Matéria publicada na wired. LONDON – As the fondue pots are cleared away, a sudden buzz ripples through the crowd packed into Val d’Isere’s Sur La Montagne restaurant. The room is heaving with 40 or so hard-living internet entrepreneurs and VCs here for a weekend of power-networking, skiing and après-ski partying — but all at once it’s a polished steel bracelet chain and a 2cm polyamide nylon sculpture that have captured the restaurant’s attention.
Designed on computer screens and then built layer by layer in industrial 3D printing machines, these intricate trinkets are eliciting all the head-turning excitement of a Maserati roaring along La Croisette during the Cannes Film Festival. Lisa Harouni, whose company Digital Forming is bringing 3D printing to high-street fashion brands and consumer product designers, has just convinced even the most skeptical investors here that something transformative is about to happen to the whole business of making things.
No wonder she talks of it as “an industrial revolution in the digital age”.
“This technology has been around for 20 years, but it’s about to hit the public in a big way,” she later explains. “It’s going to affect every facet of life — letting you manufacture bespoke products on demand that can be customized for an individual, and giving designers the freedom to make complex parts with less waste of material and a lower carbon footprint because it’s made locally.
“If, let’s say you have guests coming for dinner but you realize you don’t have enough plates, you’ll be able to go online and download products to your home printer like you do music today. But this technology can also custom-manufacture body parts, medical devices, lifestyle goods — anything we use to express ourselves, from home furnishings to personalised iPhone covers. It means you can create bespoke products en masse.”
Siavash Mahdavi, Harouni’s cofounder who also runs another company, Within Technologies, is already custom-designing products ranging from stiffer, lighter wings for Formula One cars, to cobalt chrome finger implants and lightweight titanium spinal fusion implants for medical use. By using complex mathematics to minimize the materials required to maximize a product’s strength, he can create parts that are light yet strong, which are then “printed” in layers of just a few microns at a time.
“Today the technology is mostly used by engineers, in aerospace and Formula One cars, and is starting to be used for medical orthopaedics,” Harouni explains. “Imagine you break your bone and need an implant: hospitals typically keep six standard sizes, but soon you’ll see machines in every hospital that will build implants on the spot based on your MRI scan. We’re doing away with the idea that one size fits all — it’s bespoke manufacturing. And that’s a really powerful idea.”
The technology may have been around for decades, but until recently the costs of manufacture have made the process prohibitive for mass applications. Now you can build your own entry-level 3D MakerBot printer from a kit for just £800 ($1,300) — although Harouni’s company works with partners whose industrial-scale machines cost up to £1 million ($1.6 million) and can custom print items as complex and sensitive as watch mechanisms.
As prices fall, output quality rises and fabrication times become quicker, Digital Forming is working to democratize access to the technology by building a software platform that will let anyone design and co-create products over the web. She compares the software to a 3D version of Microsoft Word for 2D home printing — once you’re happy with your design, your product is manufactured on demand.
Although “3D printing” isn’t really a term Harouni likes to use. What this is is actually “additive manufacturing”, in which 3D computer designs are turned into atoms layer by tiny layer.
“You can use our platform to download a product from a partner brand, view that product in 3D, zoom in, rotate it, and start iterating by customizing that product according to your desires,” she says. “And if you’re not a designer, you’ll be able to use professional designs — so you’ll create made-to-fit products for your body such as shoes, or sportswear, or glasses. You’ll be able to download spare parts for your car, have them manufactured on the spot at home using plastics, or use metals such as medical-grade titanium, aluminium, stainless steel, plastic mixes — even chocolate. I think you’ll start seeing these machines in the home within five years. We’re at a tipping point.”
So what’s the next stage in this revolution? For Digital Forming, the focus is now on building a global network of industrial-scale manufacturing centers, and using its software to help companies open up their products to customization. “We’re talking to major high-street consumer brands — companies that make lifestyle goods, things on your desk today, things you’re wearing,” Harouni says. “And we expect you’ll be able to see the first results within the year.”