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Walking around the 3D Print Show four weeks ago, I found that most of what was on show was either self-indulgent or pretty useless. I think we could all live without 3D printed statues of ourselves.  Do we need to 3D print imaginary insects? Do we need to print intricate chocolates using additive printing only for them to be gobbled down in an instant? I even went to a session titled “Building a 3D printed home” only to hear the designer had only printed a small part of the interior, which from the moment it was printed meant it was impossible to make any home improvements.

Then I heard Jim Kor talk. Jim and his team of designers in Canada have for decades been trying to build a car that does as little harm to the environment as possible, in light of some eye-watering projections about the number of new car drivers there will be in the next few decades. With few signs of the electric grid quickly becoming greener, they’re trying to build a car that can run at normal speeds on as little petrol as possible. They're going about this in three main ways:

Firstly, making sure that energy is efficiently transferred from the engine to the tires. On this front, Jim is following many engineering features of the Mini Cooper (famously good at this), including the length of the car, in part because he used to race minis… on ice! (I have no idea whether Jim is driving this car, but I wouldn't put it past him!)

Secondly, the team needed to reduce air drag. Jim pointed out that Enzo Ferarri’s comment “aerodynamics are for people who can’t build engines” was for a by-gone era. His team have used the latest simulation software to come up with a car for two people that looks a bit like a bullet (below, right, ironic given the amount of press that the 3D printed guns have got).

(from left to right) the bird bone structure which Urbee used when 3D printing its parts / a Hummer / the Urbee (hopefully the difference in aerodynamics is obvious!)


Finally, they make the biggest savings on petrol by reducing weight. Here, Jim draws his inspiration from nature. Birds can fly because they have hollow bones. But, birds, like cars, need to survive collisions at high-speed so their hollow bones are full of intricate supports to increase their strength. The Urbee team mimicked this structure (above left) when building the parts for their car. 3D printing has allowed him to build a car that is far lighter than, but just as strong as, what is currently on the market.

Jim said that at current quantities of production they can produce the car for $50,000, but if a car company produced 100,000 then the cost could come down to $16,000. As was discussed during the RSA President’s lecture ‘Making the Future,’ one reason for the lack of investment in new digital fabrication technologies is because once products are designed and prototyped using technology such as 3D printing, at a certain scale of production it becomes cheaper to build moulds into which the final product is cast so manufacturing jobs go to other countries where labour and space is cheaper. Interestingly, in the case of the Urbee, 3D printing will still be required since no moulding can make the bird-bone-type structure.

There’s been a lot of hype about 3D printing, and maybe that’s needed to get noticed. But we should try and strip away the hyperbole, just like historian Marshall Poe does when describing the Internet as follows: “It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that the Internet is a post office, newsstand, video store, shopping mall, game arcade, reference room, record outlet, adult book shop and casino rolled into one. Let’s be honest: that’s amazing. But it’s amazing in the same way a dishwasher is amazing – it enables you to do something you have always done a little easier than before.” And I think the Urbee is a specific example of how useful 3D printing can be.

I’m reminded of what Evgeny Morozov said in his recent book about the Internet “technology should not be seen as lying outside of culture and history. Printing certainly didn't come equipped with its own “logic” or “nature”… features were the product of complex negotiations and contingent historical processes, not the natural attributes of printing technology.” I think the same should apply to 3D printing. Just because some people want to use 3D printing for mini statues and intricate chocolates, it doesn't mean the rest of us should be put off!

Here's how you can get involved.

  • Like many new ventures, the Urbee team are using crowdfunding to turn their idea into action (having crowdfunded for the orange shell). If you want to use crowdfunding to turn your idea into action, the RSA Catalyst recently launched support to help people crowdfund their social ventures
  • RSA Enterprise team are designing a prize challenge for the UK’s talented pool of amateur designer-makers, hackers, fabricators and manufacturers to apply their skills to help disabled people, read more
  • If you’re a manufacturer interested in these new technologies, or a maker already experimenting with them, the RSA Design team are working to help makers. Read about this or follow them on twitter
  • Or you can get in touch with these RSA Fellows are hoping to build a digital fabrication space in London, having built one in Glasgow with support from RSA Catalyst


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