We have had a 3D printer in the Learning Studio for a few months, and some of us have been experimenting with ways to use it meaningfully, whether it is to make custom parts for exhibits on the floor, or cool materials that bend and spring in interesting ways. For me, though, the whole process lacked a certain crucial degree of appeal. I don't know how to use a 3D cad program, and although I am interested in learning eventually, the learning curve is quite steep and the process very long before I can get something meaningful out of it. On the other hand, simply downloading and printing a ready-made design from an online repository like thingiverse is not very exciting, it seems to me to amount essentially to adding one more tchotchke to the world, and a poor quality one at that.
Recently, Sebastian introduced to us beetleblocks, a project by friend and collaborator Eric Rosenbaum, which basically is Scratch for 3D printing. Essentially you snap together blocks of code that tell the computer what to draw and how to move around a 3-dimensional stage, and you are able to add computation and randomization to the variables you use.
I checked it out and started to play with it. All of a sudden the process of creating a 3D design became incredibly approachable: with just a few blocks of code I could create a 3D design that was interesting, dynamic, and easily tinkerable. I can change a simple number and get an entirely different and unexpected result.
Here's the block of code that I ended up using to make my final design. It's very simple, but the resulting shape is complex and pleasing. I've included a short video that shows the process of turning the code into a 3D design; it's fun to watch the "beetle" move around and drop solids according to your code!
So I finally started printing. In order to support a complex 3D structure with elements that are hanging in mid-air, the printer software comes up with a complex "base" to hold the final piece steady, and starts laying that down first. It is difficult to imagine how the final piece will fit in there, but I trusted the machine. The job would take over 3 hours, so I let it go overnight and headed home.
I was not prepared for what waited for me the next morning! This insanely complicated structure resembling a demented rollercoaster is what the software came up with as necessary to support what I wanted to print. It took quite a while, but I managed to take all the supports off and the final piece looks quite nice!
I am very excited to try more experiments with beetleblocks and to mess about with quality settings and different shapes on the 3D printer. But a thought occurred to me after finally engaging with the process of making a 3D printed shape. I think that in most people's minds the promise of 3D printing is this: if you can design it, you can print it. But that turns out not to be true: there are myriad limitations and caveats and little tricks to actually get the object that you designed out of the printer, so you are just trading one set of constraints and problems for a different one. Something that you design might be actually impossible to print, or really hard with the type of printer you have available, or at the quality that you want, etc. The tool itself is very difficult to fine tune when you run into problem, unlike a laser cutter. If I am trying to cut a piece of cardboard on a laser cutter and the cut doesn't go quite all the way through, I know I have to increase power, for example. But if some of the squares in my bracelet end up not quite closed all the way, or the line slumps in places, I have no idea what I could change in the tool to fix that problem. Maybe that will become more evident and we gain more expertise, but this is my first impression.
More thoughts as I keep playing with it!