Multiple black and white mesh gloves on hand moulds on a stone floor.

Brave new 3D world

Since the industrialisation, mass production has been based on the same principals. Next year these are being challenged as IKEA introduces its first ever 3D printed objects in the OMEDELBAR collection, a collaboration with stylist Bea Åkerlund.

Next year, in collaboration with stylist Bea Åkerlund, IKEA is releasing OMEDELBAR, a collection of items that are highly unique. Maybe not surprising, considering Bea’s unshy aesthetics, but there is a hidden dimension that makes this historic. “As one of the first major brands, IKEA will be using 3D printing in furnishing mass production. I am really proud of the project. It demonstrates how IKEA, being an innovative company, is always on the search for new ways of doing things and explore the latest technology to do so” says Jakub Pawlak, Trader Free Range IKEA Poland, in charge of the project.

The item, a mesh-inspired stylistic hand to hang on the wall, has all the traits of 3D printing. Its complex design would not be possible for economic reasons using traditional techniques like injection moulding.

Its deconstructed design of a human hand is reaching for something. Perhaps for something new? As a phenomenon, it is a sign of the times, marking a paradigm shift in production methods that will have a global impact. “We started this project one and a half years ago, predicting the boom in 3D printing in mass production. Traditionally the technology has been used for prototyping in high-tech industries or moulds used for traditional production methods. Now, we are closing fast on the breaking point where 3D is cost efficient in mass production. In that context, the OMEDELBAR hand will have its place in design production history,” says Jakub Pawlak.

A red-haired, smiling man in a white hazmat suit.

A man in a white jumpsuit, smiling.

Shane Hassett, CEO and founder of Wazp, a company specialising in 3D printing.

Why now?

The reason for the sudden shift in an industry with a thirty-year long history has to do with patents. For a long time, the industry has been controlled by the inventors of the techniques, explains Shane Hassett, CEO of Wazp, a pioneer in 3D printing for mass production, collaborating with IKEA. He and his 11 colleagues situated in the small town of Tralee on the west coast of Ireland are among the biggest manufacturers by volume of 3D objects in the world.

“The sign of a boom is everywhere. Big players are releasing new techniques of their own. At the same time, a couple of vital patents have expired in the last few years, making it possible for the industry to start producing cheaper materials, more advanced machines and allowing us to create a purpose-built supply chain to make 3D mass production accessible.”

Simultaneously the idea of 3D as a mass production possibility has been more and more accepted. Since Shane Hassett started the company with business partner Mariana Kobal in 2014, they have created a network of printing facilities, making use of free production capacity. “We have over 15% of the existing European machines in our network, amongst them is Materflow in Finland and a post-processing facility, Dyemansion, in Germany, who together print and finish the IKEA OMEDELBAR hand. Right now, we are expanding in Asia.”

Printed items being separated from nylon 12 printing powder.

After printing the white items are dyed.

A man in a mask and safety jumpsuit.
Sami Mattila founder of Materflow in Finland, an innovator in 3D printing.

How does it work?

The emerging market is fueling an outpour in 3D printing inventions at the moment, the majority connected to post-printing processes. For the moment, the printing companies in the business, like Finnish Materflow where the OMEDELBAR hand is printed, are founded by engineers and technical wizards who have had to come up with technical solutions of their own.

In contrast to many others, Sami Mattila and his two founding partners at Materflow were interested in mass production from the beginning in 2013, because of its scalability. Despite this, a stroll around their facility in Lahti is surprisingly silent and un-industrial; one small office space, one minor storeroom with products and supplies, plus two rooms with printers and machines for post-print processes. “We have constructed the spaces and processes, ventilation and blasting solutions ourselves. We have just constructed a computer program helping us sort out which part in a printed batch that goes to which customer.”

For time efficiency you try to print as many items as possible in one build.

A number of 3D printing techniques are available today, printing different materials like plastics and even glass or metal. You try to maximise the number of products printed simultaneously. Every printed block/batch, is called a “build”.

In the case of the OMEDELBAR hand, SLS is used. The Selective Laser Sintering (SLS) powder-based process was developed and patented by Dr Carl Deckard and his academic adviser, Dr Joe Beaman at the University of Texas at Austin in 1984. (Their patent expired in 2014.)

The SLS process relies on a powder material to interact with a laser. After about 40 hours a block of powder with printed objects inside is removed from the 177° C interior of the printer and put in a sealed wooden box. It is kept there 24 hours or until it has come down to 60° C. “We developed this technique to be able to start a new print session immediately instead of letting the machine cool down.”

The build is subsequently taken apart, and the printed items are auto– or manually blasted before cleaned, dried, quality tested and shipped. “The product material in SLS, Nylon 12, is very durable, flexible, chemical resistant, insensitive to stress cracking and has a high resistance to UV radiation. You can recycle both non-used powders in the printing process, and recycle printed products. If not dyed they come out white, but are easily coloured.” says Sami Mattila.

Hand moulds in black gloves scattered on a stone floor.
The first 3D printed product in mass-production at IKEA. A hand from the OMEDELBAR collection, a collaboration with stylist Bea Åkerlund.

The future

The purpose of 3D is to offer more manufacturing choices, not entirely replace traditional techniques according to Shane Hassett. It is most attractive for smaller parts that require more design complexity which is uneconomic or even possible with conventional techniques. Still, the market potential is significant. “If we were to swap directly today it could probably take 8-12% of the market. But with the expansion of material choices and technologies and a change in construction design utilising the 3D possibilities, in the future, we will see an increase in the market share.”

Looking at a complex printed robot grabbing claw printed at Materflow where all the parts, including the springs, are made in one piece ready to use, one soon realises that the design possibilities of 3D are just starting to be explored and will deeply affect construction design in the future.

In SLS printing as each pass is made with the laser, the powder is “sintered” or “fused” upon each subsequent layer to build up the final form.

Discussing the future of 3D printing at IKEA, Jakub Pawlak talks about four directions it might take. Some are already in the making, some might occur in the next couple of years. “One is demonstrated by the OMEDELBAR hand, small decorative objects with some or no functions built into them. Another is small life hacks. Before, using traditional techniques, we needed huge quantities to be able to produce these kinds of items. With 3D we can experiment, and try things in a whole new way.”

The third direction has to do with complex design facilitated by the new technique. “Before, we could have a great design that we had to scrap because of the complexity required in a small fitting detail. Now, our designs will be a lot more limitless.”

The build is taken apart, items separated, and unused powder reused.

Lastly, Jakub Pawlak sees the 3D print on demand as a reality if the prices continue to fall. “We are following this development closely. But I predict that in two years’ time IKEA will have some kind of solution for this. But if there will be printers in our IKEA stores, printer stations close to the different markets or local pickup points, this is still to be seen.”

Shane Hassett takes it one step further. “In a couple of years, we expect to see a hybrid of manufacturing and distribution facilities dotted around the globe. We will be able to stream products directly to the point of need of IKEA and their customers – just imagine a “post office” type model 2.0. We have all we need today to create a solution for it; now it is just a matter of time.”

Man in white jumpsuit collecting hands out of a 3D printer.
Hands on. Sami Mattila placing newly printed items in the automatic blasting machine to remove powder residue.

Benefits of 3D printing
More sustainable. Printing close to market means shorter transports. Less than 5% is a waste in production, the rest can be reused. Printed items can be recycled to print new products.
Economic. Printing on demand minimises stock and the risk of unsold products.
Customization. It allows for unique products adapted to a specific customer or market demands, without added costs. No need for standardisation in production.
Design. Complex 3D specific constructions that have never been possible before. Whole structures can be printed excluding manual montage.