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If you’ve read a newspaper or tech magazine in recent months, the chances are you’ll know all about 3D printing and the revolutionary effect it is set to have on consumer life. There are many different types of 3D printer, but they all work in a similar way – using a virtual 3D model as a template to print out a physical object, usually by building up layer-by-layer from powdered plastic or similar material.

4233572363978_I96bkvQv_l-2Carl Kleiner

Until now, 3D printers have either been prohibitively techie (available in kit form or by using open-source components such as the Arduino) or prohibitively expensive. With the recent announcement of ‘home’ 3D printers at a more accessible price-point (between $1000-2000), the technology looks set to break into the mainstream.


It isn’t hard to see the tremendous potential for 3D printing to disrupt existing models of production, retail and distribution. In the current supply-chain model, a company controls the production and distribution of a product, pricing it to deliver a proft margin over their total costs. In a world in which the home 3D printer is as ubiquitous as the microwave oven, this entire model evaporates. Instead, consumers will pay to download 3D models (or will download open-source versions for free) of products which they can then print out at home.

tumblr_nkvitsmt4u1rcnp56o1_1280Geo a Day

When the supplier is no longer responsible for manufacturing or distribution, the whole current retail model starts to look shaky. When the means of cost-effective production are in the hands of artesan designers, consumers may well choose the quirky, bespoke or unique over the mass-produced. In extremis, the business model underpinning the High Street may well collapse as people minimise their retail time and maximise their leisure time by simply printing out products at home while they watch the TV (or tablet).

1251624809084_X3X7gAx9_lEVE’s Archivos

But the disruption will not end with retail. Consider the appeal of 3D printing for the military, whose main business is logistics and supply. Why take a tank track to War when you can take sacks full of plastic powder that can turn into tank tracks, landmines or drones? Or consider the impact on medicine, where applications already include made-to-measure bone and joint replacements, specialist equipment and even, slightly ghoulishly but wonderfully, printable skin.

293654457289_ZBXD8NDO_lLucy portrait

And lest we think that the impact on museums and galleries is still years away, 3D printing has already been deployed in several successful projects to support conservation, transport and engagement with collections. Take, for example, the work done by Loughborough University using 3D printing to help conserve the beautiful collections of the Forbidden City Palace Museum in Beijing. or the recent project by the Smithsonian in Washington to use 3D printing techniques to create a full-scale replica of a statue of Thomas Jefferson as the pre-cursor to a programme to open up more of its collections for public enjoyment.

bathsheba2Baths Heba

In much the same way that 3D printing has the potential to disrupt pretty much every corner of the manufacturing and retail worlds, it seems likely that its impact for museums will be equally far-ranging. So we thought it would be interesting to speculate on 7 areas in which 3D printing may come to change the way we think about, use, care for and share our collections:

1. It’s ok to touch

Generally, people and preservation don’t mix. When it is still attached to us, our skin is usually covered in enzymes and oils which can have a profoundly damaging effect on the material composition of objects, books and records. When it is floating around in the form of dust, it can build up on objects and start to eat away at them. Add to this the fact that we can be pretty clumsy, and it becomes obvious why ‘look, but don’t touch’ is a byword of the museum and gallery experience.

27119356cb8103a3b8462374220d1ab9Typography Treatment for the new deck of cards of the Lovit Store

3D printing, however, offers the potential to create a limitless supply of durable copies of our objects. Depending on which printer we use and the complexity of our scans, these reproductions can be indistinguishable from the real thing. Imagine the new kinds of access and engagement that happen when you can just toss a copy of an object over to a group of schoolchildren and let them hold it, examine it, turn it over and pass it between each other.

718943903896_v0d6uNM7_lEVE’s Archives

Not only this, but 3D printing opens up the real possibility of creating tactile copies of precious works so that they can be shared with people who are blind or whose vision is impaired. And it doesn’t stop with the onsite experience – imagine a teacher preparing a lesson plan, and as part of the process sending a 3D model of an object from your museum to print via the Cloud onto a printer at her school so that she can pick it up the following morning.

Resurces: Collections Trust

Main photo: Miniature Handmade Sculptures by Shay Aaron