For years, 3D printing has promised to bring about a revolution in manufacturing, but we’re only recently starting to see it trickle down to consumer goods. Companies like Adidas have been pursuing 3D printing as a way to make sneakers that perfectly fit every size and shape of foot, and now IKEA is offering its first collection of uniquely designed 3D-printed goods.
What’s especially interesting about IKEA’s new Flamträd collection is that the designs of each structurally complex piece can only be achieved using a 3D printer that’s not as common amongst 3D printing hobbyists given the higher cost of the hardware. Most affordable consumer-grade 3D printers use an additive process where 3D models are slowly built up by repeatedly adding thin layers of extruded plastic atop the previous one. Both the printers themselves and the raw materials are relatively affordable, but the approach limits the complexity of the models being printed, often requiring the addition of temporary support structures given the plastic being extruded comes out in a liquid and would simply collapse and fall when used to bridge a gap.
IKEA is instead using a technique called SLS, or selective laser sintering, where a thin layer of plastic powder is spread out and then selectively heated and hardened using a precisely targeted laser. The process allows for greater precision and can result in printed models with incredible complexity, detailing, and without the telltale layer lines of additive 3D printing. SLS printers have been in use for decades in products like cars for rapidly producing accurate prototype parts, and the per print cost has apparently fallen enough for IKEA to consider it affordable for home goods.
The new Flamträd series features a small collection of posed hands, faces, and heads 3D printed on an SLS machine to achieve a complex see-through lattice structure, not unlike the underlying polygon meshes that make up most 3D video game models. Designed to be placed on a desk or hung on a wall in various combinations, the Flamträd pieces range in price from ~$US35 ($48) for a single hand, to ~$US40 ($55) for a face, to ~$US57 ($78) for an entire 3D-printed head standing about 10 inches tall.
All the 3D-printed pieces appear to be available in either a black or white finish, but not only are they not available in IKEA’s brick and mortar stores — only through the website — they’re also currently only available from IKEA Germany, with plans to only expand availability to a single other market in Europe in the near future. IKEA hasn’t revealed who it’s partnered with to actually print the pieces, but the speed of the process, which is much slower than plastic injection moulding, undoubtedly plays a major part in the very limited rollout of this new line.