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20 April 2017

Guest blog: Designed in Shenzhen - an insight into a 3D printing studio in China

Hello Shenzhen participant Laura Elvira, resident at Pineprint, writes about her experience as a guest designer in Shenzhen

Laura Elvira

Shibing, designer at Pineprint working on our shapes. Using paper models helped our process

In my practice as a material and surface designer, I often use a combination of digital and analogue tools and processes. I am particularly interested in 3D printing for textiles and traditional textile craft.

I have been involved with 3D printing for over seven years now, and despite the market´s continuous growth, the reality is that I have seen many companies struggling to find the right business model. The technology is only competitive for very specific applications where there are unique advantages of fabricating this way. With China's capacity for mass production of low-priced goods, local 3D printing businesses face even bigger challenges. Some organisations seek to generate competitive advantage by engaging customers in the design and manufacturing processes, facilitating co-creation and user innovation via online platforms.

This is the business strategy adopted by Pineprint, the 3D printing company who hosted me during my residency in Shenzhen. At Pineprint's studio, you will find designers working on new products, a team in charge of producing, cleaning, post processing and packing prints as well as visitors from other companies looking to develop their ideas.

Laura Elvira

Samples were produced in a variety of materials including PLA, Nylon, and TPU

Throughout my time with the company, I worked closely with product designer Shibing, who also acted as my interpreter. Together, we developed 3D printed surfaces based on origami tessellations.

Laura Elvira

Pineprint manufactures with a range of 3D printing machines, from consumer to high-end

Such surfaces have a wide range of applications for product design and also relate closely to traditional textile design techniques. The aim of the research was to experiment with geometries and processes to produce a series of samples of surfaces that we could both apply to our respective practices.

Laura Elvira

Work in progress: trying different settings on the machines

My impression working with Pineprint and other maker spaces and 3D printing companies in Shenzhen is that their approach to making is about efficiency and speed, however, there is a somewhat reluctant attitude to trying new things, experimenting and making mistakes.

Laura Elvira

Basic modelling introduction: extruding a 2D sketch into 3D solid

Tinkering, taking risks and making mistakes spark learning and creativity 

 The Chinese government is encouraging educational institutions to implement this principle of learning-by-doing as a way to promote creativity and innovation, both crucial in an economy that is moving its focus from manufacture to design. Making skills like 3D printing are being introduced in the classrooms as a way to stimulate creativity, problem-solving and spatial intelligence. Companies that use this technology could play an important role working with educational institutions to incorporate these new skills into the curriculum.

On the second week of my residency at Pineprint, we tested this by running a workshop to introduce the basics of 3D printing and modeling to a group of 7 to 12-year-olds.

Laura Elvira

Young participants of the workshop preparing sketches to be turned into 3D objects on Tinkercad

Kids are exposed to computer animation and games from a very early age, therefore navigating and designing in a 3D environment comes naturally to them. Our aim, however, was to emphasize creativity rather than technical aspects of the technology.

 With this in mind, we gave participants pens and paper and assisted them with translating their original 2D ideas into the final 3D printed designs using the free CAD software Tinkercad.

Laura Elvira

The 3D printed results: Tanks, swords, and other lethal objects

I wanted the children´s ideas and unique identities to really come across in their designs.

In maker education, I feel it is important to not rely solely on digital processes

Craft practices promote different problem-solving approaches and result in more distinctive creative outcomes.

Back in London, I think about the wonderful pottery, calligraphy tools and carvings that I saw in Shenzhen and I wonder what part this rich craft heritage will play in China´s future making landscape.