AM Investment Strategies
AMS Spring 2023

Digital Textures Can Hasten the Adoption of 3D Printed Products


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Recently, I’ve been conducting more research via touch. I slide my fingertips over a new MYKITA Studio pair of sunglasses. The sensation is like Arkema’s Rilsan material with an AMT finish, probably performed by service bureau CIPRES. I can’t be sure, of course, but it’s a hell of a party trick.

I’m not the only tactile detective, however. The term “haptics” keeps popping up. People are more interested in the look and feel of finished 3D printed objects. DyeMansion discusses post-processing for better haptics. King Children designs haptics and textures for specific brands. Materials companies are thinking about this, as well. We can do so much to improve and optimize the touch of 3D printed objects, but we should be doing much more.

Polyamide Jeans

Powder bed fusion (PBF) parts are always kind of soapy, like jeans. I can feel the same powdery rub in sweaters that have polyamide (PA) in them. For years, I’ve loved the feel of Rilsan PA 11, made from castor oil. I just think that objects 3D printed in Rilsan feel more well-made and luxurious than those made with other materials. Some other polyamide parts just feel cheaper to me.

Of course, this kind of thing is very subjective. But if you close your eyes and examine some of the 3D printed objects in your environment in a new way, then you might feel the difference. You may even be able to sense the distinction between mechanically and vapor-smoothed objects. In material extrusion, we can feel the difference in materials, as well. Different layer bonding and heights offer variable sensations. It’s probably best not to spend a lot of time touching vat photopolymerized objects, but here there are differences there, too.

Image by King Children.

Texture Can Aid Adoption

Often the goal of haptics and texture in 3D printing is to replicate the consumer friendly landfills of injection molded objects. Little work has gone into making them feel expensive, long lasting, luxurious, exciting or otherwise.

Companies should consider collaborating with compounders, polymer companies, and specialized researchers in the field to optimize the touch and feel of 3D printed objects. Especially in the area of luxury goods, where 3D printing is fast growing, businesses could optimize textures for applications, parts, and people. Additive manufacturing can create so many pleasurable, exciting, and interesting textures to make people care more for 3D printed objects.

Why should we follow the cheap aesthetics of injection molding when we can develop new ways to generate sensory inputs? We can make materials that feel “red,” “dangerous,” or have a texture associated with a given application. We could compound materials that specifically evoke a particular brand. For a car model we might make a polymer that “feels like a Mini Cooper.” This could generate a deeper connection between the brand and the client particularly for tactile objects like doors and steering wheels. One could make a keychain that feels powerful or soothing, baby toys that feel familiar or wholly new. The look of a thing and its touch can be made to be completely in sync. We can go so much further than imitating landfill.

Digital Texture Design on Demand

We can do this relatively easily as well. We can design digital files that quickly add texture onto a print. This is performed in a much faster way than other manufacturing technologies can apply haptic features. 3D printing offers a unique advantage in the ability to generate surfaces on demand. We could vary textures, update them quickly, or make them for small series or single units. We could also make slight tweaks and iterate until the texture is deemed perfect by the client.

Variations in Texture

The texture can even be varied throughout an object. Look at the pair of King Children glasses above for example. Compare them with the other pair above and the Mykita glasses at the top of the page. How would you imagine their textures?

The bottom pair needs to feel slick and high-tech, but somehow masculine and emotive. Kind of a floral musk. The glasses in the middle should sense somehow round, wood-like, perceptual, like a horcrux. Those at the top could offer a tactility that is high-tech, advanced and futuristic—different than existing glasses.

With 3D printing we can start from an idea, a brand, or a client and create the exact digital texture necessary. However, we can go deeper still. One could generate sharp, piercing edges that make a customer’s fingers remember the edge of the MYKITA eyewear at the start of this article. One might make a grain structure of wood for the middle pair of glasses and something reminiscent of aluminum for the bottom pair.

Then, we can do more still by varying textures all over the glasses. They feel like the pages of a worn book when taken out of the case but feel cool against the skin. Or they might the bridge might be secure and warm to the touch. If we wish to elevate 3D printed objects we should not imitate. Instead we should create experiences through objects that others can not.

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