In 3D

Last fall, I had the opportunity to take a workshop called Introduction to 3D Modeling. Prior to the class, my experience with 3D Modeling did not exist.  However, I had a tenuous relationship with 3D printing. I had witnessed how it could be used as a tool for sculpture students while visiting a former professor teaching it in the classroom.  My second introduction was in the form of a great pair of earrings that my fiancé bought from a guy who makes them with a 3D printer.  I often refer to these earrings as the contemporary version of the mini cassette earrings — a hot pink pair I owned 20 years ago.

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The author’s earrings made with a 3D printer. Courtesy photo.

These two introductions were enough to piqued my interest. In addition to needing to know something about this technology for my upcoming responsibilities here at PEM, I was just curious enough to overcome my fear of classrooms, and start a workshop at Artisan’s Asylum in Somerville.  Yes, I am a teacher and yes, sitting in a classroom as a student, makes me incredibly uncomfortable — like drive around the block three times and hope for a natural disaster in that extra 10 minutes — uncomfortable.

It’s a very similar experience that I used to have eating in restaurants when I worked in one.  I can only describe it as an overindulged sense of empathy for the teacher or the waiter in whichever version of my neurosis one prefers.  This makes it very difficult for me to enjoy “the other side.”  Regardless, this 3D stuff is something that I really wanted to tackle, so I showed up early with pens, pencils, a new notebook and a promise to myself to ASK QUESTIONS when I got stuck.

For those of you who have never visited Artisan’s Asylum in Somerville, MA, it’s worth a visit.  It’s less like an asylum and more like a place for hands on creative types to seek asylum from the otherwise space-lacking, under-resourced world that most of us artists find ourselves living.   It seems social and vast all at once, productive and relaxed.  I was excited to be there. Excited because the place takes the mind-numbing cubicle structure of the office world and uses it to provide an economical and community-oriented way for artists to have access to workspace and shared equipment, nervous because it’s just that cool.

The workshop, using a program called SolidWorks, began as most do where everyone says who they are and what they want to learn. My turn:

“I’m taking this class because the museum where I work is getting a 3D printer for a new Maker Lounge and I need to understand how this stuff works.”

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A 3D printer from MakerBot Industries. Photo by Nick Ames.

Though most of my classmates were engineering professionals and students who probably have many practical purposes for learning a program like SolidWorks, let’s get real. 3D modeling and printing is just as sexy as it is practical.  It is that ultimate blend of science smarts and artistic endeavor that the hippest of legends are made from.  All of us creative types know that if you are an artist successfully straddling that technological edge, you just can’t go wrong.  Besides being an artist, I’m a community educator, ready to distill the essence of this technology into the perfectly blended, innovative, fun, age appropriate curriculum that can change lives. But how?

In the Solidworks class, I learned how to create all sorts of drawings and assemblies for parts that could be printed. In that, I feel successful. But clinging close to the bottom of a huge learning curve even after six weeks of quality and thoughtful instruction, I found myself stuck and overwhelmed by this question.  How do we laymen community educators find our place between pioneering college level curriculum and hip looking earrings?

During the second to last class, my instructor was talking about the near permanence of perfectly engineered drawings done by hand nearly a century ago.  Meaning, these masterpieces of engineering are still being used to manufacture parts today.  And cue the “Ah Ha” moment.  It’s the how and why part of an object or idea that a person can begin to experience new knowledge, and I had already made it that far.

Though I have not actually printed anything yet, I know that one must begin with CAD, computer aided design, to make the template for the thing they want printed. They then have to use CAM, computer aided manufacturing, to get the computer to tell the printer what to do; and each printer out there has their own CAM software because the technology is in a critical phase of competition, where brands are competing for top billing.

These three basic facts about this technology are perfect jumping off points for all sorts of object based learning to take place. It may be a while before we can ask a computer to replicate a cup of tea, but I am personally excited about the opportunities to create, explore and expand this technology.

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