It turns out there's been a design revolution going on right under our noses – though you could be forgiven for having missed it. For thousands of years, we made things by either carving or casting them; after the Industrial Revolution, it was all about mass production. But since the early 1990s, a new way of forging objects has developed: 3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing. Essentially, anything you can design or model digitally on a computer can be "printed" in successive layers of material to form a whole object. Virtually anything you can imagine, you can create – from earrings or shoes to an aeroplane or even a house. And instead of a factory-based production line, it's all about the one-off, tweaked to exact specifications.
Originally used for rapid prototyping – the standard for making architectural scale models for years – 3D printing is set to change the way we approach design and construction. Scrap that; it already has: from making car parts to hearing aids designed for exact ear shapes, from reconstructing human bones to creating bespoke furniture. That the average person on the street might not have a clue that it's been going on can partly be chalked up to the process being a little tricky to get your head around.
Now, an exhibition at the V&A, as part of the London Design Festival next month, intends to open the public's eyes to the artistic potential of this futuristic technology by featuring items from sculptures to pieces of furniture to fashion. Entitled Industrial Revolution 2.0, the show is being curated by the 62-year-old American artist and 3D-printing obsessive Murray Moss.
All the objects he has chosen or commissioned for the exhibition were made by industry leader Materialise, a company based in Belgium. It has several divisions, also doing quite astonishing work with biomedical engineering (turning CT and MRI scans into 3D models, allowing them to print, for example, personalised replacement hip joints). But when I visit their MGX design section near Brussels, it's to watch a "fractal table" being made.
The table, which is being acquired by the V&A for its permanent collection, is made of epoxy resin and has a tree trunk and branch-like structure for legs. It's designed using a fractal algorithm, a mathematical formula that mimics patterns found in nature, and couldn't be made any other way – a perfect example of 3D printing's potential.
Part of the reason this technology is a tad complicated is that several different methods can be used. The most straightforward works like a big inkjet printer – but instead of squirting one layer of ink on a page, it goes on squirting layer after layer of a gluey plastic solution which solidifies until a full, tangible object is printed. This technology is becoming cheap and accessible; you can buy a very basic desktop printer, to produce small simple objects of your own design, for around £800. It surely won't be long k before we're all rustling up spare parts for broken electronic items or personalised jewellery on these at home.
The other two methods, which are used for larger or more elaborate objects, involve lasers – yes, a visit to the Materialise factory does feel a bit like diving into a sci-fi novel. One such technique is called laser sintering: a layer of powder is heated to a temperature where it almost melts, then computer-controlled lasers map a pattern on to it; where the laser hits, the powder does melt and then solidifies. This is repeated, layer after layer – Materialise's standard, lily-shaped table lamp, for instance, has a total of 870 layers – until the whole computer image has been drawn out. Once cooled and taken out of its cooker-like box, the rest of the powder falls away (they use a hairdryer-style blower to get it out of more intricate gaps), leaving the solid object. Voilà! Your abstract design is made (plastic) flesh.
The French designer Patrick Jouin's "One_Shot" stool – the item that first captured Moss's imagination and which will be sited at the entrance to the architecture room in the V&A – was formed in this way. Its bone-like articulated legs open up into a stool or can be collapsed, as if shutting an umbrella. Yet it is named the 'One_Shot' because it was '"grown" all in one go: all the parts were printed together, no assembly required.
The third type – and this is the way the fractal table is made – is called stereolithography. In a large tank, a layer of epoxy resin is spread, ever so thin, over a base. A UV laser hits the resin, and where it hits, it hardens. The base platform in the tank lowers a fraction, another layer of the sticky, honey-like resin is thinly spread, and the lasers go to work again, dancing around in their computer-controlled patterns. This process isn't quick – the table takes about a week to make. When it's eventually finished, the hardened table is lifted out while the rest of the still-liquid resin drains off. Watching this complex object emerge monster-like from its pool in the dim light of the Materialise factory is remarkable, the liquid dripping down and out of its hollow legs like amniotic fluid for furniture.
Call it the birth of a new technology, perhaps, but this just doesn't feel like how you actually make things. If some designers have been slow to embrace 3D printing, it might be because of the mind-shift involved, and for Moss, the V&A exhibition is as much about conveying the artistic possibilities as it is the technological process. "I don't like the 'science go to the left, decorative arts go to the right' way of thinking," he says. "I wanted to combine these conventions, to put the process in the midst of 5,000 years of art."
These design items will nestle among the museum's existing pieces in often witty ways. "I didn't want to waste the location, to use it as a backdrop – it's the V&A, for God's sake," adds Moss. "I wanted to have a dialogue between the location and this emerging technology."
The "Escapism Tunic", for instance, a wing-like item of clothing created by fashion designer Iris van Herpen and architect Daniel Widrig, has been placed in an alcove near the Grand Entrance. Looking as if it is woven of fine fibres, but in fact printed as one piece without seams or stitches, it sits opposite, and slightly below, another alcove occupied by a bust of "A Warrior Saint". Moss sees the "Escapism Tunic" as "a goddess flying up towards him, to give him a mate".
Elsewhere, Moss cheekily arranges Naim Josefi's "Melonia" shoes around "The Great Bed of Ware". An enormous Elizabethan-era bed, the latter was designed to attract guests to an inn in the Hertfordshire town of Ware. "The sexual nature of the bed is lost now because it's in a museum – but it was a sex toy, a gaudy Elizabethan publicity stunt," Moss says gleefully. "I wanted to recontextualise it – to put the sex back in the bed. So I'm putting 14 pairs of 3D-printed prostitute shoes around it."
And what about the fractal table? Moss has placed it in the Lord Leighton gallery, which features Leighton's fresco, Arts of Industry as Applied to Peace, commissioned by the museum in 1868. Near it, Moss spotted a plaque which reads: "The central intention of the Museum's collection was to improve the quality of the 'industrial arts' – designed and manufactured objects – in Britain, by placing the finest historical and contemporary examples before the public." The table has surely found its proper home.
Industrial Revolution 2.0: How the Material World Will Newly Materialise is at the V&A, London SW7 ( vam.ac.uk), as part of the London Design Festival, from 17 to 25 September.