3D Printshow report: What are the opportunities for artists and designers from 3D printing?

Affordable 3D printing* is an amorphous mess. Wandering around the 3D Printshow – the first UK tradeshow aimed at 3D printing enthusiasts – there's some incredible technology available that's relatively affordable. But the ideas of what it's for is still clearly in their infancy. However, for Digital Arts readers looking to use 3D printing to produce limited run designer toys, homewares, jewellery and the like accessories, there's some intriguing possibilities.

First off, the buzz. We heard some fantastic-sounding ideas, especially for how 3D printing can help people in developing countries by allowing them to create items locally quicker or more cheaply than waiting for them to be shipped in – for example, printing (small) spare parts for essential infrastructure items in small towns, or custom-made prosthetics such as ears.

We saw teaching tools using Minecraft to help kids learn how sculpt objects in 3D (below). Autodesk showed off its 123D iPad apps that make 3D modelling and printing so easy your gran could do it – and use a gestural interface that we would love to see mapped onto Maya, so you could use your iPad as a control surface for pro-grade modelling and scene manipulation. There was a lot of 3D printed artworks: some good, some terrible (with the more the accompanying tag boasted about the intricacy of the 3d printing, the more likely it was to be in second camp).

We also got a first peek at the new hot 3D printer, Makerbot's Replicator 2 (in action above) – which for £1,799 from Reprap Central – allows you to print albeit-single-colour items up to six-inches high with an impressive level of detail (even though they do need a bit of polish afterwards to smooth them off). There was much discussion about the experimental 2X version coming early next year, which has two print heads rather than one to allow two colours to be printed at once – although this requires a lot of technical knowledge and fiddling to use successfully.

As with the original Replicator, the 2X's bed that the plastic is printed onto is heated and therefore can print using a plastic called ABS – again as used by the first Replicator – as well as PLA plastic used by the 2 model. However, even Makerbot's staff were at a loss to explain the practical differences between the two plastics, saying only that PLA has more give if bent, while ABS – or Lego plastic to you or me – will shatter if enough pressure is put on it.

So how do I get started at 3D printing?

Look beyond the hype, the incredible-but-unlikely ideas and the jargon, and there's some real creative potential here. The simplest idea, if you're serious about producing non-flat items such as toys, is to buy yourself a printer such as the Replicator 2 and use it to produce custom items to order. They'll be a single colour – or composed of single-colour elements – but get out your paintbrush or pens and you'll be producing one-off items in no time. The mix of 3D printing and real-world crafts is a step-beyond the customised Dunny dolls offered by the likes of Kidrobot – and for further embellishment, you could adjust the design of each order for each buyer/client.

Creating the models to be printed is best done in 3D tools such as Cinema 4D or Maya – you don't need a CAD application – before using free tools such as MeshLab and Cura to 'proof' it (such as checking for holes and other things that will mess up the printing process) and turn your model into the right format for printing (STL). This allows 3D artists to produce real-world prints of their creations relatively effortlessly.

For designers and illustrators more used to working in 2D (at least digitally), it's perfectly possible to build a model using Photoshop CS6 Extended's 3D tools. The end results will like be more basic than if you use a full 3D suite, but for such people who are thinking of expanding their creative repertoire using 3D printing, it's a good first step so you don't have to learn a new type of application as well as the idiosyncrasies of the 3D print process. We'll be publishing a masterclass on 3D printing from Photoshop CS6 in our next issue of Digital Arts magazine, out November 15.

(As an aside, Photoshop's 3D tools also provide an insight into language of 3D – with talk of meshes, specular, diffuse and other words that can seem as odd to a 2D artist as masks and channels can be to someone who's never used Photoshop – and as such are a great learning tool.)

The same process from creative software to conversion/proofing utility to printing would also be used for producing prototypes of models that could be mass-produced.

Another way to produce 3D models is to get a company to do it for you. We were impressed with the look of the Sculpteo service, which will print models to order – such as those shown above. You upload your model to its site, work out the price based on its size and scale, and then the company will send you your model in one-10 days depending on how much you page. Sculpteo allows you to sell models from their site for a cut of the proceeds using a similar model to on-demand book printer/sellers such as Blurb – as well as a 'white-label' service that can be added to your site so your buyers feel they're getting it straight from you.

What you can do with 3D printing may seem basic compared to what you're used to from paper in terms of use of colour, finish and texture – but this is only the beginning. It's not going to turn you into a Kidrobot-grade character maker overnight, but you can produce custom high-quality saleable items using it – and the skills you can learn now will help you create even better pieces as the technology evolves.

Here are some other notable things that were on show. All photography in this story is by Mikael Ricknas from our parent company IDG's News Service.

Makies 3D printed toy by Jo Roach. It can be customised to add interactivity using Arduino, voicechips and LEDs
Intricate 3D printing on the stand of industrial-grade 3D scanning/printing tech filrm Europac

Prototype 3D house by Softkill Design.

Seriously dangerous shoes by Inner|Leaf
Dominik, a 3D printed sculpture by Sophie Kahn
Some all of the 3D printed models on show were artistically terrible. Surely you can do better than this

* We're talking about the latest generation of 3D printers here that are designed for small-scale in-house or home use. We're well aware that traditional industrial 3D printers have an established market in specialised 3D print shops, product design firms and schools.

Elsewhere on IDG sites

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