Saturday 27 October 2012

3D Printed Art

With only a few colours to choose from
many simply opted for white
Last Sunday, I went to 3D Print Show. In case the name doesn’t say it all – this was a show dedicated to 3D printing. Different stands demonstrated myriad applications for 3D design, image capture, post processing and printing. There was a 3D printed fashion show (sadly I missed it), a 3D printed rock band – the guitars not the band members – and a range of items from 3D lampshades, architecture models to more straightforward sculpture.

The show was an educational experience in many respects not least for the various opportunities that it offers for artistic expression (and the incredibly large number of IP and other legal issues that this new technology raises).

3D printing is more or less what it says it is, you print layers of a material to build up a structure, layer upon layer. There appeared to be at least three methods of printing. (1) building up layers of the same plastic which is fed in from spools of coloured plastic ‘wire’ (2) a method using powder and mixing the plastic – after two explanations I still don’t really understand how this works and (3) a more traditional ink jet printer approach – these guys considered themselves to be the true 3D printers.

The Replicator 2.
Not quite Star Trek (but not far off)

The most common printer on display, MakerBot’s Replicator 2, works by building up layers of plastic (i.e. method 1) but it can only work in the specific colours of the original PLA plastic – mixing of the colour pigments doesn’t seem to be possible yet for this sort of printer. This made for interesting trinkets on display and, more significantly, the potential to develop slightly gaudy prototype models for designers working on everything from toys to space stations. Those at the more traditional end of the creative spectrum had even printed copies of old roman statues in a plain colour and then post processed (i.e. painted) the surface. Not quite Rodin but an intriguing start and it certainly has enormous potential to help sculptors to develop ideas in the same way that it is already helping architects and designers to plan buildings and develop toys.

3D printed guitar
Most of the materials on display were made from a plastic called PLA but it was possible to use metals, ceramics and a range of other plastics. The impression that I got from the event was that this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Artistic applications ranged considerably from complicated geometric designs which looked incredible the first time but less so by the hundredth, to fashion design – particularly shoes – and a host of fusion items such as mixed ceramics/PLA vases and an incredible piece which looked like a lump of plastic which had been stretched in a number of directions but when viewed through a reflective cylinder showed a hand creeping out in all directions.

3D printed hand (in reflection)
Rejuvenation by Jonty Hurwitz
3D printing is a huge opportunity for the art world. However, there is also enormous potential for concern. Several of the stands were at pains to show how easy it is to copy a 3D design into a digital file. This can be done with pin point precision via various scanners but also, less accurately/more alarmingly, by scanning in a digital photograph and reconstructing the rest of the 3D image via a computer program. The ability to infringe copyright in designs and sculpture – even ones which have not been originally 3D printed is therefore enormous.

The resolution on the printed items is good but still far from mould quality. For the time being, the technology is not quite detailed enough to be, in my opinion, a viable medium for quality art. However, the potential for using 3D design to develop ideas and explore concepts in three dimensions is extraordinary.

It also opens up huge possibilities for appreciating and reimagining our cultural legacy. Imagine a 3D Starry Starry Night or Matisse’s the Snail, a Picasso line drawing that can move. Some will be extremely tacky but the ability to interact with these artistic works is an educational opportunity that the galleries of the world might like to think about. It is worth remembering that many public galleries’ key works are out of copyright and the ability for third parties to use the works will be difficult.

There were even 3D foetuses
taken from ultrasounds!
I am not aware of any intellectual property cases revolving around 3D print technology whether from the patent side or the copyright/design right infringement side but if anyone out there has heard of a case somewhere around the world please get in touch and/or share the details via the comments section below.

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