You’ve heard it before—to take the best advantage of 3D printers, engineers need to think differently; to think in ways not associated with CNC machining or injection molding, to design knowing that with 3D printers, you have more freedom with form, fit, and function. As I watch artists develop amazing designs with 3D printers, I wonder whether artistic capability will become a new criteria for design engineers. And just how much artistry will change the parameters of form, fit, and function.
Increasingly, you see amazing, functional, yet artistic designs built on 3D printers. For example, take a look at this simple bike rack. It was developed by artist Francis Bitonti, principal with FAD architecture in response to a competition sponsored by the New York City Department of Transportation, the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, and Google. The goal of the competition was to encourage cycling as a convenient mode of transportation since a study revealed that lack of access to secure bike parking was a deterrent. So Bitonti created a bike rack that uses modular pieces and freeform geometry. It was built using RedEye ARC, a provider of architectural models using 3D printing technology and affiliated with RedEye On Demand.
Bitonti originally planned to mill the rack, but the curvy design would have required 200 parts. 3D printing proved a more cost-effective, as well as precise way to manufacture the parts. With the RedEye ARC FDM technology, only 18 parts were needed. The final plastic rack was reinforced with steel cabling. This design is so interesting, as well as functional, that a potential user noted that thieves were more likely to steal the rack than the bike.
And of course, artist and designer Neri Oxman, PhD, assistant professor of media arts and sciences, MIT, is well known for taking advantage of the design freedom offered by 3D printing. Her works have been on display at several RAPID shows, as well as art galleries around the world.
But Oxman is not simply an artist. She is also an explorer of 3D printing technology. Current projects include using the figure-eight movements of silkworms as a basis for future 3D printing techniques, using robot arms to extrude plastic materials to create three-dimensional objects outside the confines of the typical build box, and using printing methods that use threads or fibers rather than layers—asking the question, can we weave materials?
My colleague, Miles Budimir, recently discussed this issue for Motion Control Tips. He noted that a number of educational institutions “are recognizing this affinity and exploring the relationship between these disciplines. For example, the College of Engineering at Purdue University, is looking for the engineers of the future in arts classrooms. At Princeton, the arts and engineering are being seen as natural allies. And Dartmouth University is developing courses that bring engineering and the arts closer together. So, engineers could benefit by paying attention to what artists are doing with 3D printing technology—the possibilities are endless.