Photo Credit: Signify
There has been much discussion over the years regarding lighting and controls impact on the environment. With little debate, the LED revolution has significantly improved energy efficiency of light sources. Additionally, this has allowed for both more efficacious luminaires and creativity in fixture design due to the small footprint of the LED light source.
As light sources have shrunk over the years, luminaire manufacturers have had to consider brightness, luminous intensity, and glare, amongst other important characteristics, when designing new fixtures. Other than greater efficacy in the light source, smaller apertures, and power supplies, what else has changed within the fixture? The answer is very little until recently.
3D printed luminaires are beginning to offer more versatile and flexible options for non-recessed products. For those of us who are used to stamped housings and spun shades, the utilization of 3D printed luminaires opens a whole new world of options for fixture specification and capabilities.
THE ART OF 3D PRINTING
I was first introduced to 3D Printing at the University of Tennessee’s College of Architecture and Design’s Fab Lab. When I saw objects being designed and created in real time with a 3D Printer, it captured my imagination as to what could be created. Since then, people around the world are pushing the limits of 3D printing as homes, boats, casts for broken bones, and so many other useful products are now being explored as possibilities with this technology.
What is 3D Printing anyway? Fortunately for the design community, it all starts with a concept. The initial steps of creating a 3D object is putting your own design into AutoCAD or another animation modeling software.
In the lighting industry, one of the key things to note is that 3D printing is characterized as “additive” manufacturing. This means that a solid, three-dimensional object is constructed by adding material in layers. Decades of manufacturing in the lighting industry has consisted of subtractive manufacturing. This process is when an object is created by cutting, stamping, or otherwise removing raw material to form a specific shape. From this process scrap material is produced that ideally can either be reused or recycled.
Once you have finalized your design, the product file is sent to the 3D Printer. Depending on the printer and its capabilities, you get to choose your specific materials, including finish color(s) and texture. This selection is important more than just for finish distinction but for the substance of the material as it can impact the products rigidity, appearance, and structure. While printer processes vary, the material for lighting products is usually squeezed or otherwise transferred from the printer onto a platform.
A 3D printer then makes passes (much like an inkjet printer) over the platform, depositing layer on top of layer of material to create the finished product. This can take several hours or days depending on the size and complexity of the object and printer. For lighting products, most of the current printers are smaller so the critical variable is the complexity of the product shape.
SUPPORTING THE CIRCULAR ECONOMY
A circular economy uses resources more effectively by creating rather than wasting, using rather than owning, and reusing rather than disposing. According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the circular economy model looks “beyond the current take-make-waste extractive industrial model, a circular economy aims to redefine growth, focusing on positive society-wide benefits. It entails gradually decoupling economic activity from the consumption of finite resources and designing waste out of the system.” The circular economy has three principles: design out waste and pollution, keep products and materials in use and regenerate natural systems.
A manufacturer engaged in 3D printing luminaires, or components thereof, inherently help support the circular economy. A company like Signify has invested heavily in 3D printing and is now creating luminaires through this process. With no paint, and less parts and screws, Signify and other manufacturers, significantly reduce waste. Additionally, they create a higher serviceability and products that are upgradeable due to their smart, modular design. One of the key advantages of these modular designs is that at the end of life, dismantling of these products for recycling becomes easier. Closing the material loop within a factory, especially with 3D Printing, an organization can recycle their own material almost eliminating waste.
A “Take Back” program literally takes sustainability to the next level. This concept allows you to easily update your luminaires whenever you desire and have the new luminaires printed out of the old materials. This means you can stay up to date with the latest trends while still being smart about material use – and most importantly, re-use.
Understanding the technology and sustainability narrative with 3D Printed Luminaires is important but putting the technology to use is the next step. 3D Printed Luminaires enables the designer a new level of design flexibility and creativity. While “standard products” exist, one of the real opportunities with 3D printing is designing and having the ability to create the luminaire you need and that the project requires. Does your design call from a one-of-a-kind statement product with a unique finish? Perhaps it’s as simple as needing a pendant from one family in a multitude of sizes and finishes. As the range of options in a typical lighting catalogue may be limited, 3D printing’s options continue to expand.
The world before 3D printed luminaires has had a typical, repeatable story. A project specific fixture, unique, custom, or modified, is often accompanied with “set up costs”, custom finish fees, or perhaps simply an extended lead-time. With 3D printed luminaires, set up cost goes away. Finish options are available by the hundreds and product configurations by the thousands. Often the products from time of order are two to four weeks to create…and often faster. Fixture creation in this model is more focused on the product and designer’s needs than a “manufacturer’s capability and offering”. 3D printers also don’t have a timecard to punch. A manufacturer can simply start the printer at the end of the day and have products being built all night.
While the incumbent technologies and production methods aren’t going away anytime soon, 3D printed luminaires give the design community an enhanced product offering that has not previously been available. Removed are the days of long lead times, extraordinary cost, and project delays for producing “just the right product”. Today the lighting community has a technology that enables project lighting enhancements that is sustainable and cost effective.
The future of 3D Printed Luminaires won’t be held to decorative shades and bespoke designed luminaires. Track heads with specification grade optical distributions, high and low bays, surface mounted luminaires across a range of price levels and functionality are just a few of the products that we will see very soon.
Our future is bright and will continue to be driven by technology advancements. Will 3D printed luminaires be the “next frontier” in lighting? It’s possible. The 3D printed luminaire’s place as a technology option that helps enable further enhanced lighting design capabilities seems undeniable.
This article was originally featured in the April issue of designing lighting (dl)