Posted 1 Nov 2007
Printing solid objects at home seems like sci-fi, but a university project supported by the Environmental Choice eco-label is showing how to create solid objects at the click of a mouse.
The concept of using some kind of moulding device to create a three-dimensional object is not new. This "rapid prototyping" is used by designers to make models, but an exhibition that opened this week at the Victoria University of Wellington School of Design (in Vivian Street) goes several steps further in philosophy and sustainability.
Class teams had just over four weeks to initiate, design, build and programme a range of "prototypers", three-dimensional printers that actually create solid objects, using techniques such as building up cells, shapes or layers. However it was a graceful, glassy machine called Equinox that attracted the environmental label's attention.
When design student Emma Church approached Environmental Choice, the future-focussed, government-backed ecolabel eagerly joined in sponsoring her project: a 3D printer powered by the sun, and using recycled Resene paint as its sculpting material. The process also involved the skills of a local laser cutting firm Ponoko.
Senior lecturer Ross Stevens says that personal 3D object printers could be seen as a return from mass, globally standardised production to individual crafting of objects locally. 'We've even moved mass production out of countries to places like China. What they are suggesting with this kind of technology is that we will get local bureaus making "prints" and that has less environmental impact. Long-term we will get these printers into our houses, then again the user becomes the maker, through a much different loop than the one you would expect, all fully augmented with technology. You turn a liquid into an object at the point of use, and ideally you recycle it."
The VUW students, says Ross, have to overcome the challenge of unreasonable aims with unreasonable budgets in an unreasonable timeframe – through teamwork, "and they've yet to fail!" Almost the biggest outcome, he says, is when students are able to take their visions and catch the support of outside forward-looking organisations such as Environmental Choice.
"This creative concept, focussing the sun to dry layers of retrieved paint to build a physical object, demonstrates the values of leading-edge, responsible design," says Environmental Choice general manager Robin Taylor. "It re-uses recycled paint in a solar-driven process, and the objects created can be further recycled. It embodies the sustainable approach that has so far motivated almost one thousand products to complete Environmental Choice certification as absolutely proven, environmentally better products. In addition to showing environmentally responsible ingenuity the Equinox team have also created a machine of undeniable, quiet gyroscopic beauty."
Initially each of the 26 students presented a design during a class competition to select the top 3 ideas that they continued to build as teams. In the best democratic tradition, the lecturer had just one vote, as does each of the students. "Equinox was voted one of the top 3," says Ross Stevens, "which just shows you how the students value it being green."