The craft of 3D processes

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3D processes, such as laser-cutting, 3D printing and modelling, are an integral part of the University community’s experiments with form and materials, and their importance is growing across subject areas. Undergoing rapid advances, these processes have been talked about in the media, integrated in our syllabus, and have stimulated our imaginations in myriad ways.

UAL alumna Sarah Kante talks to CSM Specialist Technician Billy Dickinson about Almost Lost – a recent project for English Heritage – his views on the craft of 3D processes, and his thoughts about their associated myths and realities.

Image from /www.blom-uk.co.uk/2014/01/almost-lost-londons-buildings-loved-and-loathed/

Image from /www.blom-uk.co.uk/2014/01/almost-lost-londons-buildings-loved-and-loathed/

Almost Lost

Digital technology and traditional model-making were combined in a project for English Heritage that shows the Bloomsbury area of Georgian London as it was, and as it is today.

What was the recent project you worked on for English Heritage?

It’s part of a project called Almost Lost. The idea was initially developed by Andrew Byrne, a historian and writer, who is working on a project to build a huge architectural model of London. He wanted to create a tourist experience. Andrew is developing this project over five to ten years and has loads of contacts. One of those contacts is Polly Hudson, who is working with English Heritage on Almost Lost. The project was part of the 100 years celebration of English Heritage (it became official with a law that was passed in 1938). The exhibition of the interactive model of London was recently placed in Waterloo Arch near Hyde Park.

One of the objectives was to explore new ways of presenting exhibitions – making it more interesting for the user, absorbing new technologies and finding new ways of presentation.

My role was to build the physical model through working with Andrew Byrne. He wanted a sample model – in order to look at scale, size, presentation – so we could use it to make decisions for the big London model. Polly convinced us that the model could be combined with augmented reality, so we could present something different. The consequence of that suggestion was to change the direction of the big model. The big model was going to be a very physical thing that you walk around, look at, and that’s it. After meeting with Polly, we had to investigate the augmented reality way of presentation. The augmented reality coding was done by CASA, which is a department of UCL Bartlett, and the user experiences the overlaid augmented information through using a tablet. You float the tablet over the model of 1840 Georgian London, of Bloomsbury Square and that area, and it aged. The augmented reality showed you what is there now, over the top of the real model. 

The fusion of digital technology and traditional model-making helped deliver the project:

A model is a communication tool: it’s got a message to communicate and an audience to engage with. You need to grab that on as many levels as possible, and the augmented reality helps with the engagement and the communication.

There’s a tacit quality, that you can touch, feel, admire the craft of the model, which doesn’t quite exist within digital spaces: it’s so perfect and so clean. When you look at the statue David, it’s weird and spectacular: it’s all out of proportion, it’s got cracks in it, the marble is going in different directions… but it’s how Michelangelo has embraced those flaws, that’s the craft. With digital, it’s perfectly straight, angular, curved in the perfect way. It’s got no soul.

So in the project, we want the craft of the model, but we want to enhance it with the digital technologies that are available.

How does the augmented reality work?

You have the traditional physical model: little houses, chimneys, green parks, etc. and you use images from Google Earth to show what’s there now, and this is mapped at the same scale with the coordinates of the model, so it could be perfectly overlaid. On the model there were markers, it’s basically about texture: the technology read the texture, and needed to see three of these markers at any point so that it could get a reference. Once it recognized where it was, the correct image was overlaid, and the user saw this on the tablet screen. 

CSM Plastics workshop

CSM Plastics workshop

CSM 3D processes

Billy Dickinson is the Plastics workshop Specialist Technician, and as such, we had a chat about the CSM workshops, 3D processes’ media myths and the role of model-making in art and design. The inclusion of digital processes, and 3D printing in particular in our syllabus and day-to-day creative experiments means that as designers and makers, we have new tools and research methods available. Billy links 3D printing to model-making, to the craft and attentiveness one has to give to a project and its execution.

