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13 December 2012

The shape of things to come

The explosion of affordable 3D-printing technology puts the power to create in your hands, writes LAURA COOKE.

“All of a sudden 3D printing is everywhere. It’s exploding,” says Pretoria-based artist and engineer Dr Michaella Janse van Vuuren who uses 3D-printing technology to create complex and beautiful sculptures.

The ability to print three-dimensional objects used to belong to the realm of science fiction. But this seemingly magical technology is being used right now to print items that vary from aeroplane parts to hip replacements and key rings.

But it’s only recently that the wonders of 3D printing have become within reach of the average consumer. The rise of companies like Shapeways and Makerbot give people the chance to make their ideas a reality relatively cheaply. Shapeways and Thingiverse’s print-on-demand services let you upload designs that are printed from a variety of materials and shipped directly to your door. 

It’s only recently that the wonders of 3D printing have become within reach of the average consumer

From eggcups to lamps and cellphone cases, users from across the world are embracing this new opportunity to bring ideas to life. Shapeways alone has over six billion objects in their marketplace and recently opened a factory in Long Island, New York, that will house up to 50 industrial-sized printers.

Artist and scientist Janse van Vuuren first came across 3D printing back in 2006 while working at the CSIR. With a PHD in electrical engineering and artistic leanings, Janse van Vuuren knew she had discovered something amazing, “I realised that I could use my technical side and create something tangible and beautiful.”

Janse van Vuuren began working with rapid manufacturing expert Prof Deon De Beer on medical implant design at the Centre for Rapid Prototyping in Bloemfontein. Here she learnt the skills needed to utilise 3D technology.

Soon afterwards Janse van Vuuren decided to pursue her creative work and, with the support of De Beer, submitted a 3D-printed light to a 2007 Visi design competition. Since then, interest in Janse van Vuuren's work has grown. Her Chrysanthemum centerpiece won Most Beautiful Object at the 2009 Design Indaba. She won the Absolut Visi Designer of 2012 in the emerging designer category and is currently represented by Southern Guild. Her work continues to be exhibited around the globe.

The process

3D printing or additive manufacturing creates an object by printing layer upon layer of material according to a design created using 3D-modelling software. A 3D printer can use a wide range of materials including gold, bronze, nylon, plastics, wood and even food.

“It takes me about two months, working everyday, to create a finished design,” says Janse van Vuuren, “If you make a mistake, the print won’t work.” Janse van Vuuren first sketches her ideas exactly to scale and then painstakingly creates the design on her computer.

Knowing how to use relatively complicated software is one of the barriers to entry that puts creating 3D objects beyond the average consumer’s grasp. That’s why it is still mostly industry, committed hobbyists and designers who make use of the technology.

But Janse van Vuuren believes that 3D printing is going to have a huge impact on our lives as the technology becomes cheaper and more accessible. “I can sit at home in front of my computer and yet I am able to manufacture things. I don’t need a factory,” she explains, “All you need is a good idea, a bit of money and design skills and you can create a prototype. In the past, you would have had to spend hundreds of thousands of Rands to make a single prototype of a product or idea. All of a sudden the costs have come down dramatically.”

The ability to create rapid prototypes has been an application of 3D printing for decades, but the falling costs mean that everything from home appliances to car models will be able to move from concept to prototype to manufacture even faster.

It’s also only a matter of time before you start seeing 3D print shops popping up at your local shopping centre. Janse Van Vuuren says, “Just imagine you want to print a bronze necklace for your mom as a gift. You take your design to the local store and get yourself a totally customised and personal piece of jewellery.”

South Africa staying ahead

According to Prof De Beer, executive director: Technology Transfer and Innovation at Vaal University of Technology, there are over 800 of these printers in operation in South Africa. These range from entry-level printers, which cost around R15 000, to top-of-the-range models which cost between six and eight million Rand.

Right now they’re being used in the realisation of new concepts of products in the early development phase, prototypes that resemble injection moulding products, specialised steel for surgical tools and even titanium for medical implants and aerospace parts. “Most of the current research is in the aerospace, automotive and medical fields as well as materials, including metals and polymers,” says De Beer.

De Beer recently got a wake-up call when he presented at the first Popular Mechanics Inventor’s Conference about additive manufacturing. “I was ambushed by people wanting to know more, where they can access it, why it’s so expensive. We realised that we’re not yet meeting the masses – who need access to the technology.”

To this end, De Beer and his team created the Idea2Product Lab™ that assists students, learners and the public to become skilled in computer-aided design (CAD) and learn how to use the printers. “We empower people to do it themselves. It’s been very successful, with over 2 000 users in the last year, and we’re in the process of rolling out 10 labs in Upington, Ekhuruleni and Secunda as well as at FET colleges in Southern Gauteng.”

Some of the items that have been printed include bespoke “Lego” action-figures, kitchen appliances and industrial products. “The underlying drive is to promote local innovation. As a nation we’re very good at creating solutions, but not as good at taking them to market,” says De Beer, “We’re overrun by inferior products from the Far East and we want to focus on design and problem-solving locally – which will impact local economic development.”

"As a nation we’re very good at creating solutions, but not as good at taking them to market"
- Prof Deon De Beer

“Twenty years ago people said there was no future for 3D printing in South Africa. We’ve shown today that it’s used by industry, inventors, innovators, entrepreneurs and consumers,” says De Beer. 

Janse van Vuuren is going to be in charge of a stand at the 2013 Design Indaba to educate people about the technology and showcase the printers as well as 3D-printed objects, “There are so few people doing things with 3D printing and I want more South Africans to get involved. The industry is so open right now. Anyone can change the direction it goes with a good idea.”

The 3D-printing “revolution” – from the consumer’s side at least – is still in its infancy and it will probably be a quite some time before 3D printers are on every desk. But as costs continue to drop and technology improves, we’re going to see more and more products on the market that capitalise on this remarkable technology.

Michaella Janse van Vuuren’s work is currently on display at the R20th Century Objects show in New York. For more on her work, go to