At the press of a button: A V&A history of 3D printing

3D printing is an additive form of manufacturing, which involves heating (otherwise known as 'extruding') plastic, such as PLA (Polylactic acid), ABS (Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene) or PET (Polyethylene terephthalate), or other types of material, such as sandstone, metal or resin, to construct three dimensional objects from digital models.

As a technology of promise – the ambition of printing anything, anywhere, anytime – 3D printing has long been a futuristic dream. So, what is the reality? Here at the V&A we have sought to explore this technology through our collection to understand its role as a technique and medium used by designers, artists and activists over time.

Radical Love, 3D printed masks of Chelsea Manning's face, generated by DNA phenotyping methods, Heather Dewey-Hagborg, 2015. Museum no. CD.28-2018. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The first idea for a 3D printer, the XY plotter, was patented by Hideo Kodama of the Nagoya Municipal Industrial Research Institute in 1981 and proposed the use of a photo-hardening thermoset polymer to create 3D models. Unfortunately, due to funding constraints, the XY plotter never made it beyond an idea. Later, French inventors Alain Le Mehaute, Olivier de Witte and Jean Claude André developed similar technology in 1984, but the patent was abandoned by French General Electric Company (now Alcatel-Alsthom) and CILAS (The Laser Consortium) due to "lack of business perspective". That same year (in fact, three weeks later), it was Charles "Chuck" Hull's invention of stereolithography (SLA) – a method in which a light source, such as a laser or projector, cures polymer resin in thin layers to create 3D objects – combined with his creation of the STL file type, that created the first 3D printing process. Hull's first printer, the SLA-1, was released in 1987 and was a landmark achievement in the field.

As 3D printing technology evolved, artists and designers became interested in experimenting with its materials and techniques. We can see this in the V&A collection, in the work of designer Ron Arad. Arad experimented with a Thermojet solid object printer on its release in the early 2000s and frequently used the process in his rapid prototyping process. The Materialized Sketch chair by Front Design is an experiment in both computer aided design (CAD) and furniture making, using motion capture technology to 'draw' the chair and 3D printing to build it. Korean ceramicist Ahn Seong Man similarly seeks to take advantage of the new creative possibilities of 3D printing. He first designs his onggi vases on a computer, before printing them using a 3D printer where he adjusts the nozzle to accommodate the iron-rich clay from which they are made.

(Left to Right:) Materialized Sketch, prototype for round-backed chair, Front Design, 2005, Stockholm, 3D printed Somos 14120 resin. Museum no. W.10:1 to 3-2014. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London; Faceted onggi vase, Ahn Seong Man, 2015, South Korea, 3D printed ceramic. Museum no. FE.32-2017. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

In the last two decades, a growing community of enthusiasts has helped to develop 3D printing technology to offer more affordable and accessible 3D printing options. The Thing-O-Matic, launched by Makerbot in 2010, is an open-source collaboration led by Bre Pettis together with hundreds of makers and technologists eager to forward the possibilities of the technology. This new printer was significantly more affordable and accessible for use in maker labs and at home, but with one caveat: you had to build the printer yourself first before you could start printing.

A growing ability to create objects quickly and easily has benefited those working in responsive environments. In 2019, the activist group Extinction Rebellion released 3D printing files online to its members for the creation of printing blocks that could be used by protestors to add the XR visual identity to their flags and banners. As the COVID 19 pandemic took hold in 2020, many looked to 3D printing as a way of adapting existing designs to provide healthcare solutions at a time of extreme need. For example, the Charlotte Valve was created which modified off-the-shelf snorkel masks to produce much-needed respiratory aids for use in hospitals, and door openers by 3D printing company Materialise, which allowed hands-free access into care homes, workplaces and other spaces.

Extinction Rebellion Logotype Woodblock, used and designed by the Extinction Rebellion Arts Group, made in 2018. Museum no. CD.2-2019. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The Open Bionics Hero Arm is an affordable, multi-grip, 3D printed prosthetic arm designed for disabled people. The process involves taking a scan of an individual’s arm which is 3D printed to create a uniquely customised limb. The option to further personalise the arm is possible by adding covers which resemble superhero characters such as Iron Man or Black Panther.

'Hero Arm', Open Bionics, 3D printed bionic arm for a child, Bristol, England. Museum no. B.14-2021. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The ability of 3D printing to readily produce one-off pieces means the technology is often used to create custom pieces for competitive advantage. In 2015, professional cyclist Bradley Wiggins used a set of 3D printed titanium Bolide HR handlebars to break the International Hour Record – the longest distance cycled in one hour on a bicycle from a stationary start. Wiggins' use of the handlebar raised questions of fairness as the technology enabled the handlebar to be adapted specifically to enhance his ride position when race rules stipulate that all bike parts must be available off-the-shelf. In the end, the record stood because the UCI (Union Cycliste Internationale), for the first time, categorised 3D printing as an accessible mass-manufacturing process.

Pinarello Bolide HR Handlebar, manufactured by Pinarello, 2015, Sheffield, England. Museum no. CD.1-2015. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

3D printing has further challenged the role technology plays in competitive sport and led to greater gender equality. The S-Works Power with Mirror saddle, launched in 2020 by Specialized, was developed in response to the discomfort of riding a bicycle for extended periods of time for a significant portion of the population. Women (and those with a vulva, who don't identify as female) especially experience pain as a result of the design of saddles, that traditionally have been developed according to the needs of the male anatomy. Although designed primarily for women, the 3D printed polymer lattice increases comfort for both female and male users.

Bicycle saddle, 'S-Works Power with Mirror' saddle designed and manufactured by Specialized Bicycle Components, about 2020, United States. Museum no. CD.13-2021. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

As with all technologies however, 3D printing also relates to more explicit politics. In 2013, Cody Wilson of Defense Distributed created The Liberator, a 3D printed gun which was released online for anyone to download – a libertarian act in defiance of governmental control. Within hours of release, the files were ordered to be removed from Wilson's website by the US government, and the object caused fierce debate about the new possibilities of 3D printing technologies and their regulation nationally, internationally and online. The Gynepunk 3D printed speculum was also created and uploaded online as a provocation. The community-designed device sought to bring attention to marginalised groups lack of access across the world to basic gynaecological healthcare, and although not intended to be used literally, its existence is a subversive political act aiming to make emergency healthcare available to all.

The Liberator, 3D printed hand gun, designed by Cody Wilson/Defence Distributed, manufactured by Digits2Widgets, 2013, United States. Museum no. CD.1:1 to 16-2013. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

3D printing is now being used in biomedical applications, to print buildings and food, and even in space. It has become cheaper, quicker and easier to print whatever we want, whenever we want it. But it still faces many of the same problems that much of design and emerging technologies encounter, namely issues of access – to both the technology and skills required – and the environmental damage that its material production demands (PLA and ABS are currently recyclable at certain facilities, but still cause a significant amount of waste). There's still plenty to experiment with, but plenty of work to do to make it fairer for everyone.

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(Detail) Faceted onggi vase, Ahn Seong Man, 2015, South Korea, 3D printed ceramic. Museum no. FE.32-2017. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London