MIT, Steelcase to 3D Print Custom Designs on Demand

In its quest to create the ultimate customizable furniture, Steelcase teamed up with MIT to develop a new digital fabrication technology.

Since objects can be simply “drawn” in three-dimensional space rather than generated by the buildup of thin layers, the possibilities for form-making are limited only by the quality of the printing material and the size of the gel tank. Any form that can be generated through a line drawing can be printed at high speed.

A 3D printer stands mute in a shadowy hallway at MIT, its two-axis robotic arm hunched over the cramped printing tray like a hollow suit of armor. The machine, which produces small-scale objects out of powder and adhesives, is just over two decades old. But it looks like a fossil from a distant era.

“These printers have always presented the same challenges,” says Skylar Tibbits, codirector of MIT’s Self-Assembly Lab, a happy hybrid of design studio, mad scientist’s research laboratory, and playground housed in the university’s International Design Center. “They can’t make large-scale objects. They are generally slow. And the objects they produce generally deteriorate quickly, either because they’re composed of layers which degrade over time or because they’re made of low-quality materials. For some time, our lab was looking for an opportunity to totally rethink 3D printing.”

That opportunity came last June, when Tibbits received a call from Rob Poel, director of new business innovation at Steelcase. Poel had picked up on market signals that clients had a desire for customized furniture. And he wondered whether 3D printing could be part of a future solution. “More and more, our clients want unique products and environments, things that truly speak to who they are,” says Poel, who knew of Tibbits and his laboratory through several previous collaborations with Steelcase. “The question I posed was whether it might be possible to print a large-scale item like a chair or table in minutes instead of hours. So we reached out to the person who I knew was most fluent in that language.”

The discussion between MIT and Steelcase yielded a process that, in addition to revolutionizing 3D printing, may create new possibilities for manufacturing and commerce. Called rapid liquid printing (RLP), the process uses machines to literally draw objects in 3D space. Driven by a computer, a robotic arm traces liquid forms in a vat filled with a gel suspension; variations in nozzle size, pressure, and the liquid mixture allow changes in size, color, and printing speed. Made of high-quality materials including rubber, foams, and plastic, the traced forms are left in the gel suspension to cure, and then removed. RLP enables the creation of large-scale objects and can also reduce production times from hours to minutes.

This 25-inch-diameter tabletop for Steelcase was printed in about 28 minutes.

This April, with Swiss designer Christophe Guberan, the Self-Assembly Lab and Steelcase presented a video of the new process in an exhibit at the Salone del Mobile. “For the past several years, we’ve seen the same objects produced in the same way presented at Milan,” says Guberan. “I think this process could spur the design field in Europe to embrace more rapid change and try to do things differently.”

Within Steelcase, the RLP project attracted the interest of several groups. Yuka Hiyoshi, a senior designer with Steelcase’s Turnstone brand, used the new process to create tops for Turnstone’s Bassline table—a platform on which customers can set a variety of surfaces. “As soon as I saw it, I was hooked,” says the Japanese-born designer. “The process evoked images of my childhood. As the machine was drawing in space, I saw the same brushstrokes my grandparents used when they practiced calligraphy.”

While RLP has the potential to increase the speed and scale of 3D-printed manufacturing by orders of magnitude, Tibbits believes the most significant breakthrough will be seen in design. “You have a new tool here, 3D calligraphy, that prods you to think differently about the entire design process,” he says. “In the end, because of what this tool enables you to do, you will design a different table or chair or desk.”

If you liked this, you may want to check out “The New Materials Taking Making into the Future.”

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