Ideas, emotions, and aesthetic suggestions are realised by all of us through the employment of tools, and whether those tools are understood as contemporary or traditional, the act of manipulating technology to convey meaning remains an essential part of what it is to create. Such is the case with 3D printing.


As a medium, it’s extremely fluid in that the process (otherwise known as Additive Manufacture) can produce a number of different materials. 3D printers use ceramics, precious metals, plastics and even wood to form some kind of designed structure – and from contemporary sculpture to net art itself, this exciting new tool is fabricating stunning work from artists all around the world.


Originally developed and first used as a prototyping technique in the mid 1970s, Additive Manufacture has since experienced a rise and fall in both hype and usage in the arts and beyond. Despite a mass popularity build-up and interest in the technology over the last two to three years, most people still don’t actually use 3D printers in their day-to-day life. They’re confusing machines if you’re not used to 3D design, and they’re quite specific to a limited list of jobs. But aside from the desktop printers you may have seen in local workshops or makespaces, there is a fascinating world of additive beyond the desktop that has the ability to build shapes never before imagined - by artists who can push the limits of 3D printing’s (otherwise mostly industrial) applications.


First, a quick overview of the two specific 3D printing processes. Your standard desktop printer has the ability to make amazing items by extruding layers of molten plastic through a superheated nozzle. In doing so, the layers of plastic – which cool and harden almost immediately – can be built up to create structures. What’s restrictive here is that (as in real life), gravity determines what can and can’t be built. If you were building a lego brick house, for example, you couldn’t place a lego piece anywhere but above a brick already beneath it. You could only build up, as things don’t float: you can only add to something that has been laid down already.


Desktop printing is very simple in this sense – and it’s for this reason that visual artists sometimes struggle to create elegant, original or organic forms using this type of Fused Deposition Modelling / FDM (otherwise known as desktop 3D printing). Some of the world’s most successful pieces of contemporary sculpture are 3D printed in a very different way – and on much larger, more expensive and time-consuming scale.


Selective Laser Sintering / SLS is a method that uses a tiny, powerful light beam (a laser) to melt together very specific areas of a bed of plastic sand (within a large 3D printing machine). The light moves extremely quickly, beaming the complex pattern of a structure all around one particular ‘layer’ of the item. The machine bed then drops a quarter of a millimetre, and a new layer of plastic sand is replaced - burying the built item until the laser beams across its pattern once again, melting together and additively creating a solid structure from within the bed of sand. Imagine cutting a helical shell clean in half and seeing its twisting inner structure.


This type of complicated SLS 3D printing can work in the same ways as nature does: by building intricate geometries, bit by bit, layer by layer, until a fully formed, beautiful object emerges from the fine plastic sand within the machine. There’s no doubt that the two explained processes of 3D printing are extremely confusing to understand – so if you’ve gotten this far, then well done. But the point is that manufacturing techniques are being used by artists as a new tool to form completely unique shapes – some of which could never exist without 3D printing technology itself. From giant computer-generated liquid stills to the CGI-esque visions of life online, 3D printing stands as a bridge between the digital and the physical, and it is critically this enabling aspect of the technology that is allowing creativity such as the world has never seen before.


So next time you see a desktop 3D printer whirring from end to end of a constructed (neon pink) plastic egg cup holder, do not dismiss the technology as useless or restrictive. Learning to translate the mind’s aesthetic fantasies into three dimensions on a computer is one extremely important (and overlooked) step to consider – but once you understand how to materialise your imagination via that computer, there is almost nothing that you cannot physically create – as an artist – via 3D printing.


FACT have used 3d printing extensively in our most recent exhibition Build Your Own: Tools for Sharing, as part of DoESLiverpool's DesktopProsthetics project. 


Faith Robinson in the Content Curator for an international series of 3D printing events and exhibitions called 3D Printshow. Follow her on Twitter @faith__robinson