There is a craft behind it, how you draw, how you think about an object, how it’s going to be put together…  It’s the same as working in the wood workshop: you’ve got something that needs to be turned, something that needs to go on the saw. And you combine these objects, glue them, sand them, finish them, paint them, polish them, then you’ve got your model. It’s the same with 3D printing. These types of manufacturing are bringing together these parts, and each part needs to be considered individually and as a whole.

 

CSM Plastics workshop

CSM Plastics workshop

THE DESIGNER MAKER

3D printing is a communication tool, but it is also a craft, something that enables designers to become makers.

As I’ve already said, model-making is a communication tool. As a team, we are here to help the students realise their concepts, their ideas, through three dimensions. Because there’s this quality that you get from a physical object: you can stand around it, you can hold it, you can get the feel of it, you can sometimes get a weight: it communicates in ways that an illustration or a render can’t do.

 

A tool that gives freedom to designers and enables them to realize their projects in 3D should be explored. The future looks even more exciting, according to Billy. Whilst 3D printing is still relatively expensive – and has been used for over twenty years as a prototyping process in product and industrial design – and the equipment requires a lot of maintenance, changes are happening very fast: the prices are going down enabling many more people to access the technology, and maybe, soon everyone will be able to use 3D printing.

I think in the long run, all these 3D processes will enable designers to be more independent. Designers as makers will be able to go into a printing bureau and get their laser cutting or 3D printing parts done… There are already these hack spaces, and this is enabling designers to do even more: they are not relying on being part of a creative practice or studio, where the only way to do things is with huge financial support for the workshops. The workshops are going to set up on their own, and supply hundreds and hundreds of clients.

With the Lix pen (3D printing pen, which would retail at £85) getting a lot of coverage, the future looks a lot like each and everyone of us  will be 3D printing as often as we check our emails now.

Media Myths

Whilst the future looks bright for 3D processes, there are still myths that need to be dispelled:

It’s all hype! There’s a myth, there’s the hype, and there’s the reality. The hype at the moment is phenomenal. Every 3D company in the world is telling everybody else – including the media – that this is the 21c industrial revolution, and it’s happening today. To a certain degree it is, but as a mainstream manufacturing process it is still 10/ 15 years away. The requests I get from students everyday are “I want this printed out of metal” or “I want this printed out of plastic”. There are a couple of machines that can print in a variety of materials, but each machine is a manufacturing process, and each process needs to be adapted in order to get what you want. The myth in the media that you just press a button and it comes out is not reality.

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The craft of 3D printing and 3D processes is in the fact that you do not just push a button and watch the magic happen. It is considered work and there are limitations to take into account, a way of thinking, and visualizing your final piece, and skilled work to undertake to get files ready for printing.

 

CSM Plastics workshop

CSM Plastics workshop

Whilst there is definitely hype and myths about 3D processes, their ability to transform the way designers realise their projects cannot be downplayed. Chatting with Billy made me look at 3D printing from a new perspective. Yes, it is a process, but there is also a real craft to it, as well as a way to conceive projects, which can then be printed digitally. The use of machines to realise a project does not take the craft and understanding of materials and tools out of the process. Art and design practices have always been early adopters of technological changes, and these digital technologies are no different.

Digital technologies can be at their strongest when coupled with ‘traditional’ skills, as is demonstrated by the Almost Lost project. The perfect, flat and clinical feel that digital technology can give to a project is balanced by the raw edges of traditional processes. Combined, they make for projects which can use the best of both worlds. But this is just the infancy of 3D processes: potentially changing the face of what design means as well as how designers think about their projects; digital technologies enhance our craft; reconfigure who designers are nowadays, and how 3D processes break down barriers and can allow for deeper, and sometimes quicker, results. This chat with Billy highlights how digital literacy within arts and design education extends to the digital and material practices of making.

 

Interesting links

Plastics Workshop
Billy Dickinson profile 
Almost Lost 
www.english-heritage.org.uk/content/news/2013/almost-lost-londons-buildings-loved-loathed
Disney Research: Soft 3D printing