I’m always a little wary about going to IKEA, because I know I’ll end up buying something I absolutely do not need. But I usually risk it anyway, because I really enjoy the experience of walking through that massive store maze, surrounded by beautifully furnished room setups and checking out all of the random clearance items at the end. 3D printing technology is being used more often in furnishings and home decor, and IKEA itself even featured a 3D knitted chair in its PS 2017 collection. However, the collection, which features experimental designs, is only periodic. But now, IKEA is introducing its first mass produced 3D printed home objects.

IKEA announced that it will be releasing the unique OMEDELBAR collection next year, in collaboration with stylist Bea Åkerlund. Jakub Pawlak, with Trader Free Range IKEA Poland, is in charge of the groundbreaking project.

“As one of the first major brands, IKEA will be using 3D printing in furnishing mass production,” said Pawlak. “I am really proud of the project. It demonstrates how IKEA, being an innovative company, is always on the search for new ways of doing things and explore the latest technology to do so.

“We started this project one and a half years ago, predicting the boom in 3D printing in mass production. Traditionally the technology has been used for prototyping in high-tech industries or moulds used for traditional production methods. Now, we are closing fast on the breaking point where 3D is cost efficient in mass production. In that context, the OMEDELBAR hand will have its place in design production history.”

The OMEDELBAR collection features a mesh-inspired design of a stylistic, deconstructed human hand. The 3D printed hand looks like it’s reaching out for something, and can be used as a decorative jewelry holder or a piece of unique wall art. As with many other 3D printed products, the complex design of the OMEDELBAR hand would not be possible without 3D printing technology – conventional methods, like injection molding, are too expensive.

Shane Hassett

3D printed systems for mass production are not unheard of – last year, Hyproline’s PrintValley system became the first high-speed, metal 3D printing system for post-processing, verification, and mass production, and Tamicare’s 3D textile printing technology went into mass production in 2015. As Shane Hassett, the CEO of Wazp, puts it, the industry of mass produced items has long been controlled by the inventors who filed patents for their methods and techniques – but this is starting to change, and 3D printing in mass production is becoming more accepted.

Hassett certainly knows what he’s talking about – Ireland-based Wazp, which is collaborating with IKEA on the OMEDELBAR collection, is a pioneer in 3D printing for mass production, and the company is one of the world’s biggest manufacturers, by volume, of 3D printed objects.

“The sign of a boom is everywhere. Big players are releasing new techniques of their own,” said Hassett. “At the same time, a couple of vital patents have expired in the last few years, making it possible for the industry to start producing cheaper materials, more advanced machines and allowing us to create a purpose-built supply chain to make 3D mass production accessible.”

The OMEDELBAR hand is 3D printed at Materflow in Finland, using the powder-based Selective Laser Sintering (SLS) process, and post-processed at Germany’s DyeMansion. As an example of what Hassett said, the original patent for SLS 3D printing expired in 2014, and technicians at Materflow developed a technique where the block of powder containing the 3D printed objects is removed from the 177°C printer interior and placed inside a sealed wooden box for 24 hours, or until the temperature drops to 60°C.

“We developed this technique to be able to start a new print session immediately instead of letting the machine cool down,” explained Sami Mattila, one of the co-founders of Materflow.

Sami Mattila placing 3D printed items in automatic blasting machine to remove powder residue

Then the build is taken apart, revealing the individual OMEDELBAR hands, which are blasted before being cleaned, dried, quality tested, and shipped out to IKEA stores.

“The product material in SLS, Nylon 12, is very durable, flexible, chemical resistant, insensitive to stress cracking and has a high resistance to UV radiation,” said Mattila.

Mattila and his fellow Materflow co-founders have been interested in mass production for several years.

“We have constructed the spaces and processes, ventilation and blasting solutions ourselves,” said Mattila. “We have just constructed a computer program helping us sort out which part in a printed batch that goes to which customer.”

Hassett said that the purpose of 3D printing is to offer additional choices for manufacturing, particularly for smaller items that need more complex designs, and not to replace the existing techniques altogether.

Hassett explained, “If we were to swap directly today it could probably take 8-12% of the market. But with the expansion of material choices and technologies and a change in construction design utilising the 3D possibilities, in the future, we will see an increase in the market share.”

Pawlak believes that the future of 3D printing at IKEA could go in four possible directions.

“One is demonstrated by the OMEDELBAR hand, small decorative objects with some or no functions built into them,” Pawlak said. “Another is small life hacks. Before, using traditional techniques, we needed huge quantities to be able to produce these kinds of items. With 3D we can experiment, and try things in a whole new way.”

Pawlak says that the third direction centers around the complex designs that are possible with the technology, and the fourth is on-demand 3D printing – so long as prices continue to drop.

“We are following this development closely. But I predict that in two years’ time IKEA will have some kind of solution for this. But if there will be printers in our IKEA stores, printer stations close to the different markets or local pickup points, this is still to be seen,” Pawlak said.

Hassett has a similar thought.

“In a couple of years, we expect to see a hybrid of manufacturing and distribution facilities dotted around the globe,” Hassett said. “We will be able to stream products directly to the point of need of IKEA and their customers – just imagine a ‘post office’ type model 2.0. We have all we need today to create a solution for it; now it is just a matter of time.”

Discuss in the IKEA forum at 3DPB.com.

[Source/Images: IKEA Today]
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