Visual Arts - The future is now

3-D printing comes alive in MODA's new exhibit

On an overcast afternoon in Midtown's arts corridor, the inside of the 1315 Peachtree building is literally buzzing. Kids are talking excitedly, adults are murmuring in amazement, and 3-D printers are making noise as they transform cubes of plastic into tangible products. This is the scene at the Museum of Design Atlanta's (MODA) new exhibit, Designers, Makers, Users: 3D Printing the Future.

MODA's inspiration for the exhibition came a year and a half ago when it first put 3-D printers in its lobby. The museum's staff started teaching classes for adults and kids and was surprised by the response. "We thought the printers would be interesting but we didn't realize how popular they would be," says Laura Flusche, MODA's executive director who also curated the exhibit. "And then, I would say that in just a few months ... we started to realize that people were so interested and they didn't really have a place to get all the information."

As a result, MODA has crafted an original exhibit covering a range of industries that are experimenting with 3-D printing and design, from fashion and architecture to medicine and lunar exploration. It might be common knowledge that you can 3-D print your own wedding ring, but did you know the London architecture firm Foster and Partners believes it could use moon dust to 3-D print living quarters on the moon? This is just one example of many on display in the gallery.

While there are no guided tours, MODA's staff knows the exhibit well and is enthusiastic to answer questions. Neil Miller, a SCAD graduate and MODA's in-house 3-D printing guru, walks from room to room showing visitors cool things they might not have realized on their own. Like a hip science teacher, he shows how easy it is to start one of the half-dozen printers on loan for the exhibit: You choose from a touch screen menu, press start, and watch as the machine goes to work. When it starts, though, it's a little anti-climactic. These 3-D printers are slow and only make things out of hard plastic, but the technology is still in its beginning stages.

"Somebody said to me one day that 3-D printing is at the place that personal computers were in the '80s when we all bought them and used them to make personalized greeting cards and thought that was really awesome. And I think that a little bit, when it comes to individual use of 3-D printing, we still are in that place," Flusche says. "We're still trying to figure out what the right materials are, and how this is going to work."

And yet the exhibit also includes ways 3-D printing is already being put to use.

In medicine, 3-D printing is enhancing prosthetics. In the past, a prosthetic hand was expensive and made for the masses. Now a company called Robohand is making prosthetic hands and fingers. Its designs are completely open-source, and it has created a volunteer network connecting people who need a prosthetic with others who have the capability to print one in their home. The South African company's U.S. base is in Decatur.

Also on display are 3-D printed shoes from Feetz, a company out of Chattanooga. Does the shoe not fit? By taking a photo of your feet and sending it to Feetz, the company creates customized kicks. Personalized footwear sounds trivial but these shoes can alleviate suffering for people with misshapen feet.

According to Flusche, some families will come in and the kid explains to the parents how the printers work, since they're likely to have been exposed through school or some other outlet. It's impressive to the older generations, but also seems cool to the younger, tech-savvy crowd. And it's young people who are really going to see the benefits of what this technology might achieve. As Flusche puts it, "design is a process where you think up a way to address a challenge. You prototype something, you go out and you test it. Most of the time it doesn't work ... You go back and you try again."

Many of the projects in the exhibit might never happen, but it makes you wonder about where 3-D printing might take us.

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