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Furniture 3D Printing in Production, Has the Time Come?

International designers have been approaching the possibilities offered by high furniture 3D printing for some time. They have explored possibilities and come up with some pretty innovative concepts. While the time for commercially available 3D printed furniture is still a few years away, we can already identify some interesting trends. Here they are.

Janne Kyttanen is one of the first top desginer to experient with furniture 3D printing
Janne Kyttanen is one of the first top desginer to experient with furniture 3D printing

One trend is that 3D printing, as a process, is like a seed that is sprouting in every single sector of manufacturing. The furniture industry is no exception. This seed holds enormous potential but its future is still hard to envision. That is one of the reason why many companies that have found profitable ways of integrating 3D printing into their workflow rarely accept to make this information public.

Several artists and designers are pushing the boundaries of how 3D printing can and will be implemented in full size furniture manufacturing. There are, however, some limitation to overcome before 3D printing can ever be considered a mainstream process for the furniture industry.

Size Matters in Furniture 3D Printing

One is the size limitations that have characterized 3D printing since it was invented in 1986. All that is changing now as bigger and faster machines have entered the market.

One way to overcome size limitations is to extrude materials through a robotic arm, This approach has been used for molten plastics and also for cement and even metal manufacturing. The arm, which moves on 5 axis (instead of the three axis of an enclosed 3D printer), designs the physical objects layers into any space.

The Batoidea Chair by Peter Donders is one of the most recognizable items in furniture 3D printing
The Batoidea Chair by Peter Donders is one of the most recognizable items in furniture 3D printing

Other approaches at large size furniture have involved really large 3D printers. The Dutch “Kamer Maker” and the German “BigRep” were among the first to develop large size 3D printers that can produce real size plastic structures. This enables the creation of geometrically complex architectures, however the process remains slow and inefficient, with mediocre surface quality.

Materialise, one of the largest 3D printing factories in the world, developed its own system, the Mammoth, to 3D print extremely precise and smooth objects up to two meters long using stereolithography (SLA), which is the first type of 3D printing ever invented. The challenge here is that the process is very slow and very expensive.

The quest for large size 3D printers has but begun and many more companies are now weighing in. Even for metal laser fusion and cement binder based 3D printing approaches. Germany based manufactures some of the largest 3D printers in the world: in 2013 its VX2000 machine was used to 3D print an entire living space, created by Designer François Brument. Israel’s Massivit also developed a technology to 3D print large structures very rapidly using a photo curable resin at a cost that is just a fraction of other technologies.

Bedroom Aurelien Dupuis
An entire “3D printed living space” created with the large size voxeljet 3D printing technology

Materials Matter More

Different 3D printing processes can use different materials. However these are not always high quality, noble materials and their appearance is not always smooth. Being able to 3D print a piece of furniture in a single process is going to open up infinte possibilities in terms of shapes and creativity. That is, as soon as the materials that can be used for 3D printing are qualitative enough. One artist, designer, architect and professor who has done extensive experimentation with multi-material, multi-color 3D printing is MIT’s Neri Oxman. Her Chaise Lounge

Neri Oxman's Chaise Lounge was 3D printed using Stratasys' advanced multi-material technology
Neri Oxman’s Chaise Lounge was 3D printed using Stratasys’ advanced multi-material technology

The most common end-use materials in 3D printing are thermoplastics. They can be used in the form of filament or powders. The process which uses filament has no inherent size limitations other then the physical limits of building very large objects. However the appearance of parts 3D printed using filament is often not qualitative enough. The process of 3D printing with thermoplastic powder (mostly nylon) is more expensive and has size limits of less than one cubic meter, however the surface finish is much better, although it still needs finishing processes.

Today designers are starting to 3D print in metal. While this process is extremely expensive (because of machine cost, material cost and energy consumption) the advantage of using metals is that the finished product is just as solid and qualitative as one made by traditional technologies.

One solution to material and process limits is to use 3D printing but as part of a manufacturing cycle which includes the use of other materials and technologies.

There is little doubt that one of the most fascinating aspects of 3D printing is the idea of making functional objects through a single, digital process. The most important thing to remember is that 3D printing is not a better way to make things that we already have today but rather a way of making things that don’t yet exist. Finding out exactly what they are is the designer’s job.

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