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.
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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?”
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.
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.
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.”