Across the globe, 3D printing has become an almost magical reality. If you fancy a nine-course meal ‘printed’ on order — accompanied by printed cutlery and furniture (and virtual reality headsets that play music composed by an artificial intelligence computer) — London-based restaurant, Food Ink, can do it at one of their pop-ups (check foodink.io for their schedule). Last year also saw NASA printing and testing a rocket engine, and the unveiling of a 40-foot, 3D-printed concrete pedestrian bridge in Alcobendas, Spain. With everything from clothes and guitars to wedding cakes getting the 3D treatment, nothing is impossible, it seems.
However, the technology that has been widely-accepted in the West, is still in the process of making inroads in India. “There are a lot of misconceptions about what can and cannot be done with 3D,” says Tanmay Shah, Head-Innovations at Imaginarium, the Mumbai-based 3D printing company, adding that the Indian market needs to be familiarised with the process to make it more mainstream. One of their solutions is TimeTo3D, a printing café in Ville Parle that they co-founded two months ago. Aimed at everyone from designers to doodlers and homemakers, it organises workshops and, for more complex projects, sessions with professionals at the company. “Right now, we’re only chipping at the tip of the iceberg; the potential is huge once this knowledge gap is bridged. Already, we’ve had people walk in to find out how they can use 3D to innovate in their businesses,” shares Shah.
Devil’s in the details
Jewellery is one of the areas where the technology is picking up — offering a freedom that traditional hand-crafting cannot. Gauri and Radhika Tandon of Isharya launched ‘India’s first 3D printed jewellery’ a couple of months ago. “With it, even the most intricate, interlocking designs are possible, without a second thought about soldering and joints. And it’s relatively lightweight,” says Gauri, explaining that it also means they can print as many as they want, as quickly as they want to. Crafted from 3D-printed nylon prototypes, the designs are cast in brass and finally gold plated (available on india.isharya.com). “While many people still ask how they are made, once they understand the process, they appreciate it,” she adds.
Meanwhile, jewellers like Coimbatore-based AuGrav also offer customers the option to create personalised jewellery with a 3D-printed mould — a miniature gold pendant of yourself or a thumb-printed ring for your loved one, perhaps?
Automobiles is another growing field. If a 3D-printed car sounds straight out of a sci-fi movie, look to Arizona-based Local Motors’ Strati. Designed by Italian automotive designer, Michele Anoe, it took 44 hours of additive manufacturing on a large 3D printer, 10 hours of subtractive milling on a CNC mill, and a rapid assembly of almost 50 components, to bring the design to reality. Although Local Motors is yet to start commercially manufacturing the vehicle, the automobile industry is beginning to take a keener interest in the prospects of 3D printing. “In India, automotive companies primarily use 3D printing for rapid prototyping. But globally, a movement to print spares on demand (instead of keeping an inventory) is picking up,” says Neeti Sansare, VP, Divide by Zero Technologies.
In fine form
But it is in the field of medicine that the technology has caught on the fastest in the country — be it creating implants, pre-surgery models or even prosthetics. Bengaluru-based biotech company, Pandorum Technologies, which made headlines for 3D printing liver tissue in 2015, is currently working on replicating cornea and skin tissue. “It’s an ethical, cost-effective alternative to animal testing. Scientists are now 3D printing entire organs, too,” says Arun Chandru, the co-founder.
The big picture
With 2017 being touted as the breakout year for 3D printed technology — machines are shrinking or expanding (according to demand), technology is improving — things are looking up in India, too. Global 3D Labs (the company that invented Chocobot, a 3D printer that could print chocolate, a couple of years ago) launched Pramaan One, ‘India’s largest 3D printer’, which measures a metre on all sides, over a month ago. It can print whole furniture, home décor, functional robots and other large components at one go.
However, despite the promises, some still say that the trend needs to be considered with a pinch of salt. Samvit Blass — of LiGHT-FiSH Studio, Auroville — says that the 3D movement in India is evolutionary more than revolutionary. Blass, who regularly uses his 3D printers to make components for the light fixtures he designs, says that an entirely 3D printed collection is unviable. “People are not willing to pay a premium for such printed material yet, and appreciate that things of such precision can come only from a machine,” he says, adding that, “It’s great for rapid prototyping, custom-build, and to create a limited run to test the market.”