The Next Revolution In Lighting: 3D Printing
We all know that we are in the middle of a solid-state lighting revolution, but that is just the current revolution in lighting. The next revolution doesn’t have anything at all to do with light source technology; it involves a larger, disruptive approach to manufacturing that will affect many types of products. This next tsunami of change racing toward the lighting industry’s shores is 3D printing.
By now I’m sure you’ve heard about 3D printing. In case you haven’t, 3D printing is based on the idea of building up a product in infinitesimal layers rather than starting with a block or sheet of material and then removing the material that you don’t want. Therefore, 3D printing is also known as “additive manufacturing,” and it is inherently less wasteful. With 3D printers, you can create objects in a variety of materials including plastics, ceramics, and metals.
Some high-end, decorative fixture manufacturers have used 3D printing for the past 10 to 15 years for rapid prototyping and occasionally time-sensitive replacement parts for trade shows. These existing applications of 3D printing improve prototyping costs and speed, but aren’t game changers. What has recently changed is that the cost of 3D printers has dropped low enough that individuals and small businesses not associated with traditional manufacturers can now access the technology.
10 Principles Of 3D Printing
So why all the hype about 3D printing? In a new book titled, Fabricated: The New World of 3D Printing, authors Hod Lipson and Melba Kurman outline 10 advantages of 3D printing over traditional manufacturing:
- Manufacturing complexity is free. Printing a complex design is no more expensive than printing a simple design.
- Variety is free. A 3D printer only requires a new digital blueprint and raw materials to create an infinite variety of forms.
- No assembly required. Traditional manufacturing requires assembling many parts, however, 3D printing can print fully assembled final products, reducing labor, global supply chains, and freight costs.
- Zero lead time. Products can be printed on demand, eliminating inventory.
- Unlimited design space. 3D printers can print shapes never before possible with traditional manufacturing methods.
- Zero skill manufacturing. A 3D printer requires less operator skill than traditional manufacturing methods.
- Compact, portable manufacturing. 3D printers have recently become small enough for home or office use, even as small as microwave ovens.
- Less waste by-product. Depending on the materials involved, 3D printing can significantly reduce waste from traditional machining methods.
- Infinite shades of materials. Blending and mixing different kinds of raw materials into a product will become possible in new ways with 3D printing.
- Precise physical replication. Digital 3D modeling allows unlimited copying of designs without loss of fidelity. Similarly, the 3D model/file is not degraded, regardless of how many times the object is printed.
What Could This Mean for Lighting?
The most disruptive scenario for 3D printing includes bypassing the traditional luminaire designer, manufacturer, and retailer. This can occur when individuals design and print their own custom luminaire. The 3D printer could be located:
- in a home
- at an office
- at a membership “maker-space” such as TechShop (www.techshop.com), or
- at a conventional office supply or printing store such as Staples or FedEx (Staples has already announced it will begin selling 3D printers at its stores).
I interviewed three pioneers of 3D printed lighting, from around the world, to get their perspectives.
Q: How do you view the disruptive potential of 3D printing on the lighting industry?
A: Bathsheba Grossman, sculptor and designer, in California, states,
“All kinds of great innovation is possible and happening: it is absolutely true that whole new design spaces are now open, and designers are absolutely taking advantage of that. On the small scale, for individual designers, new business models are open. It’s incredibly exciting to see that develop! [However] because of the cost and material limits [of 3D printing], I don’t see it taking over consumer mass manufacturing very soon.”
A: Margot Krasojevic, architect and designer, in England, explains,
“The most important feature that 3D printing offers a designer is its adaptive nature, contributing to unlimited possibilities of mass-customized form-making. It also displaces, or rather redefines, the role of the designer. I believe 3D printers will be as available as home inkjet printers. Accessibility to this technology is important as it presents us with mass-produced individuality, replacing lighting manufacturers and even some designers – especially with the simplified software that bridges the gap between 2D and 3D manufacturing and the availability of standard light designs online.
We are also starting to create 3D printed objects using custom materials such as salt, cement polymer, nylon, wood, resin, concrete (which can be seen as sustainable, inexpensive, stronger, smarter, recyclable, customizable, and perhaps even reparable to the environment), 3D detail scanners, home printing, and simple doodle sketching software all offer the accessibility of this technology in the home. This continued development of 3D printing and digital modeling software provides numerous resources for rapid prototyping and self-manufacturing, giving the client and buyer even more self-stylized design options.
