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Interview with Naoki Kawamoto: “A 3D printer is not a magic box but a very useful tool”

Naoki Kawamoto is the co-founder of N and R Foldings, a design company based in Japan and the UK. He is also a part-time lecturer at Tokyo Zokei University where he studied environmental design. He then went to London to study at the Royal College of Art and Imperial College London. Since founding his own company in 2012, he has collaborated on a number of projects with artists, businesses, and even astronauts.

Can you tell us about the place of 3D printing in your work?

Naoki Kawamoto is the co-founder of N and R Foldings.

Naoki Kawamoto is the co-founder of N and R Foldings.

When I was studying industrial design at Royal College of Art in London over ten years ago, the sketch was paramount. 3D printing was still in its infancy and most 3D printers, especially SLA or SLS ones, were very expensive. At the time, in order to test out an idea, I had to do so with cardboard and paper in order to get a sense of what my sketch would look like in the real world. This is an essential step in any of the work I do, as this is when an idea often makes it or breaks it. There are certain things we can not see on paper, shapes we cannot draw, which is why prototypes are so crucial.

Later on, I had the opportunity to discover this new technology which is now ubiquitous in my workshop. All of sudden, instead of cardboard cutouts, I could print parts of my design for real and get a more precise idea of the strengths and weaknesses of my work. What I discovered was a new tool, one which I needed to master but which could and has helped improve my work. Not change it, or inspire it, but rather, once I got the hang of things, help my work be more efficient. A 3D printer is not a magic box but a very useful tool. 3D printers aren’t an end in of themselves, they are tools and a part of a long and complex process.

Inside the workshop.

Inside the workshop.

What are 3D printing innovations you are the most excited about?

I’m very curious about SLA and SLS. Currently, if we want to print something using these technologies, we go through a 3rd party. SLS is great because it is so accurate and precise and best of all, prints don’t require a support structure. However, having one in the workshop is problematic. They require a lot of space as you need a washing station but also ventilation and so on.

I’m a designer not an engineer and PLA is very adapted to my day to day. I’m looking for 3D printers that are cost-effective and user-friendly. SLA and SLS are still costly and not as easy to use as FFF/FDM printers. This is changing, I’m already considering printers such as the Form 2 for the workshop so let’s see what the future holds.

What are some of the 3D printers you have used over the years?

The first machine I started working with at N and R foldings was the UP Plus 2. It was an extremely robust FDM 3D printer that produced great ABS prints. Unfortunately, the build volume was quite small and to be honest I’m not a big fan of ABS. I find the post-production work quite tedious.

I then moved on to an all in one 3D printer called the Super Helper made by WINBO, a Chinese manufacturer. The Super Helper really showed me all the advantages PLA has and proved to be a great match for my work. Despite some of the negative feedback it gets, PLA is wonderful for trial productions in actual daily design work and I found it much easier and less painful to handle than ABS.

Today, I mostly use Anycubic’s i3 Mega which I’ve set up to be dedicated to PLA. I am really happy with this model: it has a simple structure, it is easy to use and reliable once you’ve set it up correctly. Parts are cheap and good quality, so maintaining them is not a hassle. It has a good sized build volume which allows me to build some quite large pieces. I’ve also setup a CR-10 Max recently for even larger prints.

You have worked on a couple of VR projects also, haven’t you?

A collaboration with KIBO SCIENCE 360.

A collaboration with KIBO SCIENCE 360.

Yes, I have collaborated on a couple of VR projects recently with KIBO SCIENCE 360 as well as Dentsu. I love VR, it’s an exciting technology and one I’m keeping an eye on for the future. Who knows, it could turn out to be a great tool!

Both these projects were inspired by the Orishiki cases we created. These carrying devices consist of a flat sheet on which a structure of triangles is laid down; it then folds neatly, like origami, into a solid case. The process we developed can be applied to a number of different use cases and we used it to create some VR headsets.

For KIBO SCIENCE 360, we took a Google Cardboard and then designed a space helmet around it. The Google Cardboard VR space helmet was then used by a group of high school kids to talk with astronauts on the ISS.

More recently, Dentsu reached out to us to help them design a collapsable VR viewer for smartphones to enrich their entertainment offering and create a new experience for their customers. This prototype was meant to provide a non-immersive and quick access VR experience so users can enjoy an instant VR replay while watching a sports game on TV or at a stadium.

A collapsable VR viewer.

A collapsable VR viewer.