GBX Case Study: Coffee Picking Baskets in Puerto Rico

With the development of our Gigabot X pellet printer came our engineers’ need to trial it in different applications and settings. We settled on Sandra Farms – the coffee farm at the center of our latest story about chocolate cigar molds – as a case study to determine the practicality of using recycled plastic to create real-world, functional objects.

“Good coffee is picked by hand.” Israel Gonzalez is a second-generation coffee farmer who started Sandra Farms in the early 90’s. He explains that coffee pickers around the world are historically underpaid, typically placed at the bottom of the coffee farming ladder.

Sandra Farms is trying to break this mold.

“The main focus here is trying to use Sandra Farms as a model. We want to support an agricultural, agrarian way of life in Puerto Rico.” Domenico Celli came to the farm as part of a graduate school project with a focus on implementing sustainability practices, and several years later finds himself still working with them and more attached to their mission of specialty agriculture. “The people that we have in mind are the farm workers and families and communities here in some of the most rural and remote areas of Puerto Rico that have traditionally been dependent on agriculture as their main source of income, and culturally, their way of life.”

Sandra Farms is trying to set an example for other farms, paying their pickers two to three times the average in Puerto Rico. Says Celli, “That is because above all, we are committed to making this a viable way of life for these people and their families.”

The basket opportunity

In working with Gonzalez and Celli on their chocolate cigar mold concept, a potential case study opportunity for Gigabot X presented itself.

“Most agricultural workers in Puerto Rico traditionally are the forgotten people here, and that’s reinforced through what they use to pick coffee with,” explains Celli, “which is mostly just fertilizer bags, or really uncomfortable, five-gallon buckets that are not at all made for coffee picking.”

“The five-gallon plastic bucket…” Gonzalez shows one off that has been strung with a simple rope handle. “It’s functional, it works, cheap – but not ideal, not ergonomic.”

Our local team in Puerto Rico took the opportunity to investigate 3D printed solutions that could provide a superior substitute for the farm’s pickers, with the ultimate goal of using Gigabot X to print a design using recycled plastic.

The choice of an application in Puerto Rico was no accident. Gigabot X has the ability to print from pelletized plastic as well as recycled plastic regrind; our team saw immense potential for a machine that could create a closed-loop system on an island, using waste as input material to create functional objects that may be expensive to import.

“Unfortunately, our recycling systems here in Puerto Rico are very outdated, not very efficient, and in reality, not much – if anything at all – is recycled,” says Celli. “A much better alternative would be able to actually have a way to repurpose and use that waste, and know that it’s going to some sort of practical application.”

The design process

Our San Juan-based designer Alessandra Montaño began the process with a CAD sketch. “The design process was very interactive,” she recounts.

Over the course of the project, she visited the farm four times, working with Gonzalez in person and talking directly with workers trialing the design in the fields. “I did one prototype, sent it to them, they made some changes like widening the design, changing the height of the basket…”

re:3D Mechanical Engineer Helen Little describes the trial and error process of testing, and the balance of modifying the basket design for the specific application while understanding the unique nature of a pellet printer. “We wanted to focus on quick production and cheaper cost-per-unit, so we chose to use a larger nozzle,” Little explains. “But there are many issues that come with that: a lot of oozing, lower quality prints…So we had to do a lot of optimization of print settings to get a higher-quality print.”

Little decided to experiment with printing in vase mode, which involves extruding in a continuous stream rather than a lot of stopping points where the nozzle has the opportunity to ooze plastic. “For that, we had to actually redesign the part itself so that the perimeter was only one layer thick,” she says.

Together, Little and Montaño incorporated user feedback from Sandra Farms into incremental tweaks to the design and new prototypes. They increased the basket depth to allow for a larger haul to be carried at one time, refined the shape to better hug the wearer’s waist, and added a brim to which a picker could attach shoulder straps.

“The way that a part is designed and printed has a huge effect on how long it takes to print, how much material it is, and at the end of the day, the bottom line for the cost,” explains Little. “I think it’s really important to get these real-world case studies and get that user feedback so that we can assess how viable of a solution this is for them and how much we can help improve over the current solution they’re using, using Gigabot X, 3D printing, and recycled materials.”

