Img: Steelcase/MIT 
When 3D printing first began to emerge, it was hailed as the next big breakthrough in the manufacturing industry, sure to slowly kill off traditional industries as it gradually gained more dominance in the wider world of business. However, to date, that hasn’t quite worked out as expected. Slow speeds, limited size, and impractical or inferior materials have infuriated early-adopters of the technology, and as such it has failed to gain a decent foothold.

Now, office furniture manufacturers Steelcase have given evidence of their commitment to revolutionise the fledgling industry by partnering with MIT to develop a new, more practical method of applying the technology, utilising an oversized needle and a large vat of gel to rapidly print larger objects without the need for supporting structures or the tedious application of layer-upon-layer.

“The gel supports the structures as it is printed so that support structures or other materials aren’t needed,” Skylar Tibbits, the founder of the Self-Assembly Lab at MIT’s International Design Center, told Quartz. “That allows us to print in 3D space without layers and without the post-process of dissolving or breaking off supports. We can simply remove the part from the gel and wash it with water.”

The new method of 3D printing creates much sturdier constructs as compared to the layering approach, and is able to make use of better materials such as hard plastics and flexible rubber. All those positives aside, the greatest benefit of MIT’s new method is a much faster production time; traditional 3D printers can take hours to complete even a simple design, whereas the new method was able to create test designs in a matter of minutes.

From here, the team plan to take the new method beyond the concept stage by conducting research into how to effectively scale the technology, and how to make use of a wider range of materials.

“There is breakthrough innovation taking place, but it’s not done,” Rob Poel of Steelcase told Quartz. “The hope is that the future will see this experience grow as customers will be able to customize and personalize their furniture.”

If the team are eventually able to take the concept to market in a fully-fleshed-out form, it truly could have a drastic impact on the office furniture industry, along with countless others. The rapid construction time and relatively cheap materials, coupled with the customisation capabilities of such technologies, could see prices plummet throughout the industry, and a shift from traditional manufacturing to 3D printing and additive manufacturing is sure to follow.

Sam Bonson

Sam is an aspiring novelist with a passion for fantasy and crime thrillers. He is currently working as a content writer, journalist & editor in an attempt to expand his horizons.
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