Photo Credit: 3D Printed Artwork – Heather McCutcheon
Article by Jane H. Malin, Exec. Dir., MVCA
Everyone is familiar with today’s personal printers, cranking out everything from printed recipes and corporate presentations to photographs and school projects. These units fire a single layer of ink at paper in precise formats to create images and words.
Imagine 3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, as the process of making three dimensional solid objects by building up layer upon layer of material such as plastic or clay rather than ink. A set of programmed instructions direct the printer to lay down precise, successive layers of material, one on top of the other until the object is created. Each layer is essentially a thinly sliced cross-section of the object. Plastics are the common material, but other materials allow for the creation of some amazing products, including foods and biomaterials for regenerative medical uses.
In the world of Fine Arts, 3D printing is not about mass-producing large numbers of works, but rather about enabling the artist to perfect the craft or achieve the vision.
3D printing has been around since the early ‘80s, becoming more common every day as the technology expands into a wider range of applications, including Healthcare, Theater, Fine Arts, and Music. Just 6 years ago, a 3D-printed portrait of President Obama was welcomed into the presidential collection of the Smithsonian Institution.
Traditional pointe shoes worn by ballet dancers offer little support, damaging the dancer’s feet and causing bleeding and blisters. Hadar Neeman found that by scanning dancers’ feet, she could print a perfectly fitted, comfortable shoe made of elastomeric polymer, which is three times stronger than traditional pointe shoes.
In 2015, builders at MONAD Studio printed a beautiful, functional, futuristic violin featured at the 3D Print Design Show in the Javits Convention Center in New York City.
3D Printing in the Classroom
Art teachers are continually looking for ways to challenge their students. Within the last few years, 3D printing has become a coveted tool, especially in classrooms that explore integrated learning through STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics). School districts across New York State are devoting more and more resources to the incorporation of the STEAM curriculum, which engages student learning in an integrated approach, opening opportunities for re-thinking and re-designing classroom instruction. Tracy Young, STEAM Specialist for the Little Falls City School District states, “I have watched my students become better problem solvers as well as independent thinkers. The students are more engaged and work well within a group.”
Heather McCutcheon is the Arts in Education Coordinator at Herkimer Central School District (CSD), New York State Art Teachers Association Co-Chair for Region 3, and Co-Chair for NYS Youth Art Month. She and her students frequently include 3D printed pieces in their submission to the Youth Art Month Reflections Exhibition hosted by MVCA. (Read more about the 2021 Reflections Show coming to MVCA in February!) Heather sees art as an outlet for students to express their thoughts and feelings. “The Arts seem to challenge students and their thought processes. We want our students to be 21st-century learners. Yes, technology is a big part of that, but creativity, collaboration, critical thinking, and communication are also huge. You can find all of these things in my art classroom!”
About five years ago, Herkimer CSD Technical Director, Ryan Orilio, gave McCutcheon her first 3D printer in her classroom “to play with.” She now says that he could only remove it “over her dead body.” It has become an integral teaching tool for her, and she and her students have learned so much over that time. In fact, she and Orilio collaborated to publish a textbook of lesson plans and workshops, Getting Started with 3D Printing in the Classroom: 10 Projects Teachers Can Use Today!, hoping to encourage others to incorporate 3D printing into their lesson work.
Herkimer CSD started with a small MakerBot printer. MakerBot® is a global leader in 3D printers for education classrooms. Used primarily for art and design projects, McCutcheon uses the equipment with resins, clay, and ceramics. In mixed media, she challenges her students to expressly “…incorporate the 3D material into the design; not just print it on top.” When she teaches the concept of symmetry, again she turns to the 3D printer to explore the symmetry of snowflakes with her students. This year, after learning the concepts and how to apply them, she had her students print snowflake ornaments, replicating them numerous times to hand out to the residents at Valley Health Services in Herkimer during the holidays.
The technology also draws on the students’ mathematics and architectural skills. They learn about scaling objects of various sizes, replicating designs with ease. McCutcheon stresses that “…valuable lessons are learned from design mistakes as well as successes. The medium encourages ‘design-test-fail-learn-try again.’ This can be exceedingly difficult and expensive with clay.” They can quickly work out architectural issues – Is it balanced? Will it stand up?
The students made small planters last year, filling them with living plants which they tended during the school year. They also designed and printed monogram stamps which they used all year to stamp each of their own clay pieces.
McCutcheon loves to see the enthusiasm when students hear the 3D printer working. “They will run over to see what is being created, and you can see the creative thought processes at work.”
3D Printing in the Studio
3D printing gives visual artists more freedom to create complex structures that would otherwise be almost impossible to make. It puts the power of creation into the hands of the artists.
