The Digital Craft Revolution

Two weeks ago sculptor Katherine Dewey pulled me deeper into my latest obsession with this photo of her latest sculpture.

Digital Sculpture by Katherine Dewey

Digital Sculpture by Katherine Dewey

The catch?  It’s not clay but a digital rendering–an image of a computerized 3D model that Dewey created in a program called ZBrush.  The program excels at both hard surface modeling and organic sculpting.  It’s a great program for animators, but what really enticed me is it’s ability to export a file to a 3D printer.

I’ve been interested in rapid prototyping for some time, using photopolymer flexography since the early 2000’s to create relief plates that I could use to reproduce reliefs in polymer clay.  If you are not familiar with the process, it’s a relative of the first rapid prototyping technique, stereolithography, with which UV light is used to selectively harden resin.  At about the same time, I began using metal clay, and also discovered the work of Bathsheba Grossman, who uses RPT (rapid prototyping) processes to create incredibly complex geometric forms in metal.

Borromean Rings by Bathsheba Grossman

Check out this video, where Grossman gives an in depth tutorial on her use of  T-Splines for Rhino, another industry leader in the field of 3D CAD design. She describes T-Splines as the application that is most like modeling with clay:

Not able to wait another moment, I dove headlong into an investigation of CAD programs.  I downloaded a trial version of ZBrush (full version costs $699), which allows 45 days of functionality.  Rhino also offers a trial version (full version $999), which allows only 25 saves, but will continue to function without the save feature indefinitely if you are just interested in learning the program.  Be sure to check out the jewelry specific plugin, Matrix, which allows detailed surface rendering with various jewels already pre-programmed.  Not to be ignored in this software roundup is the free, open-source and popular Blender.  Targeting the hobbyist crowd, AutoDesk aims to make desktop manufacturing simple with it’s free 123D software, which cuts out complicated engineering tools to leave a user friendly program for modelers and builders.  Appealing to the open source nature of the DIY crowd, 123D also links to free solid and mesh models and facilitates direct output to partner printers, where you can have your designs translated into physical form.

Popular printing businesses include Shapeways and Ponoko (whose App Gateway features 123D and other software), as well as the 3D model store, Thingiverse.  They can reproduce your designs in high resolution prints in a variety of materials, including plastic, glass, ceramic, stainless steel, and sterling silver, and gold plated (printed stainless steel infused with bronze then gold plated).  If you are a real do-it-yourselfer, you may want to look into the ever popular MakerBot.  With it’s Frostruder attachment, the MakerBot has the potential to print with any form of metal clay paste.

If you have an iPhone, don’t miss Trimensional.  The first iPhone 3D scanner app goes for just 99 cents.  Not merely a novelty, this structured light scanner functions by using the front camera of the phone along with “flashes” from sequential corners of the screen.  It’s not perfect but creates models featuring points, polygons, and  wire meshes.  Trimensional saves to 3 file formats and can be exported to a 3D printer or CAD software.  Here’s what happened when I pointed it at my face:

Here is the wireframe version of the same scan:

There are of course a few iphone CAD options as well, notably iDough, which is easy to use, features an intuitive clay-like modeling interface, and saves to a 3D printable obj. file.  Here are a couple images of models that I whipped together:

Other DIY 3D scanners and printers, etc. of note:

  • The MakerBot 3D Scanner is a structured light scanner that works with an iPhone or a webcam.
  • The MakerScanner is a 3D laser scanner built with parts printed on the MakerBot.
  • This 3D laser scanner is built with Legos.
  • This desktop factory built from Legos allows you to injection mold your own Legos.
  • The eMAKER Huxley 3D printer is a Replicating Rapid prototyping machine, or RepRap for short.  Kit’s sell for about $500 and can be used to print the parts necessary to build more printers.

If you are not convinced that desktop manufacturing is here for real, check out MakerBot founder Bre Pettis on the Colbert Report and this White House report on 3D printers that recommends among other things:

  1. Put a personal manufacturing lab in every school
  2. Offer teacher education in basic design and manufacturing technologies in relation to STEM education
  3. Create high quality, modular curriculum with optional manufacturing components
  4. Enhance after school learning to involve design and manufacturing.