By the culmination of the testing process there had been twelve iterations of the basket, with the final design clocking in at around three and a half hours of print time.

Putting it to the test in the field

The crescent moon design on which they settled curves around the front of the waist, with a wide profile so a picker’s hands don’t have to travel far to drop in coffee cherries. It’s manageable enough to strap over one’s shoulders and carry through the field, yet sturdy enough to haul over fifteen pounds of coffee.

“We had wondered whether they could take the beating on the job, at the farm. ‘Can the bottom hold?’” Gonzalez initially pondered. “Yeah, they do,” he smiles. “Very well.”

Explains Celli, “The way that we designed them with re:3D was so that the opening would be wide so that a picker going through the field on uneven terrain is able to quickly pick coffee and kind of dump it into the bucket without it falling.”

He recounts the difficulties that came with the old-school fertilizer sack picking method. “It’s hard to keep it open with one hand, put coffee into it in the other, and then be efficient in a day where you’re trying to optimize how quickly you can get through the fields.” Seasonal coffee pickers, Celli explains, are paid by the pound. A vessel that allows for faster picking and movement through a field – not to mention fewer coffee cherries dropped – equals more money in a picker’s pocket. 

The comfort of having the basket contour to the hip is an obvious added bonus, Celli continues, allowing workers to pick more comfortably and later into the day.

There were more unforeseen positives of the custom basket design which Gonzalez and Celli didn’t fully comprehend before embarking on the project with re:3D.

“The reaction of such joy and excitement from the coffee pickers seeing these baskets that were actually made for them and thoughtfully designed to be comfortable for them was amazing to see,” recounts Celli.

The impact on the pickers’ morale was an unexpected and uplifting side effect of the project for both Celli and Gonzalez. They seemed unaccustomed and touched to be the focus of a project with a specific goal of creating a product to make their job easier and more comfortable.

The joy in the fields was visibly apparent, with pickers jockeying to get a chance with the new baskets: a promising sign for both the basket project and Sandra Farms’ own internal case study of running a sustainable, ethical farm prioritizing workers’ livelihoods.

In the meantime, both Gigabot X research and Sandra Farms’ exploration into sustainability continues. 

This project was made possible thanks to the support of the Puerto Rico Science, Technology & Research Trust and the National Science Foundation, who helped fund our research into Gigabot X.

Designing Chocolate Molds for a Puerto Rican Farm

Nestled in the green mountains of Adjuntas, Puerto Rico – about a two hour, winding drive from San Juan – is a boutique coffee grower by the name of Sandra Farms.

Owner Israel Gonzalez grew up on a coffee farm in Oriente, Cuba, a childhood that greatly influenced his ambition to carry on the tradition. At 15 years of age he moved to New York City. The next several decades in the States were spent completing undergrad and grad school, meeting his future wife and farm namesake, Sandra, and starting a family. Throughout, the dream of a farm remained, a plan that was ultimately put into action in Puerto Rico in the early ‘90s.

The setting is idyllic. “It is beautiful, I know,” Gonzalez muses. “But you know, some people don’t like living out here. They’d rather have Fifth Avenue – which is wonderful, I love Manhattan – but I’d rather be here, of course.”

It was nearly three years ago that re:3D cofounder Samantha Snabes met Gonzalez on a tour of the farm. The topic of 3D printing arose. Perhaps there was an opportunity to print some tools for use in their line of work?

Sandra Farms would later serve as a test kitchen for proof-of-concept work using recycled plastic to create functional tools on the new pellet printer, Gigabot X. There was also a second opportunity that Gonzalez saw for 3D printing on the farm.

In addition to acres of coffee, Sandra Farms boasts a collection of other crops, including citrus, turmeric, and cacao. With their chocolatier Bajari in Mayagüez, they created a line of chocolate products – among them, cigar-shaped chocolates. The path to create the lifelike, cylindrical cigars Gonzalez envisioned, however, proved to be more difficult than anticipated.

“We had searched – both myself and the chocolatier – all over online, everywhere, and we never had found a totally cylindrical mold,” says Gonzalez.

Sandra Farms employee Domenico Celli echoes this challenge. “There wasn’t really any solution that we could easily find out there, especially for a relatively small scale production like we have.” Their method in the interim was imperfect: a mold fashioned from a piece of ½” PVC pipe. Says Celli, “It wasn’t very practical, it was a pain to use, you could only do a few at a time.”

