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3D Printing, Rapid Sculpture and the Future of Art
by Jerome Weeks 12 Apr 2010

It looks like science fiction: On a computer screen, you create a virtual image, and you feel the shape’s texture as you do. A few hours later, you hold the solid shape in your hand. Welcome to 3D printing, a process that seems like magic. Jerome Weeks writes about 14 North Texas artists who got a chance to play wizard. Plus a video report.


Ginger Fox, Bird on a Branch, acrylic, 2007

For years, manufacturers have used CAD — computer-aided design — to speed up designing and creating car parts, medical implants, footwear and prototypes of all kinds. KERA’s Jerome Weeks reports on a North Texas firm advancing that digital revolution – into the art of sculpture.

  • KERA radio report:
  • Expanded online report:

It’s called rapid prototyping. Instead of taking months to develop the first model of a new product, it can be done in days – from the digital design to holding the actual product in your hand. But rather than rapid prototyping a new cake mold or Happy Meal toy, the Dallas firm Van Duzen, Inc. has taught 14 area artists how to create their first “rapid sculptures.” Van Duzen’s Rapid Sculpture project will debut with a display at a California, Anaheim exhibition May 18-20, then it will come later to Dallas. Van Duzen president Nancy Hairston is in the company’s Exposition Park offices.

HAIRSTON: “You wanna try it?”

Shane Pennington, one of the Rapid Sculptors, with the Phantom

The artists have been using the 3D modeling software, FreeForm. It allows them to create and manipulate a three-dimensional, digital object onscreen. Their computer is also equipped with a Phantom Haptic device. That’s a small robot arm (above) that holds a stylus or pen that the artists can guide like an elaborate computer mouse. Phantom lets them feel the object onscreen as they twist it, stretch it, color it, even sand it and polish it. 

I sit at the computer and grasp the arm. Onscreen is Dallas artist Brad Ford Smith’s sculpture design (right).

HAIRSTON: “You’re only going to be able to feel the cream-colored object. So as you move forward, it’ll stop you.”

The Phantom arm works like a computer mouse that can move a cursor in three dimensions. But when the cursor touches Smith’s sculpture onscreen, the arm resists my push forward, as if I’d just struck a block of clay. This is known as force feedback — and you have already experienced forms of it in certain computer-game joysticks or the Wii remote, devices that physically convey motion or resistance to your hand.

HAIRSTON: “There’s a button on the pen that you can actually carve with. If you press the button down with your index finger, and then – yeah, there you go.”

Onscreen, I’ve dug a small groove into Smith’s virtual sculpture. It felt a little like scooping clay with a teaspoon, but the overall experience is a bit disembodied. Some sculptors may well miss the very tactile, weighty feel of carving wood, grinding bronze, welding steel. In any event, Smith very easily reverses my trench-digging damage.

Each year, the Society of Manufacturing Engineers presents RAPID, a trade show for all kinds of 3D imaging, prototyping and printing. The society wanted to encourage artistic applicants — a new avenue for the industry to explore — and approached Hairston, who had spoken at RAPID several times. SME just wanted to call for any “artistic” prototypes to be submitted, but Hairston wanted to engage working professional fine artists to take a step into the engineering field — no math skills needed. Hairston’s would be more of a curated show.

Nancy Hairston (left) and Ginger Fox at SMU’s Rapid Prototyping Lab: Pay no attention to the sign behind them

HAIRSTON: “I thought the most interesting way to attract artists is to make the case why this is a good business decision. It definitely compresses the time. And you know, it’s a new medium. It stretches them out and gives them a challenge.”

It was certainly a challenge for Ginger Fox. She’s been a fine artist for only three years but already she’s shown her work in galleries in Chicago, Santa Fe and New York.  And last month, she won the Solo Artist award at New York’s Artexpo 2010.

But Fox is a painter – her 2D works are delicate, detailed, arcylic images of birds and fruit and eggs floating dream-like in the air, often intertwined with vines and feathers. Fox calls her style “magical realism” or “organic surrealism.”

She opted to use her painting of an egg-like earth — Who’s Pulling the Strings? right, detail) — as a model for her first sculpture.

FOX: “When I was a kid I had sculpted in clay. So, you know, I kinda thought, OK, is this what this is going to be like? Am I going to be able to squish it? And move it around? But using the Phantom? It’s just mind-boggling, really.”

The real mind-boggler was still to come. Using CAD to design products has been around in some form for decades. But 3D printing — or “additive manufacturing” — has only recently become more widely available — with some machines costing only in the $40,000 range. 3D printing makes rapid prototyping possible because the design does not have to be sent out to a manufacturing plant to have the test model built. Instead, imagine your ordinary inkjet printer but rather than it putting ink on paper, it puts down thousands of very fine layers of plastic or rubber or metal, slowly building up a toy or a piece of jewelery or a dental implant. Or a sculpture.

