We are extremely pleased to have been interviewed by Stuart Dredge from The Guardian about 3d printing and technology, our "Vector 3" printer being described as "distinctively Apple-esque":
Can’t afford to buy your own 3D printer? What if you could buy it one bit at a time? That’s the idea behind a new partwork magazine from publisher Eaglemoss.
Over 90 weekly issues of 3D Create & Print at £6.99 a pop, the company is hoping to get a 3D printer into the homes of people who are keen to experiment with 3D printing, but have balked at the upfront price of existing models.
There’s something distinctly Apple-esque about the device itself – the Vector 3 – hammered home by the cover of the first issue, which shows it perched next to an iMac on a suitably-modern desk.
Its designer is Sebastian Conran, whose CV before setting up his own product design studio ranges from Mothercare and Wolff Olins; trusteeships at the Design Museum, Design Council and industry body D&AD; and (in his student days) being the first person to book the Sex Pistols for a gig.
He’s also very excited about 3D printing, well beyond his company’s partnership for the new partwork. In fact, the interview is barely underway before he’s enthusing about a current in-house project.
“We’re producing a cycle helmet which has programmed-in crumple zones built into it. We’re all used to buying shoes that fit us, but we don’t buy cycle helmets that fit us properly: they tend to vaguely wrestle around on people’s heads,” he says.
“So we’re trying to build one where you go in and get your head scanned – which is actually a very simple thing to do – and then we make the helmets to fit the specific person. And we’ve designed it so the latticework inside absorbs impact, and allows a huge amount of air to come through over your head. It will be both more comfortable and more effective.”
This, according to Conran, is one example of why 3D printing is much more than a novelty. “We’re trying to think of ways where it actually makes the product better: where this is the best way of making it,” as he puts it.
“Cars have crumple zones programmed to crumple up and absorb the energy of a crash, so how can you program a helmet to do that? The only way you can do it is 3D printing: you can’t really usefully do it in any other way.”
Conran’s studio, Sebastian Conran Associates, has been using various 3D printers for some time now, and is currently using several smaller models from MakerBot, having realised that they can “whizz along much quicker” than a single large printer.
He’s also been using the technology personally. “I just spent the holidays refurbishing an old Moulton bicycle, and I needed a chain guard so I 3D printed it, and it looks rather nice,” he says. “People say ‘oh, that’s a nice chain guard’, and I say ‘Oh, I 3D printed it!’ I’m constantly finding useful things to make.”
Conran hopes the Vector 3 will spur that desire in other people, including those without formal design training. That’s part of the thinking behind its look.
“It’s designed to be a domestic printer, for the home. It’s quieter, has a safety enclosure, and it’s meant to be engaging from a learning point of view. As people build it, they learn how to use it,” he says.
Conran says that he was keen to ensure that the Vector 3 “didn’t look like it had been designed by William Heath Robinson” – the illustrator known for drawing deliberately over-complex machines.
“We wanted it to actually look like a domestic accessory. We chose a vaguely kitchen-appliance look in terms of the visual language, with white and grey so that it doesn’t look toy-like,” he says.
“We don’t want it to look like a Toys R Us product: we want it to look serious. You’ll be plugging your Apple computer into it, so we wanted to get that look of smartphones and computers these days: the styling is played down, but the detailing is very thoughtful.”
Conran is also enthusiastic about the partwork format, since people building the Vector 3 will also be learning about what they can do with it as they go along.
He suggests that for many people, owning a 3D printer will spark their creative urges, particularly when it comes to customising existing products and parts – a view matching that of Chris Elsworthy from 3D printer firm Robox in a recent Guardian interview.
“When I was a child, I was mad keen on electric train sets, and I would buy very simple injection-moulded people and stuff, then paint them up myself and make them look lovely, and paint bridges and make houses and things like that,” says Conran.
He suggests that one of the early domestic uses for 3D printing is making furniture and other items for dolls’ houses, which often involves customising existing designs rather than simply printing them out. Conran thinks this is something the toy industry could learn from.
“Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have something like Scalextric where you make your own track? You might buy the one bit, but then the rest of it could be 3D printed, so instead of shipping big boxes over from China, you’re just shipping a small intelligent component, then printing the rest yourself,” he says.
“Downloading a file and printing it out will be interesting for a while. It will get you going. But after that you’ll want to make a special one and learn more about it. This is the new Meccano or the new Lego! Or, I suppose, more like a cross between them.”
Conran notes that he learned 3D computer aided design (CAD) in the 1990s, before gradually losing his skills as the tools changed, and he hired people to do the CAD for him. Now, 3D printing is encouraging him to relearn, while a younger generation may take to the technology like ducks to water.
“Kids coming out of school now are perfectly able to use 3D printing and CAD packages effectively,” he says. “There’s no reason why the next generation can’t put things together and create things in the way that you or I might go to B&Q, buy a packet of screws, some sheets of material and then cut the bits up and put them together.”
Conran is also watching closely to see how 3D printing technology develops, including working with a team at the University of Sheffield led by professor Neil Hopkinson, conducting research into “high-speed sintering” [HSS] which involves using powdered plastic, heat-sensitive ink and infra-red lamps.
“It works very fast, you haven’t got lasers shooting all over the place, and it’s a lot less expensive. You can do several items at once, which is difficult in a conventional 3D printer,” says Conran. “This technique is probably going to be the next technique that will come into the home, and the products that come out will be much better.”
The interview segues into Conran’s other technological passion: robots. Although as it turns out, the two often merge. For example, one of his five current robotics projects involves a customisable robot with interchangeable 3D-printed parts. He’s also looking to the future.
“You have to ask what have we got that’s really consequential from 3D printing and robotics? It’s looking at opportunities for that, rather than a Japanese robot that can barely walk up stairs without a whole team of technicians,” he says.
“Something much simpler is having an over-bed table that’s robotic, where if you’re in the hospital bed, you can ask the table to come to you and go away after your meal. Or if you’re at home, you can send it into the living room or wherever. These sorts of robotic platforms are much more interesting, especially if you join them up to a tablet, as then you’ve got a telepresence robot.”
Conran is also thinking about how the technology used by robot vacuum cleaners like the Roomba might be used for this kind of product in the future.
“Think about a table that can navigate its way around a home? People might say ‘What do you want one of those for?’ but if you show it to someone who’s disabled or old, they’ll say ‘That’s fantastic! When can I get one?’,” he says.
“In 21 years’ time, I’m going to be 80, and there aren’t going to be enough care workers to look after us baby boomers. We’d better start designing for our future selves!”