Designers have experimented with 3D-printed furniture for years now, though it’s mostly been on the fringes of the industry through novelty products like Escher-like metal lounges and mushroom-grown chairs. That 3D printing hasn’t quite hit the big furniture brands yet is due to the practical limitations of a nascent technology; typical 3D printing processes are laborious, the material options are few, and they require special equipment—all costly amendments to an existing manufacturing process.
But imagine that you could print a tabletop in a matter of minutes, faster than an Ikea product comes down the assembly line. What would that technology look like? And how would it change the processes of mass manufacturing furniture?
These are the questions that Rob Poel, director of new business innovation at office furniture giant Steelcase, posed to MIT’s Self-Assembly Lab nearly a year ago.
Tasked with finding opportunities for Steelcase in new and emerging technologies, Poel says his team has been working closely with various other labs at MIT to explore fields like artificial intelligence, augmented reality, and virtual reality. When it came to experimenting with 3D printing, they turned to MIT’s Self-Assembly Lab, which over the years has pushed the boundaries of 3D printing into what it calls 4D printing—essentially, using 3D printers to produce material that will grow and change on its own.
“We’ve been printing for almost a decade, using various processes and collaborations, and we have all of these different machines in the lab,” says Skylar Tibbits, who runs Self-Assembly with codirector Jared Laucks. It’s an ideal space for this type of experimentation, with past projects peppering the lab and most of the necessary equipment on hand. But when it came to Steelcase, the team ended up developing a process that doesn’t have much precedent in their previous work.
Called “Rapid Liquid Printing,” the technique ditches the typical layering process of 3D printing for a nozzle that injects liquified rubber, foam, or plastic into a vat of gel that creates a structure of support while the material hardens. The printing method allows for a large piece of furniture to be pulled, fully formed, from the gel within minutes.
Tibbits says they adapted the process, at least in part, from synthetic biologists who 3D print biological materials into agar, a jelly-like substance that comes from algae. Rapid Liquid Printing uses gel in a similar way but at a much larger scale, and in doing so it solves for some of the biggest problems with 3D printing. It’s hours faster than traditional 3D printers, which create an object by layering a substrate, a process that can take hours. By contrast, Self-Assembly’s machine uses a specialized nozzle to squeeze out industrial materials into the supporting gel, allowing it to draw an object in 3D space. And the process can easily scale up—the only limit to its size is the size of the container holding the gel.
Importantly, this process can also be used with industrial-grade materials like rubbers, foams, plastics, or any other material that can be made into liquid. The poor quality of most 3D printed material, Tibbits says, can be traced to the traditional process of layering the material until the form is complete, creating what is essentially a stratified substance. “You’ve created this grain direction that makes it weak,” no matter the material, he says. It also limits the materials that can be used.
Liquid printing offers a better alternative, but Tibbits and his team aren’t the only ones who have figured that out. Earlier this month the 3D printing company Carbon and Futurecraft, the innovation arm of Adidas, announced that the first mass-produced, 3D-printed shoe will hit the market by the end of the year. They created the shoe using a technology called Continuous Liquid Interface Production (CLIP) that uses an ultra-violet laser to transform light-sensitive liquid into a solid. With a patented process in which the printer pulls the material up instead of laying it down in layers, Carbon and Adidas claim they can now make a 3D-printed midsole in 10 minutes.
According to Tibbits, the primary differences between the two processes are speed and scale: Whereas Carbon can 3D print the sole of a shoe in minutes, Tibbits and his team can print large pieces of furniture in that same time frame. And while Self-Assembly Lab’s technology doesn’t lend itself well to creating things on an architectural scale—again, the product can only be as big as the container it’s created in—Tibbits does see it being useful for medium-scale objects, such as parts for cars or planes.
With Steelcase, the lab is initially experimenting with furniture; its first product is a 3D-printed top for Steelcase’s Turnstone Bassline tables. At this time, Steelcase has no plans to sell products using this technology, as it’s still early days. But Yuka Hiyoshi, a senior industrial design for Steelcase, says that what the lab has created with it so far is exciting for its design possibilities.
“When you print in the gel, it looks like calligraphy or drawing, so the process itself is fascinating, but the materials are unbelievable” she says, referring to the rubber examples the lab has made. “It’s very tactile. It looks a little bit fragile as well. When you see the tabletop you just want to touch it.”