It’s this process that has gotten people like the  editors of WIRED magazine excitedly proclaiming 3D printing the future of manufacturing. WIRED editors  are in the business of getting over-excited about whizzing machinery and all things tech-related. These are the same folks who predicted that dot.com stocks would lead us into a 50-year-long economic boom.

But 3D printing does seem like something truly fantastical. (It’s rather like a Star Trek replicator, in fact). We already can download books, music, photos and films, but that’s digital information moving from one electronic device to another. With 3D printing, it’s the digital made actual. In the near future, we could have a 3D printer at home — or at a FedExKinko’s — and the printer would allow us to go online, purchase a design, color it and customize it the way we like, download the design and print it out as a usable artifact: a lamp, a set of dishes, appliances, replacement car parts.

Or artworks. An office or home could be a mini-manufacturing plant. And if you don’t like the idea of all that plastic being produced, some 3D printers are designed to recycle the plastic they use — while an inventor in England is working on a printer that uses “green” plastic, plastic made from  organic fiber.

[ambient sounds]

We’re in the Research Center for Advanced Manufacturing. Specifically, we’re in the Rapid Prototyping Lab in the basement of SMU’s Engineering School. The Center, led by Radovan Kovacevic, has donated the use of one of its 3D printers — one of the $40,000  models (left), not the million-dollar models it also has — to Hairston’s Rapid Sculpture project.

Pieces of Ginger Fox’s design were sent over, and it’s taken just five hours to finish them. (They’re the insect-like white pieces on display inside the printer.) This is the first time she’s actually seen her sculpture come to life.

FOX: “Wow! I’m just — pretty amazing, isn’t it?”

Her pieces are small and fragile and white – they’re like twigs of unglazed pottery. They’ll be dipped in Superglue to veneer them, harden them. But just as she holds her work for the first time, Fox discovers another advantage of 3D printing. She drops the piece and it breaks. Welcome to one possible future – for art.

FOX: “That’s some of the beauty of this — because it’s, like, snap, push a button and duplicate.”

  • Always fascinating when digital applications are expanded into practice in the art field. I will be interested to see how this develops and what amazing creations come out of this technology.

  • Jerome,
    Thanks for reporting on the SculptCAD Rapid Artists project. With the descriptions, videos, and links I think you did a great job of capturing the creative challenge and inspiration of this technical process.

  • But isn’t part of the whole great thing about art that you CAN’T just press a button and duplicate? I’m really on the fence about practical electronic application into fine art; in very few cases has it made the impossible possible, in most cases it’s just made things happen easier and quicker and removed a lot of the labor. This also removes a lot of the humanity in the things created. It’s a neat opportunity, and have enjoyed using things like laser cutters and free form printers myself, but once the shiny newness of it wears off it’s just not as satisfying as building something with your hands.

  • As I tried to indicate in the online version of this story, with 3D printing, many artists may well miss the tactile, physical nature of their art. And it’s plain in our age of mass-manufacture that the handmade and carefully crafted often have an even greater price premium put on them — if not always in art, then certainly in luxury products — even as they’ve been sidelined in general influence.

    But your comment addresses an issue I didn’t want to get stuck trying to articulate because it’s a huge (though important) digression: 3D printing brings up the whole question, once again, of what is art? Essentially, 3D printing is “conceptual art.” Just as many, many artists do not actually build their pieces themselves (Jeff Koons’ giant balloon sculptures, Damien Hirst’s floating sharks, almost any monumental piece of public art, etc), the ‘rapid prototype’ sculptor basically comes up with the idea, and a machine (as opposed to hired craftsmen) executes it.

    At the same time, 3D manufacture — like the widespread popularity of “blank toys” (see my story on designer toys which are designed to be modified by the the purchase — puts some of the art ‘responsibility’ in the hands of the consumer. We would be able to modify or customize the design before downloading it. It’s a more “interactive” art that way, which has its own appeals and drawbacks. Some of us, after all, are drawn to a particular artist precisely because he gives us something we’d never have thought or experienced on our own.

  • To me it’s something infinitely more dangerous than conceptual art, it’s easy art. It’s art at the press of a button, and not in a way that reflects how simple it is. It will, eventually as more and more generations die off, begin to replace handmade objects, after all, why put in the huge amount of hours when you can just build an .svg file and engrave with a laser, or fabricate it in cad. To me, the marvel of art is the fact that it was made by another human being- that a person took something and elevated it’s purpose. Things like this are automating the process too much and removing that kind of awe.

    I think there’s a lot of danger in the artist who doesn’t make his own work because it puts that person into a different category, and in a way, makes him invulnerable to any kind of criticism. After all, they didn’t make it. It’s becoming more of an architect or a designer and for me you can only claim so much responsibility for “something you’ve made” when you’ve only been responsible for a small percent of it’s making.

