Skip to main content

During the B3D symposium, architect Brigitte Shim , principal architect with Shim-Sutcliffe Architects, showcased images of a 3-D printed lamp.Shim-Sutcliffe Architects

The future is now. At least, that was the message delivered at B3D, an inaugural 3-D printing, scanning, software and design conference that took place in Toronto last week.

Spearheaded by Toronto Image Works, Think2Thing founder Edward Burtynsky and product development specialist David Didur, the event brought together the brightest minds in what they call the "3-D technological renaissance." The event was the first of its kind in Toronto, inspired by the innovation Burtynsky found at various international 3-D technology conferences over the past three years.

"You come back [to Canada] and there were crickets," the renowned photographer and artist says. "No one is talking about it or paying attention, yet we're the manufacturing centre of the country and have a great creative culture here. A big ship is leaving the port and if we don't jump on it we're going to be trying to catch up in canoes.

"This isn't a small happening. It's touching every field."

Bridging traditional craft and manufacturing sensibilities with new technologies, the conference brought together innovators in 3-D practice from manufacturing, science, engineering, medicine, architecture and arts fields.

Think2Thing and Ryerson University also announced the creation of the annual $50,000 B3Dimensional Innovation Fund to support homegrown talent in this emerging practice. Canadian artists using 3-D technology are invited to apply, and two grant recipients will be selected and announced before the end of the year.

"This is the kind of conversation that has to start with the creative communities," Burtynsky says. "When industry, government and different disciplines start to get serious, we can build momentum. We are starting with a conversation."

But it was also designed as a call to action.

"Canada went from a leader to a laggard in innovation strategy … and needs a refresh," Dr. Wendy Cukier, vice-president of research and innovation at Ryerson University, said at the conference. The transformative application of 3-D has the potential to change everything, she said, "but if new technologies, services or processes are not actually adopted, there is no innovation."

She believes consumers tend to be ahead of business users in adoption of new technologies, although 47 per cent of jobs in North America linked to the manufacturing economy could be at risk.

"We need to focus more attention to understand what are the barriers to adoption," Cukier said, adding that there are big hurdles. Consider, for instance, that only 40 per cent of small and medium enterprises in Ontario currently have an Internet presence.

"We have to make manufacturing sexy again," joked Tharwat Fouad, the founder of Anubis Manufacturing Consultants Corporation and Anubis 3D. He doesn't believe everyone will be printing their own stuff at home in the next 10 years, but, "what I see is the democratization in the additive manufacturing: shorter production runs, more customization, less waste."

What all the speakers could agree on was that we don't have much time to catch up. The Gartner "hype cycle" – a graphical representation of the life cycle stages of technology as it moves through conception to widespread use – came up repeatedly at B3D. Technologies that are 3-D are at the beginning of a "slope of enlightenment" that is about to take off.

But even if we're unprepared, the possibilities are exciting. One big leap in the industry today includes innovation in high-resolution photogrammetry: the photography of multiple cameras, simultaneously firing to survey and map topographies and distances. With the potential to change our ideas about originality and authenticity, this new scanning technology has the power to clone ancient artifacts with nearly perfect precision, preserve ancient histories and recreate objects based on fossils.

The 3-D printed replica of the Franklin Expedition's Erebus Bell, currently on display at the ROM, is one example. As is an exact facsimile of the Tomb of Tutankhamun – accurate to a 10th of a millimetre.

"New technology is profoundly changing our relationship with the past," said Adam Lowe, founder of Factum Arte, a leading company in the 3-D world that bridges new tech in the conservation of cultural heritage and contemporary art.

Because of Factum Arte's close-range, high-resolution scanning, archaeologist Nicholas Reeves identified what he believes are traces of two sealed doors that will lead to the undiscovered tomb of Nefertiti. The Supreme Council of Antiquities of Egypt has given him permission to find out on Nov. 4, proving this technology can both reveal and preserve.

Other applications of 3-D technologies are practical or simply beautiful. GE has made a 3-D printed jet engine. Toronto design team Daniel Christian Tang makes luxury 3-D printed jewellery.

Brigitte Shim, principal architect with Shim-Sutcliffe Architects and professor of architecture, landscape and design at the University of Toronto, showcased how her firm uses hybrid-integration of 3-D elements in combination with traditional architectural treatments.

"3-D offers new possibilities of unifying things that would normally come from three or four manufacturers," she said. The custom, 3-D pieces – door handles, towel rods, lamps – help create "an atmospheric condition."

The applications are endless. B3D closed with Autodesk Fellow Tom Wujec showing a video of a 3-D printed, self-driving car, and two MX3D robots building a self-assembled 3-D printed bridge across a lake.

The way we make things now is "broken, toxic, inefficient wasteful and dumb," argued Wujec. "We are now playing with magic."

If photography is a field of shifting perceptions, Burtynsky says 3-D technology could be considered photography 3.0. "We have no idea what we'll be able to do in a few years, but it will be interesting," he said. But what the arts industry has to remember is that this is not eclipsing existing craftsmanship, he added.

"3-D is an add-on component … the ultimate tool. You can do anything. If you can imagine it, you can build it. It's something we couldn't do before.

"It's only going to get better."

Interact with The Globe