The band-aid solution worked in the beginning when they were only making a few pieces at a time for themselves or gifts. Celli continues, “But now that they’re trying to gradually increase their production they weren’t able to scale the way that they had wanted to with that product, because our chocolatier was not able to pump out what we needed with the molds that we had.”

When Gonzalez and Snabes met, a lightbulb went off for him. “I said, ‘Ah, 3D printing might save the day.’ Bingo.”

In conjunction with re:3D designer Alessandra Montaño, they worked on the design of a cylindrical mold into which molten chocolate could be poured, and then snapped apart to remove the chocolate pieces once hardened. Gigabot was used to 3D print prototypes as they refined the features.

“Designing cigar molds are not that complicated – cigars are just a cylinder shape,” explains Montaño. “So, instead of focusing on that aspect of the design, I was focusing on how to make this practical for them.”

As a small, boutique coffee farm, their needs weren’t dramatic – they were just starting out with this idea and interested in producing batch quantities in the dozens or low hundreds, not thousands.

“They aren’t making a million chocolate cigars,” says Montaño. “I wanted to design something that they could use to scale up, if they wanted to. So, the interesting part of the design is that it’s modular, and you can just keep adding more modules as you go.”

The design is simple to use: new rows of the mold simply snap in place next to the previous sections. This will allow the farm to start small and increase their capabilities as demand grows, keeping any initial investment small as they gauge interest.

“As we continue to expand, we can literally just add more units to that and increase production without having to build a whole new way of doing things,” says Celli. “We are very excited to work on this mold with re:3D, and so far we’ve been able to start increasing our production and getting it out there into the market.”

The out-of-the-ordinary setting for such 21st century technology is not lost on the Sandra Farms team. “I think obviously all over the world, 3D printing is really becoming more mainstream, and people are starting to fully realize the potential on all different types of industries,” says Celli. “Here in Puerto Rico, on a coffee and cacao farm, it’s amazing to see how many different applications that there are in such an unlikely place.”

* Disclaimer: The 3D prints used in this application were for prototyping and testing purposes. Experts recommend proper material use and post-processing when creating 3D prints for use in direct food-contact applications. Please see Formlabs’ Essential Guide to Food Safe 3D Printing for guidance: https://formlabs.com/blog/guide-to-food-safe-3d-printing/

Creating Custom Architectural Features with māk studio

The māk studio building is a rather nondescript structure in an industrial area just east of downtown Houston. It may not look like much from the outside, but the innards are a different story. This, in a way, is what they have the power to do for their clients, transforming a space that otherwise might pass by unnoticed into one that demands attention.

māk studio’s tagline is simple and to the point: “Make design possible.” They design, build, and manufacture beautiful spaces, functional objects, furniture, and surfaces tailored to commercial brands.

The founders, Liz Cordill and José Aguilar, met while practicing architecture in 2013, and have spent nearly three decades between the two of them as practicing architects. They began hitting roadblocks, however, when it came to actually fabricating some of their more complex ideas.

“There was this disconnect between the design industry and the construction industry where the design industry was developing these really cool concepts and the construction industry was not quite keeping up,” explains Aguilar. “We found an opportunity there to really focus on that niche and just offer that as a design and fabrication service.”

māk was their answer to this hurdle.

“We started this business – José and I – because as practicing architects we were finding that some of the things that we were designing, the technology wasn’t there to fabricate it,” says Cordill.

Cordill and Aguilar started with one machine and grew into the 16,000 square foot facility they occupy today. A massive fin wall separates their production floor from the front portion of the office and showroom where the design and prototyping happens. They can take a concept directly from CAD file to physical form using the array of tools at their disposal – from CNC routers to thermoformers – without leaving the building.

Gigabot enters the building

māk studio is a team of architects, industrial designers, interior designers, carpenters, and fabricators; conceiving and creating custom concepts is their specialty. Sometimes, the toughest part of the process can actually be the sale.

The architecture industry used to rely on line drawings to communicate building concepts – a format that Cordill said could be exceptionally difficult to wrap one’s head around. The industry was quick to jump on the 3D train, taking their work into the realm of CAD. But for as photorealistic as these architectural renderings can be, these too are subject to interpretation, says Cordill.