  • 1. Actually, it’s not ‘art at the press of a button.’ It’s production at the press of a button. The artists were still taking a great deal of time and care creating their designs. And after the sculptural piece is done forming, many will spend time sanding and painting and coating them. How many hours of direct physical involvement on the part of the sculptor do you require for art to be art?

    2. Because this is about visual artists, you seem to be particularly tied to the idea of the heroic individual artist. Yet plenty of arts are collaborative in nature — theater, dance, music — even a number of Shakespeare’s plays are now seen to be collaborations with other writers, while plenty of great sculptors — from Michelangelo through Rodin — were actually the heads of teams of apprentices and artisans. Painting a fresco is speedy work — you have to paint while the plaster is still wet — which is why da Vinci or Michelangelo would outline parts, have apprentices stencil in others and they would add finishing touches.

    What’s more, your argument that art has value only insofar as a single human ‘elevates’ it through his physical labor could just as easily apply to auto repair.

    3. Don’t get me wrong. As my comment above indicates, I agree. I think that ‘rapid sculpture’ presents — in a new form — some worrisome questions about the nature of art and art consumption. But the idea that an artist who “doesn’t make his own work” is somehow “invulnerable to criticism” isn’t one of them.

  • It is true that with every technological advance there is a fear and a possibility for a loss of humanity. From a stone ax to a steel hammer, from a hand saw to a table saw, from glass negatives to digital cameras. But with each new medium, new options are also opened.

    There will always be stone carvers and studios that smell of oil paint and linseed oil. There will also always be shlock produced quickly, cheaply and without regard. And it’s produced in ALL mediums. Spend some time flipping through the posts on http://www.regretsy.com to see some real low points in human creativity.

    No mater the medium, quality and skill are evident to people who care and value those things. For those that don’t, there is Ikea.

  • Bonjour à tous, and sorry if my English is not good. I’m a French pioneer in the field of digital sculpture (I work to promote and improve this new discipline from the middle of the 80’s), and I’m always surprised to find articles and media reports that seems to (re)discover the hot water 🙂 ! In the 60’s in France (Pierre BEZIER – you know the Bezier curves), and in Germany (Dr. Georg NEES) were made the very first computer sculptures, with NC milling machines. At the end of the 80’s the first RP devices were available and a few artists had access to these machines. My association ARS MATHEMATICA organized since 1993 a world-wide biennial devoted to digital sculpture: INTERSCULPT. See http://www.intersculpt.org . Many AM members or friends are American artists. In Texas, the most famous is the Pr. Mary HALE VISSER (Georgetown, Southwestern University). We are very pleased to see that digital sculpture – or “cybersculpture” – becomes more and more popular. Congratulations to VAN DUZEN Inc. and SME for helping artists to know more about the amazing possibilities of 3D printing. But in all cases it’s always good to remember the history. I don’t want to speak only about the digital sculpture history – which is not starting in 2010! – but also about the Art History. I appreciate Jerome WEEKS’ answers about the notion of “art.” Art is a creation of the mind, and the hand is one tool among others. For 2 million years, the hominids (and then the Homo Sapiens) use various tools for making actual their projects, and the artists very generally use the tools and machines available at their time – simply because these devices are existing for the imagination, and open new horizons. It’s obvious that the XXIth century sculptors will use (also) 3D devices. And that’s not easy – like it’s not easy to take a good aesthetic photo, even if we have, for 100 years, small boxes, with a “push button” that we call “camera” for doing art “without effort” ! Christian LAVIGNE. Paris, France.

  • Merci de l’écriture, M. Lavigne! Et excusez s’il vous plais, mon français insatisfaisant. Je me rendais compte des efforts plus tôt d’employer l’impression 3D dans l’art — il y a des sorts sur l’Internet — mais parce que notre foyer est sur des efforts locaux dans North Texas dans les arts, j’ai pensé que je ne devrais pas au sujet de tels efforts trop. En outre, nos lecteurs et auditeurs (parce que cette histoire était à l’origine émission sur la radio) ont pu ne jamais avoir entendu parler de l’impression 3D du tout. Mais pour être honnête, je n’ai pas su Intersculpt. Merci ainsi, encore, de la perspective intelligente sur l’histoire de l’art et de la technologie et votre propre travail pilote — bien que votre exemple de le ‘camera’ néglige le fait que la photographie a en effet causé les changements énormes de notre penser à l’art. Ainsi, aussi, l’impression 3D , je croient.

  • Thank you for this effort to write in French, Monsieur Jerome WEEKS ! Of course you are absolutely right about the “revolution” of the photography, and its impact on the fine arts. We will see more and more clearly the same phenomenon with all the 3D devices: scanner, printers, haptics, 360° display devices, etc. I explain that for many years in all my lectures and articles. Ars Mathematica organize various international events, and I hope that we will stay in touch. I wish you a great success in promoting digital sculpture in North Texas. Cordialement.