Digital Creations at The High Museum
I was able to catch the last day of the “Modern by Design” exhibit at The High Museum in Atlanta and it displayed plenty of works built from digital models. The entrance to the exhibit held a large experimental project created by the Joris Laarman lab in Amsterdam.
Though not considered 3D printing or Rapid Prototyping, this mechanical arm operates via commands. Instead of being told to melt or cure a material in precise layers, the head of this arm picks up individual squares and melds them into this solid table. Created as pixels in digital space, the table is made of small metallic bricks.
I knew the exhibit had some 3D printed models but I did not anticipate seeing a totally experimental and ornate display of additive manufacturing. Though seemingly not an efficient use of mechanics I see a few areas to be explored based on the key elements of this project. While 3D printing with even a high grade machine the material is fed at a constant rate and must always be formed in paper thin layers. The technique used here in “Digital Matter” uses blocks, and those tiny blocks can form larger blocks or shapes. Theoretically, the large arm in the first picture could have a bunch of smaller builders on a nearby platform, simultaneously creating forms that will be added to the final model by the main arm. If perfected this could cut down on build times. I think as 3DP technology progresses we will start to see multiple extruders or print heads that move along different axes but communicate with each other. It is a matter of time before the software is available to support such a machine.
Another variation might be an extruder that is designed to build only one shape or section of that shape. If it can build a sturdy structure like a sphere or egg, and build that shape onto itself, such a machine complex and bumpy surfaces in larger scale.
The other floors of the exhibit were mixed with early modern designs such as Eames chairs and industrial parts. The 3D printed parts were pretty much limited to different types of chairs. I have a tricky relationship with chairs in the design world as you can only experience them visually, mostly through exhibits and design criticism. The chair may have an unusual and appealing form but there is never a way to really know how well it was designed, and one is left approximating what it might be like based on experience sitting in chairs. Since a chair’s function is to be sat on, understandably, more effort is put into the form with not much room to improve in the world of sitting.
The stool was printed using selective laser sintering which allows for moving parts. It’s hard to see how it closes but I think the circle in the center is pushed down. The second chair was built with a polymer and then covered in lacquer for the smooth reflective surface. Creating a chair these non-symetrical features is unique to 3D printing over some traditional methods. To build and cut in wood, textiles or even metal uses tools that are designed for accuracy and geometry. Creating fluid, organic shapes like this chair would require more time to experiment with cutting techniques and materials, and even more to actually build it. Having the freedom to create the model in digital space using an array of creative software packages is only made better by not having to build ten of them by hand.
I look forward to the future of digital manufacturing in America as it will bring more manufacturing jobs to produce items at home and locally. When everyday people are exposed to the possibilities that are opened by the technology, their creative and useful ideas will seem less crazy and more feasible to build.
So what is 3D printing?
Basically, it is a manufacturing technique that builds a physical object from 3D files created in computer programs. It turns digital information that we create into holdable, throwable, usually plastic parts.
For many years the technology has come in the form of large, very expensive machines. These are mostly used by enormous manufacturing companies to create prototypes of a potential product before they decide to create 500,000 of them.
A variety of materials, like titanium or ceramic, have been used in very expensive models. Some new companies like Ponoko and Shapeways have emerged that will take the file of what you have designed and print it in the material of your choice. But simpler models have been getting progressively less expensive, and some people use these to to print everyday things at home.
Quick run through of how it works. Let’s say I want to create a small item such as a ring. I will design it using in a 3D drawing software such as Google Sketchup. If it is for me I will make the drawing to fit my ring size. I will then format that sketchup file to be interpreted by my 3D printer.
If I have my own, I can sit back and watch it for ten minutes while it precisely layers the material (in this case plastic) into a ring I can wear. Or maybe it’s a ring to give to friends. I’ll just change the quantity to 20, spend a while planning a ring giving ceremony, and they’re done.
I know. It’s like sci-fi. First off, don’t worry because I will get into how exactly the printer itself works. Here’s a hint: It is a lot like inkjet printers and the precise movements they use to puts words on paper. I’ll explain the mechanics of it really soon, I just wanted to start with how it will impact people and economies.
But think about what it would take to buy that plastic ring from a store or the internet.
Some nice lady thinks up and designs the ring, and sells it to a company. The company sends it to their engineering and prototyping team, where they can spend months making it ready for mass production. Now if they are not already in China (1 in 5 people are), they have to send it there (in most cases).
There they analyze the ring so that they can make a complex custom machine to create 500,000 of the same ring. Once they are all finished, packaged, warehoused, shipped back to wherever, distributed to whatever store you shop at, only then can you buy that little ring.
Might be missing some steps but you get that it is an arduous process from start to finish.
My thoughts at this point are that if this industry of 3D printing becomes the industrial player that Economists say it will, isn’t that just digitizing and cheapening physical products to be distributed freely via internet? Obviously many good things will come from it, like the ability to customize to exact specs and add personal details. But what about the systems that already exist?
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