Pulp Magic

JUNE 10, 2015

Printing in Three Dimensions Is New Old Technology

MoleculeWhile printing on paper has always been an art form in two dimensions, some visionaries have managed to print in three using the same paper, ink and presses as the rest of us.

Author/artists such as Vojtěch Kubašta who published books with pop-up pages in Czechoslovakia pioneered a cutting and printing process that has delighted children as well as adults for generations. Contemporary practitioners like Robert Sabuda (left) have taken the technique even further by incorporating batik, papyrus and fake stained glass as well as intricately cut paper into what he calls his “moveable books.”

Of course, some will say that’s not real 3-D printing — and in a technical sense they’re right. “Real” 3-D printing is one of the most exciting new technologies out there and it’s already being used to create an incredible range of things from car parts to earbuds.

It’s also being used to save lives. According to a recent Boston Globe article, Dr. Joseph Madsen was able to operate successfully on a teenaged girl’s brain because he had practiced the operation on an exact 3-D model created with data gathered in a CAT scan and printed on the hospital’s 3-D printer.

But as miraculous as 3-D printing is, it may be just a primitive first step toward a more sophisticated next generation. LiveScience reports that a new technique allows researchers to print the naturally curved, thin and flexible 3-D structures common in biology – think of the circuits of brain cells and networks of veins.

This work is startlingly similar to the complex die cuts of a Robert Sabuda pop-up book. Rather than adding one layer of material over another to construct a model as in “traditional” 3-D printing, university scientists in Illinois begin with a 2-D surface and etch microscopic lines and strings in the material. When enough pressure is applied to break the tension holding it flat, it pops up into three-dimensional structures.

According to the article, the pop-up structures could have relevance “to a wide range of microsystems technologies — biomedical devices, optoelectronics, photovoltaics, 3D circuits, sensors and so on.”

So think about this . . . instead of supplanting paper and printing skills, high-technology is taking its cues from an industry with a 1,000-year legacy of continuous innovation.

It seems the more we learn about digital technology the more we come to appreciate the extraordinary capabilities of paper.