reach US$16.2 billion by 2018, as against around US$3.8 billion in 2014. 

It’s a market you just can’t ignore, says Zach Challies, a Master of Design student at Wellington’s Victoria University.

“If you want to be a designer in the future, there’s going to be a huge focus on your knowledge of [3D printing] technologies.” 

Challies won the James Dyson New Zealand Award last year for his nose prosthesis created solely using 3D printed materials.

Victoria University design student Zach Challies

The annual award recognises inventions by current or recent design students that solve every day problems. Challies’ winning design used a 3D facial scanner and multi property printer to craft a custom facial prosthetic for a client who was introduced to him through the university’s summer scholarship programme. 

The research and design took only three months, and tweaking the foundational codes allows Challies to custom fit prosthetics to other users.

This is done, he explains, by using a 3D scan of the patient’s face and 3D software to extract facial contours, building up a model from that foundation. This model can be adapted to other patients by inputting their personal 3D facial scan and adjusting the points that identify the position of the implants that are used to secure the prosthesis to the wearer.

While traditional prosthetics are costly – often thousands of dollars – Challies’ nose cost  around $100. 

Challies isn’t the only Wellington-based designer to be embracing 3D printing, as different industries in the capital – from tertiary to film – champion the technology.

It’s this type of innovative thinking that’s being borne out of the university’s school of design, where industrial design students are introduced to 3D printing in the first year. The school has a line-up of printers, which include machines for the students to experiment with, costing under $1000, as well as sophisticated half-a-million dollar equipment similar to the printers used by companies such as special effects and props studio Weta Workshop. 

Cheaper, quicker turnaround

Also based in Wellington, props design studio Weta Workshop is where J.R.R. Tolkien’s beloved Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit characters – along with other fantastical creatures – come to life. It’s also where many specialist 3D design graduates want to work.

Weta responded early to 3D printing and continues to invest within that industry, says Lans Hansen, head of the company’s 3D department. He says the team has almost doubled in size since he joined in 2010.

Weta Workshop's Lans Hansen

“The movie industry is more demanding than ever, expecting us to complete production in months, rather than years. 

“3D print technology has hugely impacted the turnaround time of the studio, and is becoming invaluable in meeting the shorter deadlines we increasingly face.”

Prop design is getting increasingly complex, he says, and with Weta competing with digital animation companies, prototypes need to be cheap and quick to produce. 

Lans reveals a small 3D printed prototype of Dragon Smaug, a character from The Hobbit – all prickly teeth set inside a devilish grin, flowing into a long, finely detailed neck. 

“3D printing is helping us to compete with that level of capture.”

This Smaug won’t be making his film debut anytime soon; rather, he’s a prototype for the final product, a souvenir to be sold in the Weta Cave and online to the film trilogy’s global fan base.

Hansen says that having a 3D printer in-house allows the team to mock up a design using CAD software, and have a physical version in hand an hour later for evaluation.

“It’s this capacity that allows us to resolve complicated mechanisms, moving parts and ergonomic issues far more quickly – and to a higher level – than with traditional methods.”

For example, Weta used 3D printing to create complex components for the Green Goblin costume worn by Dane DeHaan in 2014’s Amazing Spider-Man, and the Droid outfit in the 2013 sci-fi movie Elysium. It also printed weapons for the Hobbit trilogy.

“Each film job we do is utilising 3D printing more and more,” says Hansen.

“Four years ago we printed the odd sword handle or small component, while now we print at least 70% of the props we make.

“Only large scale props, or metal parts are produced using the CNC [computer-controlled cutting] machines.”

He says using traditional CNC machining, which cuts a product out of a block of, for example, aluminium, can be time consuming and expensive when creating highly detailed props. On the other hand, “complexity is irrelevant to a 3D printer.”

Weta Workshop now has eight 3D printers, ranging in size from jewellery-scale machines (A5 size bed) running parts for collectables, to a custom-built machine that can print furniture-sized parts in durable ABS plastics.

Cutting the cost

3D printing is changing the way young industrial designers are working and managing their time, says Kiwi designer Dylan Mulder.

Mulder was recognised for his 3D printing skills in 2013, winning the New Zealand Design Award at that year’s World of WearableArt (WoW) for his entry made almost entirely using that technology. 

An industrial design graduation from Victoria University, Mulder entered the awards to demonstrate his skills as a 3D print designer. 