This was something the architecture industry had remedied with hand-built models. “We used to actually build physical models, with cardboard and chipboard and things like that,” recounts Cordill. And while māk wanted a medium that would allow their clients to accurately understand how a particular feature would look and feel in their space, the time sink of laboring over a cardboard model for hours or days didn’t make sense.

The same issues apply to the custom furniture that māk creates today. In order to solve this issue, they turned their sights to 3D printing and ended up getting a Gigabot.

“Having the 3D printer is much more valuable because it’s a faster tool,” says Cordill. “We can set it to work and we don’t have a person sitting there cutting cardboard – and themselves – with an Exacto.”

A custom wall for the re:3D factory

“The Gigabot is really core to how we do things here,” says Aguilar. “From our sales efforts, to our marketing efforts, to actually solving problems for our clients.”

One of Mak’s recent customers was none other than the re:3D Houston factory.

“Designing these walls is a lot of fun.” Polli Bush is Mak’s Project Manager. She walked the re:3D team through the māk design portal user interface, aiding us in the design of several iterations of a logo fin wall.

Once we created three versions, we were able to export STL files of each option and print them in-house on Gigabot. The final decision was put up to a company-wide vote, and with the winner chosen, māk got to fabricating.

The install took no more than an hour: the māk team put together the mounting system of the wall and showed our group how to slide the wooden fins into place. The rippling design took shape before our eyes as each unique slat was added.

Bush explains how the design process has evolved from the pre-3D printer days at Mak, highlighting their ability to rapidly prototype and create accurate scale models of designs. “The technology of 3D printing makes it a lot easier for people to believe in what they’re going to get,” says Bush. “It’s proof of concept in our industry.”

Using 3D printing to solve complex problems

“At the end of the day, we’re problem-solvers for our clients,” says Aguilar.

māk does everything in their power to make their clients visions into reality, using the arsenal of cutting-edge production tools at their disposal. Gigabot fits into this lineup of problem-solving machinery, but Aguilar explains that it can also serve as a check for them.

“We’ve got clients that come up with some really cool stuff, and sometimes it’s very complicated to build,” he says. “If we can’t 3D print something, most likely it’s gonna be really, really hard to actually make it in bigger components. So it actually keeps us in check. If we can 3D print it, that means that we have the logic to actually build it.”

On the other hand, he remarks, if they have major issues with 3D printing scale models, it can serve as an initial sign that perhaps the design needs to be reworked.

Gigabot can also bridge the gap where other production tools may falter. Aguilar tells the story of a custom light fixture they’re working on with a client, where 3D printing is serving a role in producing the final piece. “We’re studying the idea of doing this faceted light that would be really hard to do without printing,” he says. “It would be very, very time-consuming and it would make the project unattainable.”

Camilo Reinales is a Designer and Fabrication Assistant at māk working on the light project. “This custom light opened the idea of ‘maybe we don’t need to use the traditional fabrication methods, maybe we could start exploring additive manufacturing alternatives.’”

They’re experimenting with printing the pyramidal structure of the fixture in PLA and casting in metal. “For the geometry that it has, it would have taken a lot of time and skill for a craftsman to create,” explains Reinales. “But with 3D printing, the cool thing about it is that if you can model and print it, like 75% of the job is done.”

They printed a functional scale model at 75% infill – a 37 hour print – so they could actually hang items from the structure as they go through testing. The final light will be twelve by fight feet.

Bigger, faster

Aguilar muses about his journey from small, desktop printing in architecture school to where they are now at māk . “I always want to print a little bigger, a little faster. This was a really great aspect of Gigabot.”

The technology is now so enmeshed in their process Aguilar can hardly picture a time before 3D printing. “[Gigabot] is kind of core to our DNA how we do things here,” he reiterates. “It’s just part of the process. Every project is somewhat touched by [it] right now.”

Cordill reflects on how 3D printing has enabled them to offer products and services to a wider swath of clients. “You can see some of these sort of fancy designs and people think, ‘Oh, that’s really, really expensive. I can never have that in my space,’” she muses. “But our goal is to really make it more accessible to everyone, so that you’ve got access to creating something unique that’s your own, using these design tools.”