Meet Kate Blacklock, a ceramicist from Providence, RI, who uses clay and other materials to make 3D printed pottery with lace-like cutouts done with the accuracy of a 3D printer. Currently teaching design students at the Rhode Island School of Design, Ms. Blacklock’s studio work includes sculptural and functional ceramics, photography, and painting. She has had solo exhibitions around the country, and her works are in many private and public collections.
3D printers are just one of the tools in the artist’s toolbox. The creative genius is set free to build
whatever the imagination envisions. Some 3D printing equipment extrudes continuous coils of clay while others use ceramic powders and binders. Blacklock has created a series of ceramic vessels utilizing this latter technology, inspired by a series of her paintings. She states, “One thing that surprised me was how much the actual pieces looked like the renderings.”
In 2015, Blacklock curated a group exhibition featuring the work of 5 artists who were using 3D printing to realize their creative visions. The “HIfire RESolutions” exhibit was sponsored by 3D Systems of Boston, and the works were displayed at the 2015 Conference of the National Council on Education for
the Ceramic Arts (NCECA). According to Blacklock, “3D ceramic printing is a developing technology, but clearly the wave of the future. There are things that can be produced by printing that could not be fabricated any other way.”
This technology also broadens the ways we interact with art. For instance, the Unseen Art Project is a fascinating undertaking recruiting artists to create 3D images of great artworks so that they can be printed, “seen,” and appreciated by the blind and partially sighted individuals for the very first time.
Is it even art? Does 3D printing make art too easy? These are questions that are much older than 3D printing. Artists have repeatedly employed new and unusual media for their creations. I asked Blacklock how she answers the critic who questions whether 3D printed objects are truly art. Her answer was simple and to the point. “Look, you know it’s printed; don’t get hung up on the process of how it was made. The printer didn’t do it by itself; the printer didn’t have the vision. It’s not cheating. If you think it’s so easy, give it a try.”
3D Printing in Dental Arts
The dental industry has been revolutionized by 3D printing. Printing can be done in dentists’ offices or in labs and clinics, bringing a new level of speed and accuracy to old procedures. Envision sitting in the dentist’s chair while your ceramic replacement crown prints in the next room! That may still be a bit futuristic, but great strides have already been made with this emerging technology.
Comfort in the dental industry is often measured by a perfect fit. However, there are many human-centric points of failure before one reaches a perfect fit. These could include the selection of impression materials, patient movements, impression removal, or even handling damage. Many of these risks can be avoided by obtaining digital scans and producing digitally printed products.
Take, for instance, the work being done at Utica Dental Laboratory® on Genesee Street in Utica, NY. This third-generation,
the family-owned and operated business utilizes cutting-edge technology to offer the latest dental appliances and prostheses on the market today. Mr. James Roback, Jr., Director of Marketing and Sales for Utica Dental, emphasizes that their state-of-the-art labs are focused on consistency and accuracy.
Utica Dental uses 3D printing to produce strong, yet flexible nightguards, mouth guards, and snoring appliances. This new technology capitalizes on the ability of 3D printers to produce precise replicas using aesthetically pleasing clear resins meeting all FDA regulations. Companies such as Invisalign® have carved out niche markets printing clear dental aligners which can often replace metal braces.
Utica Dental recently invested in a 3D metal printer for removable prostheses. The metal printer far surpasses the capabilities of metal casting and is used exclusively for Removable Partial Denture framework. Roback adds, “The accuracy of 3D metal printing is a technological breakthrough that will completely replace metal casting. The practical application of our metal printer is much more significant [than our resin printers]. Simply put, [the technology] affords us an opportunity of precision that simply does not exist with traditional metal casting.”
According to Mr. Roback, the cost is still a large impediment to entering the 3D printing arena for most small and local dentists. Printers require investments of tens – even thousands – of dollars to purchase. Practical applications for labs and clinics are typically limited to printing dental models, not actual dentures. However, the accuracy achieved even in printing models can go a long way to help dentists plan and prepare comfortable dental solutions.
Roback credits the business acumen and vision of Utica Dental’s acting President, Matt Weigand, for constantly pushing their company forward into new fields. “[Matt] is an incredibly hard worker, and his leadership has helped Utica Dental to nearly triple in size over just the last few years.”
So What’s Next?
Gabriel Ritter of the Minneapolis Institute of Art proposes that artists will always use the tools available to them. He points out that people didn’t stop using oils when synthetic paints were introduced. Especially in the world of Fine Arts, it is important to understand that 3D printing will not make other tools extinct.
Because there are so many branches of the Arts, there are many disciplines and applications that 3D printing technology has yet to meet. We can certainly expect to see much more involvement as this medium becomes more popular. The array of options for creative artists in the 3D printing world is practically limitless, and with this technology, artists can create to their heart’s content.