Insect eyes, geodesic domes and lightbulbs: how 3D printing will conquer the high street

WertelOberfell designer Jan Wertel tells us how he's taking 3D printing into the mainstream with Philips and Panasonic

3D printing is generating a lot of buzz in the tech world – but it's hard to see how the flimsy plastic chess pieces spat out by consumer 3D printers will translate into a manufacturing revolution.

For that to happen, big brands need to get on board – and Philips is leading the charge with its 3D printed Hue luminaires. Yes, you can now pop into Selfridges and buy a 3D printed light fitting from a major brand, assuming you have £2000 (about ₹1.9 lacs) to burn.

"It looks quite expressive, but actually we try to make everything in there have a purpose or a function," explains WertelOberfell designer Jan Wertel of the Philips Hue Entity luminaire. "So the starting point is the light." That light – cast by a pair of colour-changing Hue LED bulbs – glows from behind a complicated array of facets. They're arranged so that the top and bottom of the lamp emit more light, and glare from the side is kept to a minimum.

The structure is initially reminiscent of an insect's compound eye, though the inspiration behind the design was something quite different. "It looks like an insect's eye," says Wertel, "but actually the starting point for this structure is Buckminster Fuller, the geodesic dome; and then we subdivided it to arrive at this structure. It's always nice for us to see the connection between mathematics and nature; so suddenly this Buckminster Fuller dome looks like an insect's eye."

3D printing is currently being used to create some very distinctive designs – ones that show off the potential of the process to create previously-impossible shapes. Wertel doesn't see that lasting, however. "It's still at the stage where you need to show that it's 3D printed; that's why it's so elaborate. And we like to experiment, so this is more of an experimental design." he notes. Some aspects of the design are also informed by the limitations of the manufacturing process. "We have an understructure," Wertel says, "and because of cost it's actually split in two parts, so you can stack them in the machine. And to hide the split line, we created an outer structure."

"Even the surface structure that we added was there to hide any mistakes that the printer makes," he adds; otherwise, the rough texture of the laser-sintered polyamide wouldn't sit right next to the smooth, sculpted designs of the Hue range.

Those limitations will eventually be overcome, though; and the elaborate designs of 3D printed products will give way to more everyday products. "I just repaired my Bugaboo by printing a part, so this is like a sensible use of the technology which is growing and growing," Wertel says. "It's really like the boundaries between consumer and producer are becoming blurred."

Before that happens, though, more well-known brands are incorporating 3D printing into their products. WertelOberfell has just created a series of 3D printed custom covers for the Panasonic Lumix GM1 camera – intricate loops and honeycombs in copper and plastic. "The idea is to add 3D printed parts to the camera to make it more customisable," says Wertel. "So, we're working out with them how it's possible to bring this to the market; they want to consider it in the future as a normal product that you can buy."

Pretty soon, you could be walking into a high street store and ordering a personalised product from the likes of Panasonic or Philips that's custom-built to your specifications. The only limitation, it seems, will be your own imagination.