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3D-Printing 01: It’s Stringy

Sam Whitcomb

Sam Whitcomb

Over the past few years we have heard a lot about the 3D printing revolution. From miniature Yoda heads, personal, coloured self-replicas standing proudly on your desktop, to fuel-injectors for jet engines, 3D printed heart tissue and even wonderfully unique fashion garments.

The type of 3D printer on hand at Envision belongs to the Monotone-Yoda-Head category; it is affectionately called ‘DaVinci’, but don`t let yourself be blinded by the sales talk of higher-resolution printer makers: this is no toy. It has a very valid place at a design office such as Envision, where at every desk you can find miniature and scale objects used to test form, function and ergonomics. The importance of 3D printing for industry has never been in question, but its grip on home users has mainly extended towards the hobby market, and in many cases making toys… for now…


Over the next 6 weeks I will explore the limits of our FDM 3D printer’s capabilities to make objects and products which would be difficult to manufacture by traditional means. FDM means fused deposition modeling: it prints out a trail of melted plastic, which fuses to the layer below before cooling and hardening.

I particularly want to use the printer to produce things which would be interesting for non-designers and non-hobbyists, useful as items in their final form (not merely decorative, like what is currently one of the most popular objects on Shapeways: the ‘sad Keanu’ figurine). I will try to be as active as possible on this blogspace, sharing the results of my experiences with Da Vinci!


At first sight, FDM looks similar to regular inkjet printing where the ink is replaced by a thermoplastic such as ABS or PLA. By printing thin layers (0.2mm) of plastic on top of each other it is possible to slowly build up a complex 3D form. In fact, the printer head physically draws each layer as a pen-plotter would: it prints thin strings of plastic, hatching and crosshatching areas to make solid shapes. Unlike stereolithography, laser-sintering or other 3D printing techniques, the selective positioning of individual threads can give the material some interesting properties that are completely unique to FDM.


Printing in thin sheets of repeating patterns gives rise to materials which can later be stretched out beyond the size limits set by the print bed but then return to their original shape. The same material when printed with some thickness becomes rigid and able to form precise components such as screw thread features or snap features. Combining these two properties – rigidity and elasticity – into a single product is an interesting prospect and one I intend to come back and explore later.


But printing in this linear and flat form made me wonder whether it would be possible to suspend layer upon layer of threads in 3D space, as a spider would spin a web. With some trial and error it was possible, and I found the effect pleasing and quite different to the more solid and robust 3D printing which we are more accustomed to. In my search to find similar examples of this effect I found that it was usually referenced as an undesirable quality, most often caused by oozing, where the plastic gets dragged across by the extruder whilst printing, or when the extruder head prints over nothing… which is precisely what I am making it do on purpose!


Some early experiments proved it was possible to bridge quite large gaps and even suspend planes between the threads, or a rim with tensioned spokes resembling the gills of a mushroom, giving rise to a slight compressibility.

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Varying the pattern of the threads allowed me to float separate structures within the mesh, such as this helix within a thin walled cylinder. When I came back to the printer I discovered what looked at first glance like an ancient caterpillar suspended in a block of plastic amber!

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What I particularly enjoyed about these samples was that they are all exclusive products of 3D printing. It would be difficult to produce a single part which looked or felt quite like any of these through any other method of manufacture that I know of. Rather than looking like the typical striated and plastic output of an FDM printer they appear rather glassy and feel strangely organic.

Our concrete jungle is full of plastic, so much of the stuff in fact that although the average person may not know exactly how all the plastic objects they use have been made, they are well able to differentiate between different textures, finishing, material variety and even notice sink marks, parting lines and burn marks, declaring the product plasticky and cheap if any of these are prominent. FDM produces its own characteristic look which can appear unfinished and raw, so I want to use FDM to produce wholly different-looking objects; that way, the comparison is less likely to be made.

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