Mini Me's and guns: the possibilities of 3D printing are endless

By Sarah Jackson | 17 September 2013

Developing Dreams and 3dify bring 3D printing to the masses in Break the Mould at Brighton Digital Festival.

Miniature models of two men rendered by a 3D printer.
Break the Mould at Brighton Digital Festival.© Ian Byrne
Only a few years ago, 3D printing was an unknown concept to most of us; now, it seems, the pace of technology is charging towards a future where 3D printing may be commonplace, even for the least techy-minded.

During this month’s Brighton Digital Festival, Break the Mould offers visitors the chance to walk into a 3D body scanner and receive a 3D miniature version of themselves. Similarly, Selfridges will also soon be offering their customers the chance to take away their own ‘mini me’ – for a much heftier price tag.

A 3D printer creates physical objects from a digital design. The printer software reads the design and renders it in three-dimension by converting the design into tiny slices and then printing each layer, using materials as wide-ranging as plastics, metal – even chocolate.
During the past ten years, the price of 3D printers has dropped remarkably. Although top end models still cost more than £70,000, desktop versions can be picked up for £1,000 or less.

As the technology gets cheaper, so the possibilities for its uses increase. In May, Texan law student Cody Wilson made and fired the world’s first 3D gun. One of his prototypes has now been acquired by the V&A.

"When I started here we spent time thinking about how we could represent things that are happening today in design," says Kieran Long, a senior curator of contemporary exhibits.

“Advocates of technological developments often overstate their impact, but there is no doubt that this is a major step.”

Cody’s gun – which he has called the Liberator – has sparked intensive debate about the future of 3D printing. Although still a complex technology, open source printers and designs are quickly making 3D printing a much more tangible prospect - if not for the home, then certainly the high street.

Selfridges started selling 3D printers in July and from October 24 to December 31 it will open an iMakr store, claiming to be the world’s largest 3D printing store.

From around £159, customers can take home miniature portraits of themselves created by 3D body scanners and printers

Break the Mould offers a much cheaper option for those wanting to see themselves as never before, with prices beginning at £20. There’s also the added interest of walking inside a 3D body scanner in the shape of a giant woman.

Brighton based Italian artist Emilia Telese designed the sculpture for the installation. “3D printers are very mechanical and impersonal," she says.

"I wanted to add something feminine to a male-dominated world such as the technology industry, which is where the idea of motherhood came from.

“Getting a little sculpture of yourself is like giving birth to a little you. I hope this installation will help make 3D printers more human and accessible.”

The possibility of printing a unique artwork is certainly intriguing. Printing has traditionally been about mass-producing identical copies of an original.

3D printing bucks this trend, making it possible to create one-off pieces, including objects that are too delicate to have been made by human hands. Mass-production may no longer mean that every item is identical.

The applications of 3D printing are vast: from weapons to hyper-customisable and unique artworks. Whether it will become a technology as familiar to us as touchscreens and cloud services have or remain the province of hackers and DIYers remains to be seen.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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Culture24's guide to the London Design Festival 2013

Axis turns 21: Chief Executive Sheila McGregor talks art, longevity and digital technology

Follow Sarah Jackson on Twitter @SazzyJackson.

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