This affects many things, most importantly the role of the designer. With people printing their own lampshades or replacing parts as and when needed, the manufacturing of standard and nonstandard designs will be available to the individual, making it tougher for the manufacturer to compete.
[It is] also important to question the already unstable issues of [intellectual property] in lighting design; with home printing I believe it will lead to even more [intellectual property] breeches. New laws for intellectual property need to keep up with technology in general. The wide-reaching effects of 3D printing in lighting can be groundbreaking on many levels — not just design, but sciences and law.”
A: James Cleary, designer and founder of SandFlora lighting design, in Australia, states,
“Production costs for 3D printing are still very high compared to other manufacturing methods, which limits how fast the disruption can spread through the broader supply chain. To print a single light [fixture] is the same cost per unit as a production run of 10,000 using 3D printing. The sweet spots in 3D printing have typically created new micro-markets and have not yet disrupted mainstream manufacturing. Examples of those sweet spots are the designer-manufacturer sites like www.shapeways.com, and wonderfully creative mass-customization where each item is tailored by the consumer before production, for example, a light [fixture or lamp] shaped with the letters of a bespoke poem. These are new segments, rather than a challenge to the mainstream.
The most disruptive, and focused organizations like Materialise.mgx and Freedom of Creation have led the way in helping 3D lighting designers abstract the marketing complexity so they can do what they love best: designing awesome lights. While production costs remain high, the market is limited to interior designers and architects who are looking for special, unique premium lighting.
Major structural change will come when production costs drop – and I believe that direction is undeniable. At the same time, I believe the iconic lighting flowing from 3D printing freedom in the last few years will endure as the best examples of what the production technique can achieve.
3D printing has democratized bespoke design by lowering the barriers for designing physically small items and reinventing manufacturing as a shared service, but it doesn’t yet scale. For the physical size of products like most luminaires, the production costs limit the market to premium lighting applications.”
Q: Which new design freedoms impress you most about 3D printing?
A: Bathsheba Grossman says,
“I personally am most interested in archival materials: metals, glass, ceramic, and other premium materials. There’s something fundamentally unimpressive about plastic at any level, but the ability to work with steel, bronze, silver, porcelain, etc., with finishes good enough to satisfy customers who are used to hand-craftsmanship, but with the freedom of geometry that 3D printing provides, feels magical to me.”
A: James Cleary adds,
“Being able to create designs with virtually unlimited complexity and without the geometry constraints of traditional manufacturing is wonderful. The Waratah collection simply couldn’t be made using any other technique. But at the same time, designers need to be aware that 3D printing has its own limitations, which vary widely between materials.”
A: Margot Krasojevic comments,
“…the advantages are less waste, diversity of design, customization, blending materials, embedding circuitry, and electronics, which is the area I am most interested in.
Architects have always been involved in product and furniture design, but with 3D printing I think the technology can have an important role in the built environment as well as for smaller-scale design. There are already plans to 3D print a house. Even though the technology for larger-scale designs is still crude, once these flaws have been improved upon, there will be more of a relationship between product design, lighting, and architecture. We are already printing with concrete; it will be interesting to see the jump between scales and its appropriation as we are currently restricted to the size of the printer envelope which is why 3D printing caters to a niche in the design world, perfect for lighting.”
Q: What are your plans with lighting and 3D printing moving forward?
A: James Cleary says,
“Absolutely [more]. Creating the Waratah collection was tremendously rewarding.”
A: Margot Krasojevic adds,
“I have recently designed a light which uses layers of lasered metal to try and create a 3D printed conducting element within the light. When conductive metals start to be printed, then we are looking at a huge jump in the technological application in not only lighting but defense, sciences, medicine, etc.
I most definitely will be continuing to design lighting fixtures, but my area of interest will continue to combine sustainability/energy-efficient lighting. I am using different methods of kinetic movement to produce and store electrical energy in order to use as – and when – needed. The application of solar cells and reflective surfaces and embedding electronics are a few of the areas I shall use as a design criteria in lighting design.”
A: Bathsheba Grossman remarks,
“Oh yes. 3D printing metal is the perfect sculpture medium for my ideas: I love complex objects at a handheld size, and it does just what I need. Unlike the situation with plastic, steel printing prices are quite competitive with traditional metalworking methods such as lost-wax casting.
Of course cheaper prices, more material options, and better surface finish would be great, but if it never gets any better than it is today, I’ll be thrilled to spend the rest of my working life with this medium.”
About the author:
David Shiller is President of Lighting Solution Development, a consulting firm to luminaire manufacturers specializing in energy-efficient lighting. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org