Daniel Dolan

Mar Mikhael’s door to another dimension

The Middle East’s first 3D print shop opens in East Beirut

The Bakery
The Bakery
The Bakery
The Bakery
The Bakery
The Bakery
The Bakery
The Bakery
The Bakery
The Bakery
The Bakery
The Bakery

East Beirut’s backstreets seem an unassuming starting point for a new industrial revolution. While workshops, construction yards and backroom factories have long thrived in Mar Mikhael’s winding alleys, the area hosts no gleaming chrome palaces or dark satanic mills. For the uninitiated pedestrian dodging sparks from a welder’s blowtorch, local industry might appear more cottage than cutting-edge.

Among these narrow streets, however, a new technology seems set to transform the way everyday products are made; empowering a new generation of inventors, architects, and creatives. Last month, Mar Mikhael became home to the Middle East’s first 3D printing shop – a walk in ‘fab lab’ allowing customers to print their digital designs as solid 3D objects.

The store’s founder and principal, Guillaume Credoz, explained the technology to NOW using the example of a Beirut taxi driver’s decades-old Mercedes.

“Say a part in this car has blown, but spares are not made any more – not in Lebanon, not anywhere else in the world. The only other that exists is in the car of a collector in the States. We could have this part scanned to create a digital file, receive the file in an email, and print a perfect copy in a durable material. The process could be complete in a day or two, and the customer can drive away.”

Credoz’s team begin by creating a 3D digital design file of the object to be printed. In some cases technically savvy customers bring in pre-made designs created using free software like SketchUp (which Credoz claims is so simple his children develop their own toys with it); otherwise the team will build the file from whatever the customer brings to the counter, be it a sketch, a plaster model, or a part from a broken electrical appliance.

Once any faulty elements in the file have been repaired and the object’s structural soundness is assured, it is printed using a ‘Selective Laser Sintering’ machine – an eight-foot tall contraption that hums like the fridge-freezer it resembles. Behind the machine’s reinforced door a highly targeted laser beam is fired at a large block of powder, fusing particles together layer by layer to produce a fully formed 3D shape.

Fittingly christened ‘The Bakery’, the laboratory stands on the former site of a longstanding community kiln, to which local residents would troop each morning with homemade dough in tow. As an old weighing scale on the wall of the workshop suggests, the building’s new occupants intend to keep the ‘come-one, come-all’ ethos alive.

Credoz believes that The Bakery may be only the second such laboratory in the world to open its doors to customers off the street, bringing high-tech production capacity to the widest possible range of would-be manufacturers. He argues that by allowing designers and inventors to realize their ideas without shelling out prohibitive sums of money, 3D printing can fulfil its true potential as a ‘disruptive’ technology – one that challenges established ways of doing things and empowers insurgent innovators.

“The ability to rapidly produce complex pieces in a range of materials can change the cycle of global dependencies and create a healthier local economy” Credoz argues. “There is no need to order overpriced merchandise from all corners of the world when we can produce it locally in a matter of days.”

Since The Bakery opened its doors less than a month ago, it has already helped one local inventor bring a new product to market: a kitchen tool for selecting consistently sized portions of pasta. Credoz is hopeful that as word of the store spreads, others will follow suit.

In order to help expand the technology’s potential, and attract a wider range of customers, The Bakery’s research team is developing a variety of material compounds with which objects can be printed - each displaying physical properties tailored to a different application.

In one example, a unique blend of polyamide and cement has been created to help architects produce precise concrete models. For Credoz, who spent 20 years in architecture business, this is clearly a point of pride. He recounts smilingly how an intricately printed mock-up allowed him to assess the minaret of a mosque he was designing - testing everything from its functionality as a wind tunnel to the way light would strike it in the evening.

Down the road in nearby Bourj Hammoud, NOW visited a gold, copper, and steel casting factory where printouts in polystyrene are used to cast 3D designs into metal. Since starting up, Credoz has struck up a close working relationship with this 40-year old family owned operation – allowing his customers to realize their designs in metal through a fusion of new and established technology.

Long-time factory employee Alek Shimsurian explained to NOW that as technological advances like make small manufacturing more manageable, a more diverse pool of people are considering the business of making things. In a moment of rest, after filling a cylindrical cast of an ornament with glowing molten copper, he describes the progress he has seen in recent years:

“Technology is changing everything. You do not need a big factory to produce things; you can go to one person who makes one part, another who makes the next part, and so on. This is bringing new people into business. For instance, ten years ago, we hardly saw any women who were metal jewellery makers. Now, there are more and more who do this for their business. A lot is changing, of course, but technology is helping to make this possible.”  

Credoz believes that as cutting edge production methods inspire a new generation of makers, there are few limits to what small manufacturing can achieve. He stresses that the full potential of 3D printing is far from fully explored, and notes that he expects new uses to arise as the public becomes familiar with the technology.

“When peoples’ ideas and inspiration are added into the mix” he argues, “who knows what we will be able to do?”

Guillaume Credoz at work in the Bakery (image courtesy of Daniel Dolan.)

Since The Bakery opened its doors less than a month ago, it has already helped one local inventor bring a new product to market