Today’s artists and designers who work in three-dimensions have a wonderful array of computer-based tools and processes 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.
3-D printing is the most recently developed of the processes we are discussing in this series. It commonly uses “ink” made of a sticky material that dries quickly when exposed to air or a thermal-based material that flows when heated but solidifies as it cools. In some printers the ink stays pliable until it is hardened by exposure to ultra-violet light. The print head is a tiny nozzle that moves on an x and y axis. The entire print head carriage moves slowly and carefully upward. Points and lines are “printed” and then the carriage moves slightly upward. More points and lines are printed and the process repeats itself until the entire object is complete. This is an additive process like laser sintering but not nearly as accurate and detailed. Laser sintering builds its forms using layers of microscopic dust fused in place and supported during the entire process. 3-D printing, on the other hand, relies on coarse and viscous materials that need to support themselves. Although it is currently not as refined as sintering the technology of 3-D printing is improving at a rapid pace and the quality gap between it and sintering is quickly disappearing.
The advantages of 3-D printing are cost and accessibility. These devices are becoming commonplace and the prices – for the printers and the finished objects – are very attractive.
At this time there are several national chain stores that offer access to printers in their local stores. Artists can design an object on their personal computer and then bring the digital file to the store to have it printed. There are also resources online that will accept digital files and turn them into finished objects.
Here is a link to shapeways.com where you can have a digital file printed in 3-D.
This is a link to Autodesk. They have free software you can use to make a digital model suitable for any of the three processes we have discussed.
Here is a link to MakerBot, a popular consumer grade desktop 3-D printer.
As I mentioned in the opening paragraph, if you want to design imaginative objects and then actually hold those objects in your hands, this is a great time to be working. You have wonderful tools and processes at your disposal.