The Revolution Will Be Printed | Inspire
The Revolution Will Be Printed
Good to Know
Good to Know

The Revolution Will Be Printed

Imagine if you could print your own coffee mug – and we're not talking about the picture on it...

Imagine if you could print your own coffee mug – and we're not talking about the picture on it...

There’s a small but determined army growing in size and stature every day. The soldiers – an enthusiastic assortment of geeks, hackers, engineers, artists, designers and entrepreneurs – are leading an uprising that's set to change the face of manufacturing in South Africa. The catchphrase: 3D printing.

“This revolution is amazing and it's coming,” says SA designer and artist Dr Michaella Janse van Vuuren. “Three-dimensional printing is putting job creation in people's own hands.” Presenting at an Agents of the 3D Revolution seminar held at the University of Johannesburg’s FADA Gallery, Janse van Vuuren was one of 10 speakers extolling the virtues of the “Third Industrial Revolution”. 

The machine at its core is a seemingly innocuous metal box thats much cooler than it looks. Engineered to interpret computer-aided design software, it can print 3D objects, layer by layer, building them from the bottom up. The material used to print them can be anything from gypsum powder with a bonding agent, to wax, nylon or even chocolate. The benefit? A complete product can be created without the tedium of having to make a mould or assemble parts. 

The printing pioneers

With a background in art and a PhD in engineering, Janse van Vuuren uses this technology to create mobile sculptures and beautiful things. Working from her smallholding in Pretoria, she “sculpts” objects on her computer and then emails the design to a 3D printing service provider.

“It's an empowering thing,” she says. “The revolution removes barriers to manufacture; I can send a design off [from home] and have it printed in London. It arrives back in a little box, and I have this object I've created without ever having physically touched it.”

This kind of technology will affect all areas of design, from aesthetic items to functional tools. Instead of waiting for the industry to “come up” with an object, you can have it customised to your individual tastes and printed as a one-off. 

“This is where the market is going, this is where technology is going,” says Professor Deon de Beer, Executive Director of Technology Transfer and Innovation at the Vaal University of Technology. “For example, if a person is disabled in a certain way and needs a dish to be designed in a certain way, they can get someone to draw it up and print it out.” 

But this isn't just a pipe dream. South African-based carpenter Richard van As is living the dream, having created and printed a prototype mechanical hand after losing four fingers in an accident. 

“It was all about me at that stage,” he says. “But I soon realised I could help other people. Now people send me moulds from all over the world.” Through his company, Robohand, Van As creates prosthetic hands according to the moulds, then prints them and sends them to their new owners. 

Another exciting opportunity is the printing of objects inside other objects. “If you were to make things manually, you wouldn't be able to get in there to assemble it, but [with 3D printing] it's there,” says Janse van Vuuren. 

Possibly the most freakish aspect of this technology is that the machines can be used to clone themselves, literally printing their own parts piece by piece. 

The price of 3D printing

A group of South African enthusiasts, working from The House 4 Hack, are trying to reduce the price of 3D printers. An entry-level commercial printer will start at around R15 000, but the hackers are determined to bring it down to R2 000 or less. 

Engineer and House 4 Hack member Quentin Harley has initiated this process by building his own printer from “junk and stuff I had in my garage”. It cost roughly R7 000 and is already being used to create parts for its “children”, which should be cheaper than the original.

What will happen once the price has come down? De Beer foresees a future where everyone will have a 3D printer in their homes, using it to print almost anything they can imagine, from kids’ toys to machine parts. And as for that Ferrari, you'll just have to wait and see... 

The Agents of the 3D Revolution exhibition – which showcases art and design as well as the technology behind 3D printing  – runs from 6 to 22 July 2013, Monday to Saturday, 10am to 5pm, at the FADA Gallery, University of Johannesburg, Bunting Road Campus, Auckland Park, Johannesburg. For more info, visit

IMAGES: Lisa Johnston

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