Digital Life

Why 3D printers are 'the sewing machine for the 21st century'

While there are plenty of industries that can benefit from 3D printing, and a large number of enthusiasts already making everything from computer parts to kitchen gadgets, one fan of the technology is evangelising its use in a more everyday context.

April Staines, co-founder of Melbourne-based company Girl Geek Academy - which aims to increase the number of women with tech skills - sees 3D printing machines as a potential boon for independent craftspeople and engineers.

April Staines, left, and Emily Gornalle set up Staines' 3D printer.
April Staines, left, and Emily Gornalle set up Staines' 3D printer. Photo: Supplied

A huge fan of Star Wars and Hello Kitty, Staines first met a 3D printer at a pop culture expo.

"I make costumes and props for cosplay", Staines says. "But it can be very expensive, particularly because Australia is so far away [from the US]."

3D craft-printing enthusiast April Staines and her 'kawaii' printer.
3D craft-printing enthusiast April Staines and her 'kawaii' printer. Photo: Yuzuha Oka

In looking for a more effective way to import fragile materials from the United States, Staines found the new printing device could provide a solution.

"3D printing turned out to be a really good alternative", she says. "Taking moulds can be costly and messy compared to that."

It was three years ago when she first bought a 3D printer for herself and began creating props and jewellery out of her garage. She now owns four printers, one of which she designed herself. She calls it the world's first kawaii (cute) 3D printer — it's pink, featuring Hello Kitty, with a knob shaped like a bow.

Staines says 3D printing is the "sewing machine for the 21st century", allowing people to make DIY crafts at home. At Melbourne Town Hall during Knowledge Week last year, she hosted She Makes, a three-hour workshop for women wanting to learn to use a 3D printer.

Eight participants came from various backgrounds, including a secondary school teacher planning to use it for a jewellery class, an artist wanting to print her botanical paintings, a mother who wanted to learn how to use a printer gifted to her son, and a science educator at CSIRO working with titanium 3D printing and more.

After a brief introduction, participants with no prior experience started to design small artworks using free 3D modelling software. The finished designs were sent to the printers and printed in 30 minutes.

3D printing technology has become more accessible than ever in recent years due to the reduced cost. Students, in some high schools, already use it on a daily basis. The Victoria government under Denis Napthine promised to introduce a 3D printer in every government secondary school if it was re-elected.

However, the current user base is male-dominant. A recent survey by a US 3D printing company showed only 4 per cent of respondents were women.

In contrast, many online craft-centred platforms, such as Etsy and Pinterest, are female-dominated. This is where Staines sees potential to open up 3D printing to a new demographic: female makers who want to design, print and sell their own crafts.

"We are here to use the printer like a tool," Staines says. "We can spend lots of time tinkering with the technology, but unless we have something to create, they are pointless."

3D printing materials are no longer limited to grey-coloured plastics, and items can be printed on metal, wax or ceramics, in  a variety of different colours.

"I really look forward to the day that I can 3D print some shoes that perfectly fit my feet," says workshop participant Carly Siebentritt.

Staines sees the value in 3D printing as it allows people to make things by themselves, without being a manufacturer or a jeweller. She likes the way 3D printers let the creativity flow.

"It's exciting to see your own creation. The first time you do it, it's never great. But you made it yourself. And then you do bigger and better things. I want to design my own kitchen some day using a 3D printer."

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