Printing Coraline

Objet Geometries is an Israeli company with some nifty new 3D printers. They did a press release recently that got some play: 3D Printers Play Starring Role in New Animated Film Coraline. The story goes like this. Coraline is a stop-motion animated movie. That is, people are moving little puppets around a big model house and taking snapshots to make a movie one frame at a time. But making these little puppets is hard. So why not use 3D printing to create them? Here’s an example of how it works.

I love 3D printing, so my first thought was: how cool.

But there’s something very odd about this. They’re going from the computer model to a 3D printout to create a video frame that’s stored on a computer. That sounds to me like a very painful way to do computer-generated graphics. Something like carving your email on a tree trunk and flinging it at your friend. Or scratching a note on the back of your cell phone and gluing it to a postcard.

I know that photography of real scenery lit by honest-to-goodness light has a special richness that movie makers crave. And stop-motion animators are an obsessive bunch. But it’s so expensive and loopy compared to the computer graphics it resembles that I have to think this genre is a dying breed.

Desktop Engineering on sculpture

Desktop Engineering is a trade magazine that deals mainly with CAD software and rapid prototyping. It’s rare to find an article in it about an artist. But since Bathsheba Grossman is sculptor who uses rapid prototyping tools, she gets some nice coverage in this article: The Marriage of Math and Art in 3D Printing. I was glad to see her getting some good press; I own one of her works. Admittedly, it’s a very small 3d metal “print” of one of her sculptures (I wrote about it here), but it sits on my desk and reminds me of the promise of solid thought.

Print your shoes

In the future, we will print everything.

We will print toasters. We will print golf carts. We will print small children.

But for now, we are printing toys and shoes. Fast Company magazine has a good story this month on (among other high tech sports gear) Nike’s fancy “Flywire” shoes for the Olympics. They’ve been able to innovate rapidly by basing their super lightweight shoe design on… bridges. Here’s the story.

The inspiration for the new construction came from the cables on a suspension bridge. Rather than cords of steel, Flywire uses thin, strong-as-steel threads of Vectran, placed in fan-shaped clusters of between 10 and 20 strands, each about 3 inches in length. […] Flywire lead designer Jay Meschter’s stroke of genius was to stop thinking of a shoe as something assembled and start thinking of it as something that is, well, printed. When Meschter connected the two ideas of filaments and strength, his mind leaped to embroidery machines, which, he realized, print out lines and shapes using colored thread stitches rather than ink. If Meschter could stitch in 3-D form the cabling that holds up a suspension bridge, and anchor the ultrathin “cables” around a foot shape, he’d be able to create an ultralight shoe in the same time it took to stitch somebody’s name on a shirt.

Printing shoes has two virtues: it’s cheap and it’s fast. A fast, cheap product design cycle means that innovation can happen extremely fast, and the fruits of innovation can be passed on to the consumer rapidly. I find this story exciting not because I want to go buy some Flywire shoes but because this is one part of an accelerating trend. Printing makes design happen faster, and when design happens faster things get better.

Print your landscape

Three-dimensional printing is a wonderful thing, and it keeps getting better. A few years ago, I bought a beautiful model of a transfer RNA molecule. All you had to do was tell them the Protein Data Bank ID, and your favorite molecule can be yours.

Of course not everybody gets excited by molecules. But other markets are opening up. Let’s suppose you’re really into World of Warcraft. For 20 hours or more every week, you are Sturmdrang the Pitiless. Now you can get a 3-D print of your online character from That has to be a deep market. It’s brilliant!

And if Warcraft isn’t your thing, now you can get a nice 3-D topographical map of your favorite terrain from LandPrint, as described here: Creates New Market for 3D Printing with 3D Physical Landscapes. I might have to get one of those. I’ve been thinking about a nice relief model of western Kansas.

