How have printers changed since the 1990s

Claire Warnier and Dries Verbruggen are Unfold, a couple in their professional and private lives who have excelled over the past few years with 3D-printed ceramics. The two are graduates of the Design Academy Eindhoven and opened their studio in Antwerp after completing their studies. They attracted attention in 2011 with their “Kiosk” project as part of the Milan Furniture Week: In the Ventura Lambrate design district, they drove around a 3D printer on their bikes and printed objects directly on site. Her book “Printing Things - How 3D Printing Changes Design” was recently published by Gestalten-Verlag in Berlin. Martina Metzner conducted an interview with Claire Warnier and Dries Verbruggen via Skype.

Martina Metzner: Do you own 3D-printed objects that you use every day?

Claire Warnier: That's a good question. We use our ceramic objects every day.

Dries Verbruggen:
There are things that don't really stand out, such as small brackets and connecting elements that we need for exhibitions. They are all custom-made, i.e. individually adapted. We also made children's toys. Or the things from our “kiosk” project, such as a copy of a plastic vase by Hella Jongerius (Claire Warnier holds the vase in the picture).

How did you come up with the idea of ​​printing clay instead of plastic? And what are the advantages compared to traditional manufacturing methods?

Claire Warnier: Printing gives you the opportunity to produce objects with complex structures. We also don't like plastic, the most commonly used material. This is more likely to result in prototypes. It's different with clay, in the end you have a real product.

Dries Verbruggen: There is no real advantage in relation to traditional ceramic mugs. Only that they could all be designed differently. As Claire said, we see the benefits in making highly complex ceramic products. For example, last year we worked with the French perfumer Barnabé Fillon and created an object that he can use to make perfumes. The second item we're working on is a clay water filter for developing countries. These are objects that could not be produced in this way before.

When did you develop your first ceramic printer?

Claire Warnier: That was in 2009, shortly after the first RepRap printers became popular. That's when we got interested in it and changed this device to do something different with it.

Dries Verbruggen: Already during our studies in the 90s, we were interested in how to convert a digital idea into a real object. We wanted to combine old craft techniques with digital technology. At the time, 3D printing was a very rigid technology that you didn't experiment with.

Do you think 3D printing can replace traditional manufacturing methods - and, as you describe in the book, trigger a new industrial revolution?

Claire Warnier: For about two years we have been in a phase in which we are experimenting heavily with 3D printing and discovering new possibilities. We also wanted to document that with the book. But we don't believe that at some point everyone will have a 3D printer at home and print out their own products. Also, I don't think it will replace the industrial manufacturing methods that have evolved over the past hundred years.

Dries Verbruggen: At the moment there is a big gap between specialized handicraft production, the output of which is limited to just a few items, and the mass production of products that are manufactured by the millions. 3D printing will move precisely in this intermediate area, and therefore it cannot be said that it will replace one or the other. The first thing we will see are local 3D printing service providers and thus an increased production of individual items in smaller quantities. 3D printing may also change the consumer mentality, so that there will be fewer mass-produced articles and more individually tailored products on demand.

Let's look into the future: How will the design industry change over the next 15 years as a result of 3D printing?

Claire Warnier: In five years there will certainly be more FabLabs and small print shops. Online platforms like Shapeways will gain in importance.

In your book you draw the scenario in which designers become providers of ideas and no longer creators of a fixed product. Isn't there a core competence being taken away from the designer in that he is “only” reduced to the idea and no longer has any influence on production, choice of materials or marketing?

Claire Warnier: I think it gives designers more options. Designers will not only offer software, but equipped with a 3D printer, they will be able to precisely produce products on demand and sell them directly. This means that the designer still has an influence on production and choice of materials.

Dries Verbruggen: Designers often have many ideas that fail because a manufacturer does not want to implement them. That will change and shift towards the consumer who makes this decision. Consumers want to buy more and more products that are not fixed but are individually tailored to them. For example, toy maker Hasbro recently announced its partnership with Shapeways to print toys like “My little Pony”. Designers and consumers can now create their own fan art based on the Hasbro portfolio. Hasbro then earns on the license fees for the files. The added value will therefore be redistributed between designers, producers and consumers. This is the great opportunity for 3D printing - and the designers. And consumers also like it when manufacturing processes are completely transparent.

Most print plastic, they print clay. But cement is already being printed, pasta dough, gold, steel and even organic material. For which material do you see the brightest future?

Claire Warnier: The materiality of the 3D printed products is not as high quality as that of the products that are manufactured in a conventional manner. In our opinion, it is more important to be able to print and combine different materials at the same time. In the end you have a product that combines two or three or even more materials.

Dries Verbruggen: Stratasys offers a Polyjet printer that can combine 46 different colors and three different materials. At the moment, the problem with 3D printed materials is that they are not really durable and thus remain at prototype level, but the technology is developing rapidly. In general, we are too preoccupied with the question of whether 3D printing can replace conventional manufacturing methods. It is a refinement of additive manufacturing methods that creates new product typologies, also because designers today are developing products specially designed for 3D printing. The materiality of the products will be less interesting than other product characteristics.

Can you name these other characteristics?

Dries Verbruggen: It's about combining conventional production methods with 3D printing technology, such as the table by the German-Swedish designer duo Kram / Weishaar or the “Keystones” table by Minale-Maeda. I don't believe in the concept that 3D printing is a separate process. We must not believe that it is a magical machine that can be used to make anything, even an iPhone. Traditional media like to draw this image. It's still a machine with advantages and disadvantages. And it is still up to the designer to determine what can and cannot be done with this machine.

Further reading:

Print things
How 3D printing is changing design
By C. Warnier, D. Verbruggen / Unfold, S. Ehmann, R. Klanten
Design, Berlin,
April 2014
Hardcover, 256 pages, full color
39.90 euros