3D Printing was born as a “boring” industrial process. It allowed – and allows – companies to save up to 90% on costs and time of prototyping but for most people that just was not interesting enough. Now that designers are starting to discover 3D printing, however, it is a whole other matter. Design can help people connect to production and manufacturing because it conveys emotions through objects, making them unique. Or at least more unique.
Top notch designers like Tom Dixon have been experimenting with 3D printing technologies for a while but a new generation of designers is now taking to 3D printing. Alessandro Zambelli is one of them. After experimenting with early direct metal sintering, he presented his first commercial 3D printed product, CRIU, at last year’s Design Week in Milan. CRIU is a bread holder in nylon, 3D printed so that the outside is a geometrical net while the inside is a solid to hold the bread crumbs. For the actual laser sintering Zambelli turned to .exnovo, a Norther Italian company specialized in 3D printed lamps and objects.
This year the collaboration between the designer and .exnovo continued with a new collection of 3D printed lamps named “Afilia”, a term that, in botany, describes a plant that is “leafless though not lifeless” and his work was immediately noticed in the design community. The Afilia range includes six lighting accessories and three table lamps and three pendant lights. The base and the socket rings are in hand crafted premium Swiss pine wood but the light diffuser is laser sintered in nylon to create delicate light patterns through and intricate geometrical web, in a mix of fleeting shadows, unexpected focus and compact halos.
I caught up with Alessandro, who, when I contacted him, was coincidentally attending a design book presentation just a couple hundred feet away from where I was meeting two entrepreneurs planning on opening up a 3D print shop in Milan. Since I know close to nothing about what goes into the product design mental process I took the chance to ask him what 3D printing means and can mean for artistic and commercial creativity.
“I believe the creative approach does change” – he explained to me – “because sintering gives you the opportunity to create things that could not be created in the past. However, as much as this can mean a creative explosion, it is not yet a full blown explosion as it is still limited in that from a purely commercial point of view, plastic, even a particular plastic such as nylon, is still considered a poor material and this makes it difficult to convey the real value of an object. The fact that the objet is impossible to create using traditional methods is not always apparent in the eyes of those who are not familiar with manufacturing processes”
To make his pieces “warmer” and more appealing to a selective crowd of people unfamiliar with 3D printing technologies, Zambelli combined 3D printed nylon with hand crafted Swiss pine wood because, he explained, “it is a material that can better relate with all people and can give an added value to a product that would be too cold and a bit too far out there if it had been entirely made in nylon. I felt I needed to bring it back to Earth using wood for bases and sockets.”
3D printing, however, remains central and will become even more central in the world of creative design. As in Zambelli’s pieces, it might not ever (and probably should not) entirely replace traditional manufacturing processes and materials but simply add new possibilities. “Technology fascinates me and I always try to stay up to date with all the new creative possibilities it offers. In fact, now, when I think of a particular detail I want to develop, the first thing that I consider is: can I 3D print it?”