3-D printing produces a fresh creative outlet for artists

Despite the chicken-in-every-pot hype over consumer-level 3-D printers, the technology still has a long way to go to be usable, or useful, for the average Joe. Designing three-dimensional objects on a two-dimensional computer screen is no simple task, especially for those unskilled in computer-assisted design or software. And for most people, there's no compelling reason to make a unique object from scratch when mass-produced equivalents are cheaper and simpler.

But for some artists, 3-D printing has been a revelation. The ability to design and build objects layer by layer, rather than through traditional methods such as casting or handcrafting, has created a new level of freedom. So while 3-D printing has yet to live up to its promise for consumers, for artists, the technology has been fueling a design explosion for more than a decade.

Bathsheba Grossman is amused by the recent flood of attention. "I've been doing it for 15 years now and suddenly it's fashionable," she laughs. Once a struggling art student, she says that discovering the process of creating her mathematically complex designs by computer has "saved my bacon."

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Grossman, a geometric artist living in Santa Cruz, was having difficulty bringing the designs inside of her brain into the physical world. In art school, she was hand-carving waxes and making molds out of assembled pieces, but after months of painstaking work, she would have only lackluster results.

"The guys that were my mentors in geometrical sculpture were brilliant craftsmen with old world training, and they were actually able to produce extremely sophisticated geometrical forms by using hand casting and lost wax casting," she says. "But let's put it this way: I wasn't that good."

Grossman was good with computers, however, and was supporting herself through art school as a programmer. "So when I found out about this 3-D printing thing, I matched it up with the designs that were in my head but that I couldn't make and I thought, 'I can do this. It's made out of software, so I'm going to be able to handle this.'"

Grossman now makes her living as a sculptor, and last summer had a sculpture installed at VanDusen Botanical Garden in Vancouver, Canada, that at 6 1/2' feet tall by 5 feet in diameter may well be the largest 3-D print in North America.

Imagine a standard inkjet printer that squirts ink onto a piece of paper, in the shape of the letter "A." Now imagine that instead of squirting ink, the printer is squirting a layer of molten plastic. Then it places another layer on top of that one, and another on top of that. Soon, you would have a thick, plastic "A." That's an extremely simplified explanation of how 3-D printers work. But the selection of materials is no longer limited to plastic — ceramic, metal or even chocolate are available.

One of the chief advantages of such printing is that an object can be fabricated layer by layer, says David Cawley, director of the model shop in the 3-D lab at Pasadena's Art Center College of Design, without the limitations of molds. "Three-D printing is very iterative — it allows you to quickly make something, change it and quickly make it again," he says.

Art and design students at the school make use of its seven 3-D printers, but those aren't enough to meet all of the student's needs, Cawley says, so many also use outside services and a handful have home units. Cawley sees promising developments in schools, where 3-D printers are slowly becoming more common, even at some middle and high schools. At his lab, students create files that are not necessarily perfect, but in a learning environment perfection isn't the point.

Three-dimensional printers are all over the news at the moment because of an industry push to make the machines smaller and more affordable for the consumer market. But in fabrication shops, 3-D printers, most commonly those made by leading companies Stratasys and 3D Systems, have been standard equipment for years.

Chicago artist Joshua Harker gained familiarity with the technology working in commercial sculpture in a prototyping shop, where he made action figures and Happy Meal toys, and that depth of experience gave him the skills needed to eventually bring his own ideas to life.

Harker says 3-D printing gave his art room to grow. For years Harker created complex drawings he called "tangles," which he had wanted to make into three-dimensional designs. He tried stone, wood, wax and clay, but found that his designs were too complex to be made in molds. Once he moved to 3-D printing, he was finally able to realize his vision. "It was liberating," he says. "Before, there was no way to make something this complex. Now, we can make the unmakeable."

Harker is best known for his models of skulls, filigreed and feather-light with intricate patterns vaguely reminiscent of the decorated versions seen during Dia de los Muertos, but more anatomically correct and far more detailed.

Though the potential might seem magical, Grossman says she spends a lot of time bursting people's bubbles about the ease of use and capabilities of such technology. "People think it's going to be like a 'Star Trek' replicator," she says. It's not.

For less complex objects, Grossman says injection molding is still the way to go. Though the start-up costs of producing a plastic injection-molded item can start in the thousands, once the molds are created each individual item may cost only pennies to produce. With the latest printing, however, there is no equivalent economy of scale — an individual item that costs $5 to produce will continue to cost $5, no matter how many you print.

"If you compare a 3-D printed object with an injection-molded object," she says, "the injection-molded wins on every count except for one: It doesn't have the freedom of geometry. The injection-molded object is smoother, cheaper, you get a better choice of materials, and you can have multiple materials. The 3-D printed object has surface flaws, it has texture, it's a single material, and you don't get much choice about the material. Injection molding is still hard to beat."

Yet MIT professor Neri Oxman, a respected designer in the 3-D print medium whose works were exhibited as part of the Paris show , "Multiversités Créatives" last year, has compared the advent of 3-D printing to the advent of 2-D printing for its potential effect: "If you think about it, the movable type revolution allowed all of us to print books, and to democratize information. And 3-D printing is democratizing and revolutionizing the way we do fabrication."

That democratization, however, will not spell the demise of craftsmanship or the importance of skill and training; great design still requires great expertise. Kerry Hogarth, the London-based founder of "3D Printshow," an exhibition of 3-D printed art and technology in London, New York and Paris, says that the artists who create high-end 3-D art are comparable to highly skilled painters or sculptors — they're just working in a different medium.

When it was time to review artist submissions for last year's print show, Hogarth says that the number of people who submitted 3-D printed objects was huge, but the number whose work was truly exquisite was small. "In the future, as software becomes easier for the consumer to use, I think people will have more access to being able to create something great at home. But if we look at the designs the artists are coming out with right now, it takes a huge amount of skill to be able to create a design in CAD, to be able to find the right materials and get it perfectly printed," she says.

It's 3-D printing's aesthetic, more than its practical, applications that seem to appeal to users of the technology, says Harker. "Artists are a driving force in pushing a new technology and exploring its capabilities. Artists are typically the first ones out there, the first to arrive, the first ones to start experimenting and showing and pushing the limits and trying new things and seeing what can be done with it."

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