Kiwi designer Dylan Mulder

Mulder designed his WoW garment Samurai Silent Dragon completely on his laptop, sending the files to China, Holland and the US for printing. The 3D printed panels of black plastic were then sent back to his small, inner-city apartment, where Mulder sewed them together with golden dragons and Japanese lettering, making up the winning garment. 

“I wanted to demonstrate that [designers] don’t need a workshop with expensive machinery, and all the associated overheads involved,” says Mulder.

“From sketching, to prototyping, to 3D printing, I can design everything on my computer with a fast turnaround. I can work from anywhere as my laptop becomes my portable office.”

Mulder continues to work from his laptop as a contractor, using a 3D printer purchased with his WoW winnings. Ask why he chose not to work for a big company, and Mulder laughs.

“I wouldn’t say chosen – it’s more that permanent roles in New Zealand are limited.”

While the WoW win introduced his skills to the world stage, opening doors to big name clients such as Air New Zealand, he says work isn't easy to get as a contractor.

“[Still] I chose to stay and attempt to create opportunities via 3D printing. Many graduates have sought employment in places like Melbourne, Australia, or the UK.

Customised design

Former Wellingtonian Earl Stewart is one of them.  Stewart is digital strategist for Three Over Seven, the London-based woollen shoe company founded by fellow Kiwi (and 2010 World Cup football player) Tim Brown. 

One of Stewart's tasks is to introduce a custom-fit, on-demand, 3D printed sole to allow Three Over Seven to make bespoke footwear.

The job offer came after Brown saw shoes Stewart had designed for his Victoria University master’s thesis. (see opposite page). The "XYZ shoe" was the result of Stewart's study on 3D foot scanning, with the object of creating a pair of perfectly fitted shoes. 

The idea mixed Stewart's curiosity for product design, footwear and fashion, and the XYZ shoe went viral on high traffic blogs such as Designboom and Trendhunter. 

This opened up the conversation for Stewart to work with Three Over Seven. 

Last year, Brown and his team entered Wool Runners into the Virgin Media Business’s Three New Things competition in London – and Stewart’s skills came into play. 

The judges liked the idea of customers being able to use mobile phones to scan their feet, and send the dimensions as part of their shoe order. The measurements are fed into a 3D printer, and used as the foundation for the buyer’s fully-customised shoe. 

Three Over Seven was voted the overall winner, and given a prize that included a consultation with Virgin Media founder Richard Branson, plus £25,000 ($52,000)-worth of business telecommunications.

Three Over Seven digital strategist Earl Stewart

“3D printing is changing a good deal of industries,” says Stewart. “My advice to designers is to develop greater conceptual thinking to push 3D printing machines, materials and uses to unexpected places. 

“Having a deep knowledge on CAD/CAM also helps to translate those thoughts.”

He says there’s a growing number of companies in the UK helping businesses which need 3D printing or CAD work done. 

“A number of people are also looking at interesting software and business strategies within the start-up communities, and these are gaining a lot of traction.”

New opportunities

Ross Stevens, senior lecturer of industrial design at Victoria University’s School of Design taught Stewart, Mulder, and Challies. He says design graduates are increasingly reluctant to
get into traditional jobs, and he’s noticed a huge start-up community of 3D print designers. 

Stevens says open source coding and recently expired patents around key technologies (for example, selective laser sintering, which binds powdered materials like metal, glass, plastic or ceramic) are allowing greater design thinking around using 3D printers. 

These advances also make it possible for graduates to launch their own companies and combine their passion and skills, as Earl Stewart has done with fashion.

Victoria University School of Design senior lecturer Ross Stevens

“Designers need to start thinking of 3D printing less as a novelty, and rather as another way of manufacturing,” Stevens says.

Challies agrees. “I’ve become a bit snooty about printers being used for gimmicky or pointless objects,” he says. 

“We’re always looking at more suitable and efficient ways for using the machines.”

Mulder thinks New Zealand could really gain from this wave of 3D print manufacturing.

“Arguably, 3D printing is still in its infancy – so I’d like the local design industry to have more confidence and incorporate it into their day-to-day design process,” he says.

He says many companies aren’t using 3D printing because they don't know enough about its potential, or because traditional design and production methods are working fine for them.  As we venture further into the digital age, this may change.

Start-up and low budget companies are increasingly open to the incorporation of 3D printing, and are some of the best targets right now, he says.

“I’d love to see the local creative industry support and grow with the 3D talent that comes from our universities.” 

New nose anyone?