Feature: 3D printing

BY JO AUSTIN

For many people 3D printing is a relatively new and misunderstood technology perhaps because of the word ‘printing’. We think of printing as the process of putting ink onto paper but this innovation is taking printing into a whole new level.

The professionals call it ‘additive manufacturing’ (AM) and in layman’s terms it involves the skilful creation of a virtual 3D model of an object which is then ‘fed’ into the printer. The additive process refers to the building of that model layer by layer from bottom to top using tiny droplets of the chosen ‘material’ until it forms the solid item.

The printers can use a wide variety of materials from plastics, metal and ceramics to wax and even chocolate, and all with a diversity of colour that means they are beginning to make a real stir.

Depending on the type of printer, the materials used may start as liquid, powder or a solid form and are then fused, cured or melted together to make the solid object. Generally all parts of a specific item are printed in one material, although there are also multi-material machines for specialist jobs.

While there is talk of everyone soon having a 3D printer in their own home, there is still a long way to go before 3D printing is used in mass manufacturing. Says Nick Allen, director of 3DPRINTUK: “3D printing is still taking shape. The technology has been around for a while and has recently seen huge exposure in industry and government agencies but it is not a process that will revolutionise the manufacturing world overnight.

Researchers suggest five to 10 years at least and even then only for low-volume manufacture of individual items. It is however an excellent process for creating a unique product or a prototype”.
And that is exactly how the onboard hospitality industry is using the technology to positive effect.

Creative prototypes

Manoj Pridhanani of Kaelis Group says: “We have been using 3D printers for a while now. For us they are an essential part of our product development process. 3D printing allows our ideas to develop faster than ever and keeps us ahead of time. Not only is it a money saver but it also allows us to tweak products, make minor adjustments and improve their functionality and design.

“They say a picture paints a thousand words but now 3D printing takes that saying to a new level, it speaks a million words! Our customers are able to get a feel for the product, test it and give us feedback. 3D printing is still developing, getting better by the day and really helps us improve our designs as well as the customer experience”.

The same is true at WK Thomas where Des Thurgood says the team is also using 3D printing for rapid prototyping and to ensure innovative new products are brought to market quickly.

He says: “Access to this type of technology makes the design process faster, easier, and more cost effective and allows us to explore ideas quickly and pitch them directly to clients. Currently we are developing a new crockery range for a prospective customer using 3D technology and going forwards we expect to be able to develop solutions around cutlery, tray, cups, bottle and even amenity products.”

3D printers have also made a mark in packaging, says Ariane van Mancius of Now/New/Next.

“We now 3D print most of our packaging samples to the precise size, height and shape of the finished product. For us it is a very important design tool that brings a product to life. While food printing is not yet suited to the onboard market, as it is really only viable for small runs, when you see what can be done it is impressive and modelling in edible ingredients is certainly food for thought!”

Australian-based Buzz has embraced 3D printing technology wholeheartedly and Alan Kirszner, art director, goes so far as to say: “Our 3D printer is a valuable member of our design and development team.”

The benefits he identifies are the way 3D printing allows them to print, test, redesign, print, test again and then present new concepts as a physical sample clients can touch, feel and hold.

“Even a rough 3D print can be a beneficial way of communicating design intentions at an early stage. Clients are much more responsive to samples than they are to visuals,” he says.

File exchange

On collaborative design processes, for example, during the development of the Alessi tableware for Delta, the team was able to exchange 3D CAD files with the Alessi team in Italy and then 3D print designs back at Buzz HQ for their own assessment.

Seeing the product prototype ensures product sizing and volume measurements are accurate, something especially important for products such as onboard meal service ware.

Kirszner adds: “In-house 3D printers are incredibly economical when compared to outsourced prototyping. They give us fast, affordable product tests without the time for tooling, ensuring we are on to revised prototypes and further assessments fast.”

deSter undertook research into 3D technology some time ago and echoes the benefits others detail but it took the conscious decision not to invest in a 3D printer themselves as the technology is moving forward so quickly. Philippe de Naeyer at deSter makes an additional observation that, as in the music industry, copyright could become an issue because it makes copying so easy.

He says: “We use 3D printing quite intensively so clients can experience a product for themselves (as opposed to renderings) and believe 3D technology will give great opportunities to meet the trend in personalisation in the future.

“We will be able to create custom-made or complex products (1-5000 pieces) such as personalised items for Business Class, or limited edition, low volume collector’s items.

“As a lot of passengers in the future will have a 3D printer at home, airlines may start giving a 3D file as a gift too (like a free mp3 download),” he predicts.

Printed food

de Naeyer expects to see 3D printed food, customised for First and Business passengers in time and predicts these innovations will start small, perhaps with shaped chocolates, hummus and cheese, but will subsequently include the printing of more complex food concepts such as pizza and burgers.

Chocolate, peanut butter and cake mixes have been run through the 3D printing process and the idea that a meal to suit any palate and preferences could be printed off at the touch of a button does have a certain appeal.

At a recent pop-up event in London, Food Ink created the world’s first 3D printed restaurant, with all the food and the table and chairs 3D printed. Diners were invited to wear virtual reality headsets to enhance their nine-course meal. The event, costing £250 a head, was designed to explore the overlap between dining and technology-enhanced user experience, with the menu designed by Mateu Blanch and Joel Castanye of La Boscana and El Bulli fame. Onboard suppliers looking to create a completely new and exclusive onboard experience take note!

“We will be able to create custom-made or complex products (1-5000 pieces) such as personalised items for Business Class, or limited edition, low volume collector’s items.

Manufacturing potential

The technology is unlikely to impact mass production for a while yet, admits de Naeyer. “It is still expensive and relatively slow so the price per product is too high for our market (especially for disposables). Current processes take just two seconds to print 28 glasses so the 3D printer technology still has a very long way to go to compete with that”.

He does see the potential for creating the moulds and for spare parts needed in production tooling, something that has been grabbing the wider headlines with 3D printed parts used on space stations, in jet engines, guns and medicine.

Airbus sees big gains from 3D printing in improving aviation’s environmental footprint through weight-saving for parts availability and interiors. Its first cabin partition printed from aluminium powder demonstrated a weight saving of 50%.

Air New Zealand used the technology for its fold-down cocktail trays in Business Premier and coo Bruce Parton says: “Aircraft interiors are made up of tens of thousands of parts and the big plus of 3D printing is that it allows us to make cost-effective lightweight parts quickly and without compromising on safety, strength or durability.”

3D printing is clearly a technology to watch, or as Parton puts it: “The possibilities are limited only by our imagination.”