Artists and designers have new and unique option open to them—3D printed materials. While the most common material used is plastic, other printed materials have included metals and even chocolate —and the limitations are only the imaginations of the designers.

The designer and the innovator
Somerville, Mass., based freelance jewelry designer Colin Buckley's work has been sold at various galleries and gift shops in New England. While he got his start with beadwork, he's since moved into different kinds of metal work, including metal cladding, and found object-based jewelry design.

Since he heard about 3D printing as a medium a couple years ago, he had thought quite a bit about utilizing it. "When I hear the phrase '3D printing,' I immediately think of unlimited potential," Buckley said.  "It really would allow me the ability to create shapes that would be difficult to fabricate otherwise."

Buckley recalls a triangle pendent he made for a client the he found very difficult to form into a perfect triangle shape. "Three dimensional printing would allow me to experiment theoretically without having to commit to something using expensive materials. It would also be easier to print exact shapes, and it would be nice to spend time conceptualizing rather than making multiple prototypes because I can't quite get a shape quite right," he said.

What can an experienced jewelry designer create when teamed up with an experienced user of computer assisted design (CAD)?

Boston-based Eric Paul Bishop is primarily interested in the business applications of 3D printing. The owner of a router firmware consultancy, Bishop realized he could manufacture custom cases for his routers using 3D printing less expensively than he could buy them. 

“I find 3D printing useful. I care about the things that I am able to create with a 3D printer,” said Bishop, who has also used 3D printing to create tools, spare parts and household goods.

Having known each other through mutual friends for years, Buckley was happy to be offered the chance to use Bishop's 3D printer to try using 3D printing to design fashion accessories.  

The challenge
A pair of simple earrings was to be the first item Buckley would 3D print. He sketched a design, which he scanned and sent to Bishop. The sketch portrayed a bullseye set of earrings, 30 millimeters in diameter.

“People don't appreciate how much time and effort go into CAD, but this is very straightforward,” Bishop said, viewing the earring design. He first coded the design using OpenSCAD, which creates 3D CAD model in STL format. Bishop then ran the format through Slic3er, a program that calculates the exact moves the printhead of the printer will have to make for the model. In many cases, especially with high-end printers, this step is integrated into the software that communicates directly with the printer and is unnecessary. Slic3r outputs a G-Code file, which Bishop uploads to Octo-Print Server, which communicates with the printer.

Printing with a twist
“How does a typical paper-and-ink printer print something on a piece of paper?,”asked Sukru Murat Cebeci, co-founder of Brainliant, Inc, and founder president of Institute for Gifted and Talented of Turkey. “As the paper moves, the printing device moves up and down, dropping ink in the specified places on the page . . . 3D printing is the same, but with plastic.”

Plastic is just the tip of the iceberg for 3D printing, Cebeci said, adding that foodstuffs, metal and ceramics are not at all uncommon to see printed. Websites like Shapeways offer many different options for materials to chose from when 3D printing. Plastic, however, is inexpensive and versatile, and therefore the first popular medium for 3D printing.

The fashion applications of 3D printing are virtually endless, Cebeci said. After jewelry, shoes, bags, smartphone and tablet cases are among the most popular items being printed. Clothes are definitely a candidate, too, but since 3D printed items are solid, they aren't exactly the most comfortable things to wear. “No one wants to wear something solid. Clothes should be cozy,” Cebeci said with a smile.

Buckley and Bishop have printed the earrings using ABS plastic, the same plastic used for Lego building blocks. Bishop is limited by his printer, the SolidDoodle 3. While it's very good for a consumer level 3D printer, it doesn't print as smoothly as some industrial grade 3D printers can. As a result, Buckley and Bishop opt to smooth the earrings by bathing them in acetone. After being bathed for five minutes, the earrings are ready for painting.

While printing with colored filament was an option, the team opted to print white plastic and paint the earrings to further smooth them and give them a shinier appearance. Buckley added beads to the base of each bullseye and connected  the different parts of the earrings with wires. While he considered using a printed post, he decided to use a pair of stainless steel wires he would typically use when designing dangling earrings.

“I'm excited about this,” he said while admiring the earrings. “This took much less time than I usually need to produce jewelry and was much more exact. I'm very happy with the finished product.”

Buckley and Bishop plan to continue to collaborate on 3D printed designs.

Fashion of the future
Due to its inexpensive and versatile nature, 3D printed fashion is almost certainly going to be a trend in coming years, Cebeci predicts. “Once the cost of a 3D printer drops to $200 per unit, everyone will have these.”

Cebeci explains that this technology is only in its first wave; he believes that youth culture will propel 3D printed fashion into its second wave. The fashions and trends will become customizable, with anyone capable of downloading anything from the latest Gucci handbag to a pair of shoes they see someone on the street wearing, customizing the item and printing it at home. 

It's only a matter of time before this goes mainstream, predicts Cebeci. “It will start with teenagers, 13-to-19-year-olds. Kids will start printing fashion, and it will catch on across the entire population.”

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