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What’s the future of 3D printing? Joris van Tubergen gives you a sneak preview

At the India Design Forum, when one asks Joris van Tubergen for a visiting card, he hands out a postcard instead. No, the Netherlands-based 3D printing expert and creative director of Protospace FabLab has not misunderstood your request. The postcard is rather special, as it contains the image of a life-size 3D printed elephant, when most of the 3D printed objects that one would have encountered till date would be several times smaller.

For a national campaign of the World Animal Protection, Tubergen created a 3D print installation with which he was able to print a life-size elephant live at Schiphol airport within two weeks’ time. The elephant served as a 3D petition against elephant abuse in the tourist industry; only when people signed the petition would the printers actively print the elephant. All 30,000 names of the people who signed the petition were engraved on the ‘skin’ of the elephant. Commissioned by ad agency FHV BBDO, the installation busted the myth that size is an issue when it comes to 3D printing, a technique that’s been around for the last 20 years but is gaining steam, particularly in the world of branding.

Could 3D printing change the course of advertising and marketing? van Tubergen is among those who believe that the best is yet to come. He recently printed a trumpet that will be an integral part of a soon-to-be launched international advertising campaign. “For advertising you always like to use new things,” he says, and adds that the 3D printing experience, augmented reality, video mapping, and so on, will always find favour first in advertising.

Customise for the customer

van Tubergen says that as technology improves and the cost of 3D printing comes down and the speed to churn out volumes goes up, there will be a lot more brands that opt for customisation. In the past, brands such as Coca-Cola have run promotions like “mini-me” which allowed fans to print out 3D model equivalents of themselves.
van Tubergen himself speaks about customising chocolates, recently at a bakery. But he suggests that the machine should be handed over to (in this case) the baking experts rather than a technical person operating the machine. “We have to know just enough to operate the machine. The professionals can use their own tools and bring their own knowledge to the 3D printing experience,” he says. Companies such as Boeing are using 3D printing for parts in their aircraft. Siemens is also doing that for certain parts of their manufacturing, says Tubergen.

Power shift

However, the most remarkable thing that 3D printing could do is heighten the focus on the customer. “I can create something for somebody else. But you need not like it,” he says. The power is more in the fact that everybody is able to create things for themselves. “You are no longer dependent on companies to create what you want. That’s the best because you know what you want. If you master the tools to create it, then you get the best products or best design.”

“It’s also fun to create things yourself. It also takes time to go to a shop to find the right thing,” says Tubergen. Will several industries face the direct impact as 3D printers gain wider acceptance? For example, will toy makers feel the heat? “At this moment, the 3D printer is itself the toy. I do not know if printing a toy is currently cheaper than buying the real toy. It’s great fun to make it,” he says.

He adds that 3D printing could even have a huge impact in areas such as after-sales-service. For example, there is a high cost attached to storing and transporting spare parts lying in a warehouse to the customer. Over the next few years, you may still go to the shop to get the spare part, but the store-keeper would download the subscription from the company and print the part out for you. “I think the industry is also a little scared about the impact,” he says.

As opposed to mass manufacturing, cost will eventually be lower, similar to other things such as digital cameras or solar panels, he says. van Tubergen also sees the innovation in 3D printing developing from the user base rather than from large companies. “People start experimenting and get best printing in microns and share the knowledge with others. The innovation is coming from bottom up,” he says. The herd of 3D elephants is certainly marching on!