The grand promise of the 3D printing revolution has always been that one day we'd all have access to customizable products which could be made on an industrial, mass-produced scale.
After 25 years of refinements, that promise may finally be coming true.
We are only now on the cusp of experiencing a consumer culture where everything from homes to shoes to clothing to furnishings can be customized to our tastes and delivered in a time frame – and at a price point – capable of challenging traditional manufacturing methods.
Until very recently, the scope and scale of products made by additive manufacturing processes were limited by the size of the item in question and the materials from which they could be made cost effectively.
But now a diverse group of pioneers are working on methods of rethinking and re-making large consumer items in bulk – but with a twist.
Samir Shah of 4 AXYZ, both an architect and interior designer, aims to be on that leading edge. Shah taught himself the rudiments of furniture design while operating his own furniture manufacturing firm in the late 1980's, and over the course of the following three decades, Shah sought to deepen his knowledge of the materials, properties and performance characteristics used in the craft.
Shah is now focused on refining a new process for the additive manufacture of furniture from solid wood, and perhaps of equal importance, using on demand digital distribution to shake up the industry.
AXYZ plans to use their own 3D printing process to change the way furniture is made.
"Our clients look to us for improvement and solutions in the furniture industry. The solid wood domain in the industry need not die out, but the skills are disappearing – or getting expensive – as they get harder to find," Shah said. "That makes solid wood furniture less affordable and drops its share of the market."
He says solid wood furniture has a better feel than the same items made from plastics, glass or metal for most domestic or personal applications. According to Shah, the realization came to him that additive manufacturing processes seemed to be ready to put into place in a production environment.
"It minimizes the need for expensive manual labor and yet gives consistent quality production. It was logical to harness the technology," Shah said. "Research over the last 15 months yielded that there is tremendous saving on material, the JIT (just-in-time) factor is attractive, the need for inventory is minimized, and all in all, this is a greener solution."
Shah says the secret lies in how real wood is transformed from its original form as a tree and then made to appear as solid wood in the finished product. It's that realistic appearance which Shah counts on to please customers.
"Our final product has the texture, the grains and color you would expect of any other wood furniture," he said. "What we do is stabilize the raw material to a very high degree and apply a regenerative process with specialized glues to recreate wood. Strength and characteristics of wood are retained and augmented along the way, which in turn save other costs. The saving of material, minimized transportation and distribution costs are controlled between the first conversion and its reconversion to the final form. This is part of the process we have unique to ourselves and is workable on machines designed by us so it is a little hard to offer conventional comparisons that a casual reader might interpret."
From their offices in Richmond, a suburb of Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, 4 AXYZ has a panoramic view of the Coast Mountains.
It's there that Shah, now 50 years old, takes on his duties as the CEO and founder of 4 AXYZ. A practicing architect with 27 years of experience in construction, furniture design and manufacturing, Shah acts as a consultant to the furniture industry and to the factory he sold before emigrating to Canada from India. Abir Shah, 23, a Chemical Engineer who studied at McGill University in Montreal, takes on the technical side of the manufacturing process, working on the mechanical aspects of the machine design, the behavior of chemicals, glue and bonding agents used in the process.
Shikhar Shah, 21, is studying 5 languages and speaks three others, and the youngest Shah helps to brainstorm ideas and has a knack of identifying potential problem areas. Shikhar also handles social media for 4 AXYZ. Rajiv Dholakia, a veteran of Silicon Valley who has worked with several start-ups on funding and acquisitions, has served as an adviser.
Another team member, Dr. Chunping Dai, a scientist at the University of British Columbia, holds a PhD and has 20 years of research experience in wood products their applications.
Judson Beaumont is an internationally acclaimed furniture designer and manufacturer in Vancouver, BC with commissions under his belt from Princeton University and Brown's Social House to design and manufacture pieces for them. His installations can be seen in Asia, the Middle East, South America, Mexico, and across USA and Canada.
According to Shah, the first time he saw a 3D printer work in person was in March 2012 and that visit came about as a result of reviewing videos from Neri Oxman at MIT and promotional material from Voxeljet, and it's from that exposure which his commitment to create a new way of looking at delivering furniture sprang.
"My passion for architecture was a result of an interest in science and art to an equal degree. As a family business – Abir and Shikhar are the 8th generation – commerce was not alien to us," Shah says. "It became a question of putting passion to profit. The primary challenge for designers is finding paying customers who can afford their creativity, and we've seen that first hand. At 4 AXYZ we want talented folk to find or expand their market, get recognition and earn guaranteed royalties, while the customers pay little or no more than usual, for higher quality and customized products."
Now that the team is in place, the materials have been selected and the vision for delivering the product has been fleshed out, Shah says it will all come down to execution of the overall strategy.
"Within the next six months, after securing funding, we'll prototype and build the specialized machine that will be used in our factories. The machine is also intended as a standalone piece of hardware for others in the construction industry. Over the next two years we plan on keeping our expansion on track per our business plan," Shah says. "Our creativity will take a back seat to the business, but you know designers – we can't stop doodling. Hopefully some of the designs on our successful platform will be our own."
As for the overall goal, it's nothing less than a complete revision of how consumers look at the process of selecting furniture.
"We hope to make 4 AXYZ a game changer for the furniture industry. The Renaissance gave us unique creations. The Industrial Revolution gave us mass-produced equality," Shah said. "We hope to be able to convince anybody with doubts that they can and should pursue any viable opportunity to embrace the new world of creative, customized production."