Review: Intriguing MODA exhibit shows impact, potential of 3D printing technology

In 2012, 5-year-old Liam was the first person to receive a complete Robohand. After reading about Richard Van As's work developing a 3D-printed prosthetic, Liam's mother reached out to Richard to ask if he might make a hand for her son who had been born without fingers on one hand. Liam's wrist joint drives the action of the hand which is entirely 3D printed except for a few pieces of hardware and cord.
In 2012, 5-year-old Liam was the first person to receive a complete Robohand. After reading about Richard Van As's work developing a 3D-printed prosthetic, Liam's mother reached out to Richard to ask if he might make a hand for her son who had been born without fingers on one hand. Liam's wrist joint drives the action of the hand which is entirely 3D printed except for a few pieces of hardware and cord.
In 2012, 5-year-old Liam was the first person to receive a complete Robohand. After reading about Richard Van As's work developing a 3D-printed prosthetic, Liam's mother reached out to Richard to ask if he might make a hand for her son who had been born without fingers on one hand. Liam's wrist joint drives the action of the hand which is entirely 3D printed except for a few pieces of hardware and cord.
In 2012, 5-year-old Liam, who had been born without fingers on one hand, was the first person to receive a complete Robohand. Liam’s wrist joint drives the action of the hand. which is entirely 3-D printed except for a few pieces of hardware and cord.

A gorgeous red dress and a prosthetic hand would seem to have little in common. What they share and how they came to be is the subject of Designers, Makers, Users: 3D Printing the Future, the illuminating exhibit at the Museum of Design Atlanta through January 10, 2016.

In essence, 3-D printing is the creation of a physical object as output from a design programmed in a computer. The process, invented by Chuck Hull in 1984 to facilitate making prototypes for industrial purposes, involves layering material in thin cross sections to result in a three-dimensional form. The process is demonstrated in the show, and a timeline (with videos) establishes a baseline of understanding of the technology and its history.

In the three decades since the technology was invented, the materials, methods and programs have changed dramatically. It’s evolving from a specialized process to a widely available, inexpensive tool. Applications for the technology have grown far beyond the realm of prototyping into humanitarian and healthcare applications that can literally change people’s lives. Ably curated by museum director Laura Flusche, the show demonstrates the mind-blowing range of its uses.

 Kinematics Dress #6 , designed by Nervous System, is generated with a computer program that turns scanned images of a client’s body into customized designs
Kinematics Dress #6, designed by Nervous System, is generated with a computer program that turns scanned images of a client’s body into custom designs. (Photo by Susan Sanders)

That stunning red Kinematics Dress is a powerful statement about the versatility of 3-D printing. Produced by Nervous System, the dress is a first step toward the designers’ goal to get the process into the hands of ordinary people, who can then design their own clothing, is a way off.

The shoes in a nearby case suggest the future mass customization. Produced by Feetz, the shoes, still less attractive than the average cheap running shoe, are printed for each customer from photos submitted of the wearer’s feet. The shoes may be revolutionary, but their impact is overshadowed by the technologies to print substitutes for feet themselves; namely, prosthetics.

Designed in response to the formerly time-consuming, expensive task of custom-producing prosthetics, 3-D printed arms, legs, feet and hands can now be produced relatively quickly at a fraction of the original cost — especially a boon for children, who continually outgrow their prosthetics.

The MakerBot Replicator 2 prints objects out of bioplastic using a technology called Fused Deposition Modeling in which thin layers of plastic are laid down one at a time in order to build a 3-dimensional object.
The MakerBot Replicator 2 prints objects out of bioplastic using a technology in which thin layers of plastic are laid down one at a time in order to build a 3-dimensional object. (Photo by Susan Sanders)

Other triumphs in the biomedical field are the printing of tools needed in surgery and even making organs out of living human tissue. The exhibition also shows 3-D printing’s potential in outer space. It could allow astronauts to print tools to make repairs while in orbit, and it may be the key to the erection of shelter on celestial satellites and even other planets, by making structures using the dust already available on planet.

The exhibit is sophisticated in content and execution. Susan Sanders, the exhibition designer, along with graphic designer Hannah Horrom and exhibition intern Meredith White, created an informative, engaging setting for the works, wares and printers that Flusche has assembled.

This technology could be the Gutenberg press of our era. Poised at the intersection of innovation and technology, Designers, Makers, Users: 3D Printing the Future is an excellent example of the museum’s mission to highlight the “convergence of creativity and functionality.”

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