Next: Print your furniture

In the latest issue of Dwell magazine I saw a short article on how a Dutch design firm called Freedom Of Creation is making furniture by printing it out. Three-dimensional printing is increasingly common as a tool for prototyping and design assessment, but that doesn’t go far enough to suit the folks at Freedom of Creation. They are actually printing out the final piece that gets delivered to the customer using a great big EOSINT polyamide laser sintering machine (a.k.a. the magic 3-d printer). Since the design goes directly from computer to product, no paper sketches or printouts are involved at any point. That’s just as well, because what they’re printing out, the Trabecula Table, is so complex (being modeled on the fine bone structure of bird bones) that drawing it wouldn’t be worth the trouble.

This is a good example of the future that is here but not yet widespread. At 12,500 euros, you might not jump at the chance to buy yourself a Trabecula Table. But other products, cheaper products, like this will follow soon enough.

Desktop Factory: the latest word in 3-D printing

I like Desktop Engineering magazine because it covers the rapid prototyping and 3-D printing business. Printing in 3-D is every bit as magical as it sounds: you tell the machine what you want to make, and it comes out as a brand new three-dimensional solid object.

It sounds like some kind of Forbidden Planet science fiction, but there are still some significant limitations. For instance, you print using a single material (typically plastic or metal), so there’s no possibility of xeroxing your iPod. And whatever you print can be no larger than the print volume of the machine, which rules out printing yourself a new house. And until recently, the price was prohibitive. At just less than $40,000, ZCorp’s ZPrinter 450 was a relatively cheap new entrant. Nifty, but not the kind of thing to drop your spare change on.

But now along comes the Desktop Factory. They claim to be able to sell you a 3-D printer for $5000. That’s not lunch money, but it’s astonishingly cheap. The quality is predictably low, but it’s amazing the thing works at all at that price point. This is the laser printer of our age. What happens when it becomes easy and cheap to print novel 3-D objects?

Good stuff. I bet.

Construction, models, and pre-fab houses

Modeling is the word for the new millennium. I don’t think people realize how powerful it is to have an accurate computer model of whatever it is you want to build. It frees you to simulate, iterate, and optimize your design in entirely new ways. Back ten or so years, aerospace geeks (that’s me) were excited about the fact that the Boeing 777 was being “built” entirely inside a CAD (computer-aided design) package. People are used to seeing blueprints, schematics, and design plans, but this was something else again. Not only was the aluminum skin being modeled, but also the wiring, the plumbing, the seats, the carpet, all of the thousands and thousands of parts large and small. This let the Boeing engineers make sure that everything would actually fit before it was assembled. The project was a great success, and every plane since then has been assembled in a computer long before any metal gets cut.

pipe-collision.gifA process that works with airplanes ought to work with buildings too, and so it does. The big difference is that the construction industry moves much more slowly than the aerospace industry. There’s less pressure to go high tech. But once contractors get used to working with CAD systems, the payoff will be huge. Here’s an article from Computerworld about this phenomenon: GM builds on 3-D model. The author follows the story of a factory that General Motors built, and it’s very much like the Boeing story above. Instead of printing out thousands of 2-D blueprints, they worked straight from the computer model. The computer tells you when two pipes are colliding. As a result, they were able to eliminate the costly delays that are endemic to the culture of construction.

Because collisions in 2-D projects are unavoidable, tradespeople try to get their work done first, Lemley says. When a collision occurs, everything stops while the drawings are reviewed. “You go through hundreds of drawings, and you call the architect, and they have to come down and bring a mechanical [drawing] down,” he says. That puts everyone else behind and results in expensive change orders. Building to the model eliminated the problem.

The GM project came in 5% under budget and 25% ahead of schedule. That adds up to real money on a $1.5 billion factory.

