The Designer’s Playground

How will additive manufacturing impact freeform design?

“The marble not yet carved can hold the form of every thought the greatest artist has.”—Michelangelo

When speaking of production at scale, Michelangelo was wrong. Not every thought or idea can be realized. Every designer must keep in the back of their mind the limitations of production lines: Can this concept be manufactured? How many pieces will be needed? How will they be assembled? But when manufacturability is no longer a design factor in developing a product, the only real limitation left is the imagination of the designer. Shape, texture, size, functionality, and features can become whatever the designer dreams up. Unfortunately for us designers, we live in a real world where it only serves us to dream in the very early stages of developing a product. As the dream moves through the design process, it is eventually stripped and distilled in order to meet manufacturing limitations. What is left at the end is a product that is often more of a representation of the challenges we as designers had turning the dream into a reality, rather than a manifestation of that early concept.

But what doors open when a designer no longer has to consider this – when any conceptual design can be produced? What happens when there are no manufacturing limits? How do we then design for desire?

The conundrum in answering this is in why we design in the first place. We design primarily for necessity and function. Therefore, a surplus of material options should not affect the design itself, unless it enhances its utility. However, our needs are only relative to what’s possible. New material choices may not force a reimagining of design – if how well it works has little to do with its material makeup – but it could open newer, more creative opportunities for application. What sort of possible product categories can ensue from printable organic materials? 

One driving force behind reducing manufacturing limits is 3D printing, or at a factory scale, additive manufacturing. Additive manufacturing opens many doors, allowing for large or small pieces, as complex of shapes as desired, and a broader materials library. Effectively, anything that can be liquified or suspended in a solution and forced through a small nozzle can be additive manufactured. Materials ranging from concrete to molten sugar, to meat, steel, or a host of plastics and rubbers have all been used in additive manufacturing. Printing muscle, fat, cartilage,and bone are currently all being researched, opening the door to custom food products, transplant advances, and undoubtedly unforeseen research avenues.

It also means the creation of pre-assembled items: ball bearings that can never be taken apart, movable pieces inside of a seamless sphere, or very commonly now, airplane components. Many aircraft companies are looking to additive manufacturing to reduce the number of components, such as GE reducing fuel injectors from 20 parts down to one, since they can build in complex geometries internally.

This opening of avenues – new applications, use cases, even categories – means the concepts and ensuing products can be more malleable to who we think we are, and therefore how desirable it is. However, for the designer, the shape, material, color, and finish are not the sum of what makes a product desirable, but rather the elements that define a narrative. Different design elements also convey emotional cues. Materials, colors, and shapes evoke these emotional responses because of the social, cultural, economical, and historical connotations. Foams are soft, gentle, warm. Metals are cold, strong, masculine. Plastics are warm, but cheap. Whether that narrative – driven by both identity and the emotions it evokes – fits the user’s perception of who they are dictates its desirability.

Samsung’s head of mobile design said they chose to use plastic on their recent flagship phones because it suited their message and design themes: fashion, style, and trends. They wanted the warm and inviting feelings from plastic, but have recently started producing phones with significant metal components to provide the more “premium” feel that consumers were demanding. HTC America’s president has said they used metal in the design of their phone because their target customers are “someone who wants the best,” playing off the perception that metals are more valuable, durable, and premium than plastic counterparts. Acura’s designer Michelle Christensen designed their new NSX supercar, with the specific goal of every part of the vehicle being respectful to the driver. Ergonomics are key. Controls are intuitive. Emotional connections are important. Acceleration has zero delay so that the driver feels the car is an extension of their body. 

Does additive manufacturing mean that designers can throw out concerns about manufacturability? Not necessarily. Companies like Stratasys and 3D Systems provide large ranges of industrial scale devices, but technology limitations currently mean that producing large device volumes is restrictively slow. Restraints make for better design, and additive manufacturing invites the most freethinking crowdsourcing to the design process – possibly jeopardizing the intended narrative. Is a muscle car made of foam still a muscle car? One only needs to look to Apple’s failed iPhone 5C as an example. An iPhone made of plastic was hardly worth it, despite the significant price drop. 

What we eventually hold in our hands would be our imaginations manifest. But whether this future shapes itself as the utopia or perversion of maker culture depends on how attuned we are to the cross-compatibility among function, aesthetic, and narrative – and if we could ask ourselves, “who else would want this?”

Nathan Samsonoff is an electromechanical designer at Idea Couture. He is based in Toronto, Canada.

Philip Siwek is an industrial designer at Idea Couture. He is based in Toronto, Canada.

the author

Nathan Samsonoff