This semester, I have been facilitating a series of workshops on digital design and “making” at York University. The idea is to introduce “maker” and “hacker” methods in an academic context. The Maker Movement, is a term that loosely refers to the proliferation of amateur and professional designers who use both novel (e.g., 3D printing) and traditional (e.g., glassblowing) manufacturing methods to subvert the mass production factory model and engage directly with every stage of the creation of their customized small batch designs. In an earlier post, I explored Maker Faire, a coming-together event of different groups that engage in maker activities.
I believe combining hands-on and creative techniques of makers with the theoretical grounding of academia might yield a potent and balanced methodology for coming up with real-world solutions to real-world problems and also to facilitate more playfulness and diversity in digital design.
An important technique of the maker movement is 3D printing (also known as rapid prototyping) a technique that involves the direct creation of physical objects from 3D software models out of material as diverse as plastic (the most common one) to cement and chocolate.
One of the lucky outcomes of organizing a series of workshops was that we were loaned two Cube 3D printers for the duration of the semester. These small but (relatively) user-friendly machines allow one to print out 3D models in two types of plastic (ABS or PLA). The plastic is fed into the machine in the form of a thin tube that is melted at the tip (at a temperature of about 200 degrees Celsius!) and is output in patterns from the extruder.
I had done some 3D printing before (with the previous version of the current 3D printers, the 3D Touch), but had not engaged with every stage myself yet. I decided to go with a simple test first and printed out a couple of spiral earrings. They came out very nicely and took only 10 minutes to print.
In the cube program, I had set print mode to “strong”, rather than “solid” which meant there were some empty cavities on the body of the earrings. At the suggestion of one of the workshop participants, I used red wax to fill out the space. After this, I got a couple of earring posts, attached them using cement glue, and, voila! I had my first pair of 3D printed earring! (I have to say that connecting the posts was not very easy since it was my first time and it took a while to get a handle on how to do it. There isn’t a special trick to it, just plan to spend time setting them up properly!)
The next project was a bit more ambitious. I wanted to try my hand at 3D scanning. We have a scanner in the lab but I was interested in using cheaper technology to create models, something that Autodesk has been promising with their new 123D Catch App. The idea is that you can use your iPad, iPhone or even regular digital cameras to capture a series of pictures from an object (can be a human too, as long as they don’t move!) and send it to Autodesk’s servers where it will be rendered into a 3D model.
I decided to model a wooden statue of the legendary Takin, Bhutan’s national animal. I started by placing the statue on a table in my house and using the tips on Autodesk’s website about the light not shining directly on the object and trying to take two series of overlapping pictures (the circles forming two circles around the object at two different angles). Using an iPad, I took about 30 pictures, took out a couple that were not zoomed properly or were overexposed and sent the rest to the cloud server. After about 15-20 minutes, my 3D model was ready and it looked surprisingly good!
After that I opened my cloud account from my laptop and inspected the model. The model needed some work in terms of clean up, getting rid of detached surfaces and holes, scaling and positioning and also getting rid of the ground surface under the statue. Once these changes were done, I exported the file as a STL file which is a standard graphic mesh file and opened it in the 3D printer’s software. From here, I did some more tweaking (mainly scaling and rotation) and then rendered the Cubify file which is basically the low level instruction file that goes to the printer.
After this step, I tried to print the file and failed! The reason was that there is a big difference between the earrings and the Takin from a structural point of view. Notice that the Takin’s nose (and belly and some other parts) are not connected to the base, therefore, it is important to turn on both “raft” and “supports” in the Cube software. “Raft” refers to an initial foundational base that helps different parts of the model stick to the plat on which the printed object is placed and “supports” refers to the scaffolding parts that will be placed to hold the hanging parts up. Both of these can be removed after printing.
Here’s a picture of the Takin statue, next to its 3D printed model: