Today’s artists and designers who work in three-dimensions have a wonderful array of computer-based tools at their disposal. What started as an expensive and highly specialized way to build prototypes and speculative models has evolved into a normal means of production…even a commonplace desktop tool.
As with most things in this digital age there are many variations and special versions of these processes but they all fit generally into three categories: milling, sintering and printing. All three start with an artist/designer creating a 3-D computer model of an object. That model is loaded into the controlling computer for one of these machines and the machine then produces whatever was designed. The entire process is similar to writing a word-based document and then sending it to the printer on your desktop. It is similar but infinitely more complex because the end product exists in three dimensions.
In today’s blogpost we will discuss milling. Future posts will describe sintering and 3-D printing. We will also provide you with some online resources that you can use to try your hand at designing for these exciting tools and making your own objects.
Milling is the oldest and most established of the three tools we are discussing here. It is a reductive process that uses router bits, plasma cutters or grinders to remove unwanted material from a larger piece. The router bits, cutters or grinders are able to move side to side, up/down, and forward/backward. As the cutting tools move in the patterns described by the 3-D computer model they carve away portions of a larger block of material.
The computer version of this milling process is referred to as computerized numerical control (CNC). The process is ideal for making large and small scale objects. It is widely used in industry to make prototypes of items as big as an automobile or as small as a smart phone. Milling is also used to make one-of-a-kind pieces of hardware for scientific research projects.
CNC milling used to make this table by Lee Rowland