A process that works on big buildings ought to work on small ones too, and so it does. In the latest issue of Metropolis, I came across this article on bolt-together pre-fab housing: Bursting Out. Pre-fab housing conjures up images of shoddy workmanship, cheap materials, and bad taste. But in the future it will mean customized pre-cut panels delivered in an Ikea-like flat pack and quickly assembled on site. From the article:

The process borrowed heavily from industrial-design mass manufacturing. After hollowing out the solid model and developing a structural diagram based on the ribs, the architects ran commands to unfold the computer model, break up the surfaces into production-size triangles, label each piece and rib, and then organize them onto sheets for the laser cutter. This information was then run through String IT, a program used in furniture design, which “nests” it—calculating an optimum layout of the various shapes on the given dimensions of the plywood sheets to minimize waste—reducing the amount of plywood required by about 20 percent. At the laser cutter this file was run to produce 1,100 nonidentical plywood pieces, each cut, drilled, and etched to determine its location in the house. In January 2005 these arrived flat-packed in North Haven, where a team of 12 students from the architecture program at nearby Newcastle University was prepped for a fast-build process that the architects likened to a barn raising.

This technique is already proving useful in places, like post-Katrina New Orleans, where old-school house construction is too expensive and slow, too medieval to serve the needs of the community.

The first fruits of modeling are in narrow and specialized domains, but the real value comes when you start to integrate the efforts of multiple teams across multiple domains. It takes a long time to get everybody in the game, but the results can be stunning.

Print that plane

People are starting to get used to the fact that unmanned aircraft, or UAVs in military parlance (for unmanned air vehicle), are being used quite a lot these days, particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan. Generally it’s in a nonlethal spying mode, but the occasional UCAV makes an appearance, where C stands for Combat. What’s counterintuitive about these vehicles is that, despite their moniker, they actually require more people for a normal mission than a manned vehicle. Another interesting tidbit is that, while there is no human on board the aircraft, there is in fact a human pilot. He’s just sitting on the ground at Nellis Air Force Base outside Las Vegas, 15,000 miles from the actual plane. Which is just amazing when you think about it.

UAVs have shown great promise, the most important of which is that they can complete a mission and never ever require you to send in a rescue team to recover a downed pilot. But they suffer from some shortcomings. First of all, the generals who buy them were all combat pilots, and they don’t much like turning pilots into videogame players. Also, they currently require too much manpower to operate. But this is beginning to change, and given the capabilities of current hardware and software these days, I’m sure it will change quickly.

One indication of this change is the Polecat project recently unveiled by Lockheed Martin’s secretive Skunk Works. Polecat shows great promise by simultaneously attacking the two great problems of any new airplane: the cost of building it, and the cost of operating it. Operationally the plane will feature advanced software that more or less allows you to tell it where to go without having to pay a fancy-pants pilot to step away from the craps table. Eventually these robot planes will unionize and drive up the operational costs again, but until then, we’ll be able to fly them damn cheap (relatively speaking).

Nicer than this is the fact that this plane was designed and built from scratch in 18 months. If we are to believe this, then aviation is entering a new golden age. Typical manned aircraft these days take a good fraction of a decade to develop. I was trained as an aeronautical engineer, and this one fact more than any other made me get out of the business. Throw the man out of the plane, and everything can happen faster. Beyond not needing seats and cup-holders, Polecat was built quickly because it was literally printed out by special 3-d rapid prototyping machines. In other words, the engineer who designed the wing could, after signing off on it, simply click a button that says “Make this now.” This is where the future is headed. Initially only R&D vehicles will be built like this. Eventually, though, your own customized car will be printed at a massive car printing facility near your home. You’ll be able to pick it up the day after you order it. Assuming the robot driver lets you get in.

Mathematical sculpture

Bathsheba Grossman is a sculptor who sculpts with a computer. She makes mathematical models of 3-D objects that never were, and then prints them in three dimensions using new solid printers. In every age, artists are enabled by technology, and a new age is dawning for sculptors like Grossman. Two things are new here. First, her subjects are sculpted by computer in a virtual studio. Second, although she also makes large commissioned works like thousands of sculptors before her, she also has the capability to “print” lots of small copies of popular pieces, just as a print maker can run off dozens of prints from a wood block. The picture at the left (called a Soliton) is one of her sculptures that I bought. The small models are relatively inexpensive, because she prints them in batches using direct metal printing.

I was showing off my Soliton sculpture at work, and someone pointed me to another artist doing similar work, Helaman Ferguson. Grossman also has some excellent links to both technical resources and other mathematical sculptors on this page.