Intricately carved chairs, serpentine tables and elaborate lamp shades – these creative pieces were once the digital doodles of furniture designers with little hope of a life beyond a computer file. But the rise of 3D printing can now bring these designs to life with startlingly precision. Known as additive manufacturing, this technology is more than a way to push aesthetics past traditional limits. Companies can turn renderings into reality at a faster pace with a smaller environmental impact. Learn how specifying 3D printed furnishings will elevate your office landscape.
Condensing the Production Timeline
3D printing debuted over 30 years ago and has swiftly found applications in almost every industry. Anything from medical supplies and automotive parts to fashion apparel and action figurines can be constructed by these robotic printers. Most manufacturers use the technique for rapid prototyping, which allows them to quickly create scale models or sample parts. This ability can reduce turnaround from weeks to a matter of days if the designers work with a model studio. Those with on-site machines can simply print off a component at the end of a business day and have it waiting the next morning.
“The cost and physical footprint of 3D printing equipment has been reduced in recent years. As more design studios struggle to justify the space required for in-house model shops or the fees to work with a professional model shop, 3D printing has become a more effective way of realizing and evaluating the design process,” explains Richard Stevens, founder and creative director of forpeople, a design agency. “We use additive manufacturing to demonstrate everything from scale models of spatial design, form language and detail development to technical geometry and engineering development. 3D printing offers the opportunity and immediacy to interact with a design in-house.”
These timetable efficiencies not only help designers achieve the desired visual look, but they are afforded more opportunities for evaluation and testing. Teams can uncover imperfections and develop remedies with greater expediency.
“The key benefit to 3D printing is fabrication time and the ability to prototype more design directions at a faster pace,” Stevens notes. “We also typically 3D print at quarter or half scale, which enables us to optimize the time taken to produce the models as well as make them more easily transportable.”
The firm, which has used additive manufacturing for over a decade, partnered with Herman Miller on its Keyn Chair Group. The result is a line of meeting and side seating with just four main parts that can recline up to 10 degrees.
“During the development of the Keyn Chair Group, we used 3D printing extensively to prototype and test the complex mechanisms and geometry in the ergonomic rigs used to validate and refine user comfort,” explains Stevens. “This allowed the engineers to tweak the design of the kinematic movement at nearly the same time the prototypes were tested with users.”
A Personalized Touch
For interior designers, workplace consultants and property owners, 3D printing offers new options for customization. Feedback or requests from end users can be incorporated into the CAD drawing, ensuring the finished product will support their workplace needs.
“The idea that 3D printing is an open door to invite customers to extend a system according to their specifications is extremely important,” says Carola Zwick, company partner and designer for Studio 7.5. “Not all work went to the cloud – we think of offices as labs and studios that need to support very particular physical aspects of work. 3D printing is the interface that can help a workspace to adapt quickly to emerging needs.”
For example, Herman Miller uses 3D printing for its Metaform Portfolio. A collaboration with Studio 7.5, the modular system is a series of panels that provides space delineation for individual workspaces or collaboration areas and includes staggered recesses and nooks for organization. A variation of 3D printing called fused deposition modeling (FDM) is used for metaformTools, which are custom hooks and mini shelves that corral office supplies. The clip-on accessories can be customized by the client for shape, size, color and material choice.
“3D printing is more flexible because the design is stored as a file and only executed on demand. If you use FDM in an intelligent way, you create no waste and the production can happen as close to the customer as possible,” Zwick explains. “In our case, we are able to offer over 70 colors for our products and can start production the minute an order comes in.”
For American Standard, a manufacturer of kitchen and restroom products, 3D printing enabled its design team to turn a functional sink faucet into an eye-catching amenity. DVX is made from Inconel alloy, which provides structural strength that can conceal waterways in inventive ways. The metal construction is also free of lead so the fixture meets safety codes.
Additive manufacturing is more than finding the right hue or personalizing a design. It can step in to create a highly specialized offering that is otherwise difficult or costly to produce. Traditional production methods are generally unable to accommodate an order that might be used by only one company. But 3D printing isn’t influenced by the same economies of scale. It is uniquely positioned to deliver items that are one of a kind. Think of a museum that wants to generate a replica of a piece in its collection or a preservationist that needs to fabricate an architectural detail on a historic building. NASA has even placed 3D printers on the International Space Station so astronauts can produce repair tools as necessary.
“We like to think of 3D printing as apps to an existing OS,” says Zwick. “For example, we recently designed shoe holders for the development department of a large sportswear company. This was a necessary item for them, but hardly in high demand elsewhere. 3D printing enabled us to deliver an exclusive solution.”
Environmentally Responsible Fabrication
3D printing offers an attractive range of environmental benefits. Because the machine creates a precise version of a digital drawing, there is virtually no waste during printing. Customers have the assurance that materials are used only as need and won’t end up in landfills.
Take for example the intricately sculpted base of the Rio side table designed by Morgan Studio and studioINTEGRATE. By using selective laser sintering (SLS), the lattice pattern is constructed from a single piece of polyamide, a synthetic polymer. No leftover portions are discarded where the cutouts are, which would be the case with traditional manufacturing techniques.
A study by researchers at Michigan Technological University on the energy consumption of an at-home printer suggests that additive manufacturing could also conserve electricity on a commercial scale. Furthermore, if a factory using 3D printing is located in the U.S., a product’s greenhouse gas emissions are significantly reduced because it is not being shipped overseas.
“Wilkhahn has been fascinated by 3D printing’s individualized and environmentally friendly production,” says Simone Vingerhoets-Ziesmann, CEO. “Not only can the customer be directly involved in the design process, but they will receive a sustainable product tailored to their individual needs. The manufacturing capabilities of 3D printing support local production, minimize transportation and lower our carbon footprint.”
Many of the resins or metals used in additive manufacturing are also recycled or recyclable. Biobased filaments can even be derived from cellulose and lignin (fibers found in wood) and turned into a liquid state compatible for printing. Wilkhahn’s Presto stool has a lignin base because the material is durable but ultimately biodegradable. Polylactic acid is another thermoplastic polymer that is made from rapidly renewable plants such as corn and cane sugar. These eco-friendly materials strengthen a product’s environmental declaration or lifecycle assessment and can also help it qualify for GREENGUARD, BIMFA level or Cradle to Cradle certification.
3D printing gives business owners an opportunity to take an active role in space planning. You don’t have to flip through a catalog hoping to find furnishings that will suit your specific needs. Your workplace can be tailored with functional pieces that support productivity and sustainability – endless design possibilities are just a click of a mouse away. too.” WPM
Jennie Morton is a contributing writer to Workplaces.