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The world's largest 3D print shop has opened its doors in EC1. Rupert Goodwins explains everything you need to know about this new technology...

3D printing is the latest science fiction idea breaking into science fact. It promises the Star Trek-like ability to beam objects into your front room, and with iMakr, the world's biggest 3D print shop, now open in Clerkenwell, that promise looks like it's about to be delivered.

Reality is a bit messier than the USS Enterprise. While it's true that 3D printers start at the price of a Smartphone, if you want to play you'll have to roll your sleeves up and transport yourself back to the home computer days of the 1980s. The technology is new, raw and needs a lot of TLC to deliver – more Sinclair Spectrum than iPhone 5. But if you want to get in on the ground floor, now's the time.

The basic principle is as simple as icing a cake. A 3D printer feeds a thin thread of plastic from a reel into a print head that melts it into gloop and squirts it out in a tiny stream that hardens instantly. By moving the head back and forward, left and right, it draws out an object layer by layer, moving the print head up, or the base down, as each layer is completed. It can work to accuracies of a fraction of a millimeter, and follow extremely complex patterns. If you can design it on a computer in a 3D drawing package, the printer can turn it into a real object.

What's even better is that the sheer cheapness of modern technology means 3D printers are relatively affordable. If you're handy with a soldering iron, there are lots of hobbyist kits online for £300 upwards, but you'll have to supply half the bits yourself.

The cheapest complete device in the UK is the Velleman K8200 kit from Maplin. That costs around £700, and still looks like something cobbled together from Meccano. A Makerbot Replicator 2X, currently the HP Laserjet of 3D printers, clocks in at around £2600. Then you have to sort out the software for your PC or Mac; a popular choice is SketchUp Make, which is free but geeky. After you've got your output, you'll have to send it to the printer – again, get ready to scour the web for clues – and finally, wait.

'The basic principle is as easy as icing a cake’

3D printing is slow. Simple, small objects like a thimble take a few minutes, but anything remotely interesting can take an hour or more. If it arrives: if something goes wrong, they carry on squirting out nonsense until you tell them to stop. Expect spaghetti. And you can't yet make anything bigger than about a shoebox, at least not for sensible money, so the next Eames chair or fancy chandelier is only going to come as a scale model.

At the end of it, though, you'll have a real object. Or 10, or 100: a 3D printer is a tiny factory. The future possibilities for designers, architects and other creatives are exciting. People who've gone through the learning curve and made it all work tend to become obsessives, which is one of the unspoken dangers of this tempting technology. They're shunned at parties, just like those idiots who bought a home computer in 1983.

You may not fancy investing the time or money to risk being that person, in which case the iMakr shop on Clerkenwell Road is a good place to satisfy your curiosity. It has its own printers that can take your designs and solidify them: you don't have to buy into the hardware.

Chances are, you'll get hooked. And then you'll find out you can do multiple colours, multiple materials, even print complex mechanisms with moving parts. Then there are different technologies to play with – some even shoot lasers through vats of resin – and that's before you find out about printers that work with ceramic and metal. Just don't expect it to be easy. Where's the fun in that?

Follow Rupert on twitter @rupertg. www.rupertgoodwins.com

Spread over two spacious floors on Clerkenwell Road, the new iMakr showroom claims to be the world's largest 3D printing store. The store is owned by Instant Makr Ltd, which was founded by entrepreneur Sylvain Preumont and also operates an investment fund to support 'promising projects' involving 3D printing by designers, engineers and start-ups. The store stocks printers and materials, along with 3D printer-made artworks and objects such as watches and jewellery (bring your Mastercard, these pieces aren't cheap). iMakr showcased its 3D tech at 100% Design in September 2013. www.imakr.com;
www.100percentdesign.co.uk

PETER'S PERSPECTIVE

Design and architecture festivals have practical benefits for cities...

In the last six months, my itinerary has included a round of events celebrating design and architecture in major cities: Clerkenwell Design Week, London Festival of Architecture, the Lisbon Triennale, 100% Design, Open House, World Architecture Festival Singapore, and Archtober in New York. Every other year that list also includes the daddy of them all, the Venice Architecture Biennale. All very enjoyable for visitors, but what do these events offer the cities themselves?

Festivals attract visitors to cities. Importantly for those in the design and architecture fields, they also reinforce the city's creative credentials – recognised as key drivers of local economies. Festivals can also act as catalysts for change. Temporary structures and installations can point the way to longer term improvements.

Architecture festivals, for example, are based around the idea of promoting architecture to a wider audience. While all people are users of architecture, very few actually purchase it. Nevertheless public opinion is important in the decision-making process surrounding new buildings, by advancing the wider cultural understanding of architecture, the thinking goes, we will get better architecture.

The London Festival of Architecture (LFA) for example has always had the ambition to propose change by delivering temporary projects that, if they work, turn into permanent ones. The Store Street Crescent in Bloomsbury was a car park until a LFA installation showed how it could work as a pedestrian zone, which it now is.

The proposal to demolish the raised section of the A4 at Hammersmith and put it in a tunnel with a park on top has received lots of attention. The architects organised exhibitions and events at the LFA in 2012 and 2013. Hammersmith Council liked the idea, so did Boris and it may become a reality, as well as another example of how festival ideas can offer tangible improvements for cities.

Peter Murray is Chairman of NLA: London's Centre for the Built Environment
www.newlondonarchitecture.org

 

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