Creating new dimensions

Creating new dimensions

Technology never ceases to amaze. There is now a solution for busy folks who have always wished they could clone themselves or be in more than one place at the same time. But it comes with a catch.

For 16 days starting tomorrow, homegrown creative agency Kinetic is collaborating with Mikanbako, a Japanese 3D imaging studio, to run a pop-up 3D print studio, dubbed Uu, at Scotts Square. For a fee, customers can get their very own 3D figurines, not life-sized ones but from 15cm to 25cm tall.

In under 30 minutes, customers will be scanned from head to toe using a hand-held scanner. The collated data is then sent to Mikanbako's lab in Japan to be processed and printed. Due to the complexity of the technical processes, customers will receive their figurines three months later.

In Japan, 3D printing of figurines has taken off. "Our aim is to get more people in Singapore to know about it," says Carolyn Teo, Kinetic's co-founder.

Priced from $850, it is not cheap, but already there has been much interest. About 160 people have signed up.

Major transition

3D printing or additive manufacturing as it is also called is not new. Developed in the 1980s, 3D printers build tangible objects from computer design by repeatedly depositing thin layers of plastic or metal-based material, one over the other, layer by layer, to form a three-dimensional object.

3D printing is used by different industries to create first-cut models, or prototypes of designs so that manufacturers could keep testing how viable their first designs were. It is also used in the medical industry to create life-like artificial body parts for medical study and even to build prosthetic limbs.

In comparison, 3D printing for lifestyle products, from figurines to homeware items and jewellery, is a more recent trend.

According to Phil Reeves, an experienced researcher and strategist on the future of 3D printing and additive manufacturing economy, it has been possible to buy 3D printed consumer lifestyle products for the past decade made in commercial 3D printing facilities.

"The big transition for consumers was access to home 3D printers and online shopping portals," says Dr Reeves, who is also managing director of Econolyst, a global additive manufacturing and 3D printing consultancy and research firm based in the UK. He will also be speaking at the upcoming Inside 3D Printing Conference and Expo at Marina Bay Sands. He adds that consumer 3D printing machines started to appear about four years ago, while shopping portals for 3D printed products appeared about six years ago. On sites such as Shapeways, i.materialise and Cubify, consumers can buy and sell 3D printed products and ideas.

In Singapore, there are several firms that either sell 3D printers for home use, collaborate with designers on 3D printing, or offer 3D printing services.

For the last 30 years, Engineering Computer Services has been selling software for industrial uses. Five years ago, its president Victor Chia began selling 3D printers for commercial use in Singapore. These machines can cost from $80,000 to $120,000, and he has sold them to tertiary institutions, for creating prototypes.

Two months ago, he decided to include desktop 3D printers in his range, which cost from $3,000 to $7,000. He has not had a buyer yet, but says: "I've seen people playing around with 3D printers, or they are curious about 3D printing and I believe there is a market for 3D printers for domestic use."

Friends Jerett Koh and Hanyang Leong started Funbie Studios last year, when "we decided we wanted to start making cool stuff by playing with 3D printing", says Mr Leong. "We focus on using technology and doing things that not many others are working on right now."

They do not offer 3D printing service but instead collaborate with designers, inventors, students and entrepreneurs to materialise their design in 3D.

One of their collaborations was for the Displacements, a community arts project to bid farewell to a terrace house at Wilkie Terrace which was about to be torn down. "For this project, we designed and 3D printed a miniature scale model of the terrace home, sold the miniatures at the event to help raise funds," says Mr Koh.

Besides heading to Uu to get a 3D figurine, just for this weekend, 3D print studio Tinkr is offering a similar service at the Public Garden flea market at TripleOne Somerset. A full-sized figurine will be $150 for a one-colour print, and $250 for a fully handpainted figurine. There is a four to six weeks waiting time for the figurines to be completed.

Tinkr was set up in July by Xiaohui Lee and Freda Chua. "It is the ability to bridge, fuse and mix art, design and technology into one that got us hooked," says Ms Chua. "We want to redefine the way people own things, giving consumers ownership right from the beginning of the design and thinking process."

They have tinkered with 3D portrait scans, customised accessories, typography art, as well as a collectible art figurine for a local band Monster Cat for their fundraising campaign on Indiegogo. Prices for their products range from $50 to $500 for small prints and can go up from there, depending on a variety of factors such as design, print material and time, as well as post-processing methods.

They will also be launching their first line of customisable accessories such as cufflinks, pendants, wristlets and earrings at the flea market.

Another duo that has jumped onto the 3D print bandwagon are Mark Lim and Hayden Tay of 3D Matters. They started their 3D printing solutions company last year. Part of their work is printing building models for architecture firms and objects for advertising firms to use in their campaign pitches. For now, printing of consumer products make up about 30 per cent of the jobs. "But this figure is likely to go up," says Mr Lim. Some of the products they have printed for clients include that for a couple dressed in their bridal best, and for a man who wanted a 3D printed engagement ring. "Consumers like the novelty of 3D printing," says Ms Tay.

Over at National University of Singapore's Design Incubation Centre, 3D printers have been widely used over the last eight years as a prototyping tool to produce mock-ups before actual commercialisation and manufacturing. It has also ventured out into some market-ready products with their printers, such as Softbowls, a collection of shallow planter bowls printed from nylon. These are on sale from $620 from Space furniture store.

A scan across websites on 3D printing shows users have printed anything from figurines, parts for toys, clothes, and even shoes, although they don't look too comfortable.

For Clement Zheng, a teaching assistant at the National University of Singapore and a 3D printing hobbyist, the printing method fascinates him because "of the complexity of products that it can produce that is not possible with traditional techniques, and also the speed of getting a product printed", he says. No longer is there a need to find a manufacturer to produce an item, but knowing the use of designing software, an item can be designed in a day, and printed in hours.

Mr Zheng has printed through Shapeways, a range of jewellery and even espresso cups printed from food-safe ceramic powder. "I can't bear to drink from them yet," he quips.

Home printers

Will there be a day when home use 3D printers become as common place as 2D printers? Mr Zheng doesn't think so. For a start, not everyone has the knowledge on using the necessary software to design a product. "Knowing how to operate the machine can also be a challenge. What do you do if a gear breaks down, or if the nozzle is too hot," he points out. Instead, he believes there will be more sites such as Shapeways, which takes the technical know-how and hassle out of 3D printing.

Dr Reeves says that content and materials are the two limitations that are holding back consumers from doing their own 3D printing. "If you think about it, what are people actually going to print? We only need so many bobble heads and vases in our lives and unless you are using a 3D printer to support another hobby or past time, you are pretty soon going to run out of useful things to print," he says.

He adds that currently, there is only a very small range of polymers available for home 3D printers. "These have significant limitation in terms of strength, performance and durability. So even if I could access the design data to print a new trigger for my cordless screw driver, I simply cannot make working parts, as they are all made of specialist materials that are not yet available for home 3D printing."

Even then, 3D printing still excites. "3D printing is a whole new culture and its potential is truly endless. The future of 3D printing is definitely in capturing and recording memories," says Wataru Hida, CEO of Mikanbako. "Imagine taking yearly 3D family portraits instead of photographs."

taysc@sph.com.sg


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