It’s clear that at the core of māk is a desire to continue pushing the boundaries of what is possible in their field – after all, that is how the company came to be in the first place. They accomplish this with a pioneering mentality and a pursuit of new tools and technologies that enable the creation of ideas that would otherwise remain unmakeable.

On the relatively recent addition of 3D printing to their production floor lineup, Aguilar muses, “It really has helped us keep up with where the industry is going, where the technology is going, and how do we invest in this technology in the future?”

Learn more about māk studio: https://www.makstudio.us/

Creating Water from Air: WATRIC Energy Resources

Karlos Miranda was in his first year at University Of Puerto Rico Mayagüez Campus when Hurricane Maria hit.

Bringing with it 150 mile-an-hour winds and several feet of rainfall, the storm devastated Puerto Rico, destroying homes and wiping out power across the island. But it was the destruction of the water system that made the biggest impression on Miranda, spurring him to action.

“I remember the first time I went out looking for water and saw the lines of people waiting for an oasis truck. It was a never-ending line of people desperate to fill their containers with water,” he recounts. “All these people – me included – were lucky to live in a place where water trucks were able to come, because there were others in more isolated areas or places with blocked roads who did not have access to water for a longer time.”

It jolted him that even the people who were seemingly well-equipped for such a natural disaster – homes with solar panels and backup generators – were crippled by the loss of running water. “After Maria, many Puerto Ricans started buying electric generators or moving to renewable energy to decrease the impact of a blackout, but when it comes to water there is not much to do in order to be more resilient.”

The relief effort was also woefully botched: who can forget the image of thousands of water bottle pallets left to expire on a hot runway in Ceiba?

“We saw a need after the hurricane: a need in water transportation, a need of micro-grids, and a gap in home-sustainability products,” Miranda says. “The need for an alternative water source – it was very obvious in that moment.”

 

Finding Solutions to Problems Exposed by Maria

As a student in the mechanical engineering program with a penchant for tinkering, Miranda often attended on-campus workshops for startups. One such event was put on by a local organization, Parallel18, which hosts a five-month program in San Juan that provides grants and mentorship to young companies in an accelerator-like format. Under the Parallel18 umbrella is Pre18, a program for even earlier-stage startups that may still be in the prototype phase.

Miranda pitched his idea and was accepted into Pre18’s second cohort.

That idea is now WATRIC Energy Resources, Miranda’s answer to the lack of off-the-grid systems for use in the event of a natural disaster, or simply to improve one’s carbon footprint. WATRIC’s mission is to develop home solutions, accessible to the average Puerto Rican, to extract potable water from the surroundings so that water security is never a concern.

“[Maria] has been in my mind since, and is what motivated me to start looking for future solutions in water access because…I am aware that this same situation could happen again to Puerto Rico, and any place prone to natural disasters like hurricanes.”

Miranda is working towards this solution through the creation of WALT, a wall-mounted device that condenses naturally-occurring moisture in the air, turning it into liquid water. Using the surrounding air, the technology makes use of the Peltier effect – in conjunction with software to allow the system to adapt in a wide range of environments – to generate one to two gallons of drinkable water a day.

“A technology like WALT could mean relief in a natural disaster that causes a water blackout,” Miranda explains. “We also think about WALT as part of the effort for achieving independence from the grid. We want to bring the same relief that people have when they can generate their own energy at home, but with water, and a future in which total home independence from the grid is a possibility.”

A Growing Startup Community in Puerto Rico

Over the course of about six months, Miranda was able to move rapidly from idea stage to workable prototype thanks to the help of a growing startup community in Puerto Rico, one which has blossomed from the rubble of Maria as local entrepreneurs sprang to action to create solutions to problems left exposed in the wake of the storm.

“Here in the island, this is – I would say – the first time that the startup community is really having growth,” Miranda muses. 

One such entrepreneurial hub fueling this renaissance is Engine-4, which, at 24,000 square feet, is the largest coworking space in Puerto Rico. Housed in an old civil defense base, its mixed-use facilities are home to an array of equipment like soldering tools, oscilloscopes, and 3D printers. Miranda found himself at the space by way of Parallel18, where he met a fellow member – also part of the Engine-4 world – who introduced him.

