Experimenting with the third dimension might sound like something you (hopefully) crossed out on a personal statement, but with more and more designers and artists turning to 3D printing, we find out how to give it a go...
3D printing is the process of making a three-dimensional solid object from a digital model using a 3D printer – or “fabber” – to deposit filament layer by layer. It’s an easy and cheap way to bash out a prototype, or experiment with a design – and it’s not as hard as it sounds.
Try the freebies
In terms of software, there are lots of different ways to create 3D models. CAD (computer aided design) is mainly used by engineers and software engineer and technology innovator Leo Dearden recommends Blender – which is free and open source – for artistic ideas. “The basics [when it comes to modelling tools] can be picked up in a day, and there are tens of thousands of free designs that you can print, so you can have a lot of fun and get a lot of benefit without making your own designs.”
Alternatively, 3D Tim and Tinker CAD are good if you just want to have a go without downloading anything. Clare Cunningham, co-founder of printing materials supplier Faberdashery, says: “These are really fantastic to play around with – they are user-friendly and simple, so you don't have to buy all this very expensive software.”
Matthew Plummer-Fernandez is a visual artist who moved from working in 2D to 3D when he was commissioned to produce some sculptural work. “Browse Thingiverse”, he suggests, “and download free files to print. It’s also worth downloading free programmes like MeshLab, 123D Catch and 123D Make.”
Don’t judge a book by its cover
The cheapest way to get hold of your own desktop 3D printer is to buy a kit and assemble it yourself.
“To assemble a printer from a kit will take something like 6 to 24 hours, depending on you and the printer you choose,” says Leo. “You will do up a lot of nuts and screws, but for many kits won't need to do any soldering.”
“Don’t be too put off by the low cost printers looking quite scary,” Clare warns, “They are all bare bones compared with the high cost ones which are packaged up in a case. But actually the low cost ones are a really good way of understanding how the 3D printer works. With the high-cost ones there is just as much possibility that things will go wrong but as you haven’t put it together yourself, you won’t have a clue how to fix it.”
Make someone else do it for you
If you just fancy having your design made real, upload it to Shapeways and have the solid object delivered to your door.
“The rules to 3D printing haven’t been written yet, so there is no wrong or right,” says Matthew. “Every approach is worth exploring.”
That said, there’s a lot to grasp all at once, so it’s worth taking it slowly. “Try lots of new things, but only change one thing at a time,” says Leo. “Try to predict the effect of your change, do the print and observe the effect. Repeat this process. That's the fastest way to learn. There are lots of parameters and controls that you can tweak, but don't be tempted to change them all at once or you won't learn much.”
In Focus: Leo Dearden’s 3D printing glossary
Thing: the real physical object, that you can touch, and possibly even use. In computer programming, “object” already means something else, so we use “thing” to avoid confusion.
Idea: what you think of. Now you need to explain your idea to the computer.
Design: the computer model of something.
STL: the most common file format to print from. Usually you'll design in some other format and export or convert to STL.
Manifold: not all STLs are printable. An STL can represent stuff that could not exist as solid physical objects, even in theory. A manifold STL describes the surface of virtual thing. That's a good start, though the design may still not be printable due to the limitations of the printer. Once we have a manifold STL we need to generate instructions for the printer to print it. We do this with a Slicer.
Slicer: a program that takes a design and generates instructions for 3D printing it. The name comes from the fact that the printer builds the thing in layers, and so the slicer takes a series of virtual slices through the design before working out how to print each slice in turn. There are many slicers with various pros and cons, but as a place to start I suggest Slic3r. All slicers for RepRap 3D printers output instructions in g-code format.
Printer: the machine that does the printing. The place to start is almost certainly printing in plastic using a RepRap or one of the related open source printers, and you can start finding out more at reprap.org.
Print host or print controller: The program that sends the g-code to the printer, and starts and stops the print. Again there are many options, but I suggest Pronterface (google it, and get it from github.com).
Leo’s blog is full of helpful advice.
Some more online modelling tools: Solidworks, Inventor, FreeCAD, OpenSCAD, Sketchup.
Leo Dearden will be making models and speaking about 3D printing at the One KX building on 20 October, as part of the Bloomsbury Festival. If you want to know more about what the possibilities are for artists using 3D printing, he’ll be happy to answer questions there.
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Image: Glitch Reality II by Matthew Plummer-Fernandez.