World first products created by a 3D printer

ALEX FENSOME
Last updated 05:00 08/02/2014
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3D printed sculpture of blooming flowers made using revolutionary technique by students at Victoria.

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It looks like an alien musical instrument, but this strange device is actually a world first - and a milestone for 3D printing technology.

"Blossom", by former Victoria University School of Design student Richard Clarkson, is the first inflatable product ever created with a 3D printer.

The printers create objects by "printing" material, such as rubber or plastic, according to computerised designs.

In "Blossom", as air is pumped inside hollow spaces in the black rubber buds, the petals pull apart and a coloured core emerges, just like a flower.

Clarkson, who is now a masters student at the School of Visual Arts in New York, created the flowers in 2012 but they have only just been made public.

His supervisor, Tim Miller, a senior lecturer in industrial design, said it was developed for a course project.

"We were hosting a conference called Desform . . . I gave the students a brief to design a giveaway [for conference visitors] out of 3D printing which could also be part of an exhibition."

The blooms were designed on a computer, each one unique, then printed out in one piece.

The printer used can combine two materials and adjust the mixture to vary the amount of flexibility of the product.

For example, the flower petals are made from 100 per cent rubber, while the central parts are 100 per cent solid. Other parts are a mixture of the two.

This means the petals can be pumped with air and inflated to push up the harder centre, which was dyed to provide some colour, making the whole thing look like a flower blooming.

At the time the designs had to be sent to Hong Kong - through a collaboration with the printer maker.

But now Victoria University owns the only one of this type of printer in New Zealand.

The ability to mix materials was a technological breakthrough, Mr Miller said, but the real advance would be the next stage - creating a seamless change between the different mixes.

The potential of 3D printing was extraordinary, he said.

It was held back by the prohibitive cost and the quality of materials which could be used, but 3D printers could potentially be used to create almost anything.

One company had already begun researching how to 3D print an entire house in less than 24 hours.

"It's going to become more and more significant as the cost comes down. More and more printing will be used in manufacturing."

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