He was blown away by the facility. “I didn’t know that they had so much resources in there for hardware prototyping and for hardware start-ups,” Miranda recollects. He was more accustomed to seeing young, software-focused companies, both in Puerto Rico and in the news in general. “Hardware start-ups are more difficult and less common in the island…so I was impressed that [Engine-4] had all these resources, 3D printing, everything.”

Both Parallel18 and Engine-4 host Gigabots for their members to use as a prototyping and design resource. Miranda took advantage of the two locations during the creation of WALT, printing full-scale models that dwarved the build volume of his desktop 3D printer at home.

“With these kinds of programs, we not only have the funds, we have an alternative to use resources directly,” he explains. Pre18 provided them with monetary grants, and, equally as beneficial, Engine-4 offered them access to machinery that would have otherwise been prohibitively expensive.

Miranda doesn’t know how WATRIC would have gotten to a final design without 3D printing.

He describes the early design stages, modeling the unit using CAD. “We thought that it was functional in that moment,” he recounts, “but it wasn’t until we had the physical prototype actually printed that we were able to improve it and to see what needed to be changed.” The phenomenon is all too common for product designers. A 3D design that seems watertight on a screen immediately gives up its flaws once its form enters the physical realm.

“Prototyping is our daily activity,” Miranda says. “3D printing is helping us to iterate. When we make our prototype, we see where we need to improve.”

The model they printed at Engine-4 clocked in at around 26 hours, designed specifically to allow them to move seamlessly from 3D printing into injection molding.

While WATRIC Energy Resources finishes the development and scaling of their drinking water product, they have created a smaller, spinoff version to get people a taste of their technology’s capabilities: a smart indoor plant watering system called WALTY. They will be launching a Kickstarter for this product, using funds raised to move forward with their larger mission of potable water-producing systems.

Follow WATRIC’s progress and get notified when their Kickstarter launches, at https://watricer.com/support-us

Pamton 3D: Advice from a Contract 3D Print Business Veteran

“If the house catches fire, screw the diamonds – I gotta bring my steps.”

The stairs leading to the basement of Pamela Szmara’s house are what she’s referring to, and it’s what’s on them that’s so valuable. The treasure trove is visible only once you reach the bottom and look up. Covering the exposed wooden portions of the staircase are pen marks: WiFi networks and passwords, login information to unnamed accounts. It’s a physical password manager.

It may seem like an odd solution, but it fits neatly into the package that is Pam, owner of 3D printing service bureau Pamton 3D.

The basement is home to an ensemble of 3D printers, among them two Gigabot XLT’s, to whom Pam affectionately refers as “the girls.”

“Our Gigabots are named,” she explains. “They’re Gigi One and Gigi Two.” Spelled G-i-g-i, she clarifies, but pronounced GG.

“And when the third one gets here,” she continues, “she’ll be Gigi Three.”

The Start

Pam and her husband Tony got their start in 3D printing roughly two decades ago by way of teeth.

“I’m a Certified Dental Technician,” explains Pam. “And dentistry embraced additive manufacturing.”

The introduction happened early in Pam’s career, working with Great Lakes Orthodontics, which paved the path of additive manufacturing in her life. She learned the ropes on PolyJet printers; dentistry requires ultra-high resolution that is not doable on most filament-fed, or FFF, machines. After working with Great Lakes Orthodontics for nearly 30 years, Pam ended up forging her own path, starting Pamton 3D almost ten years ago. She credits her first non-dental 3D printing job to JollyPets, a name that remains special to her in the company’s history.

As business grew while the Pamton production capacity remained the same, Pam realized something needed to change. “With the PolyJet printers, we were limited in size and materials,” she explains. “That was the big push for us to branch out into other areas of additive manufacturing.”

The Pamton production bunker lies beneath a house on a quiet residential street in Youngstown, Ohio. Pam talks of the struggles of the Rust Belt city, and praises the revitalization that Youngstown-based America Makes, a national accelerator for additive manufacturing, has brought to the landscape.

It was at an America Makes convention that Pam crossed paths with re:3D cofounder Matthew Fiedler. She bought Gigi One on the spot.

The build volume of Gigabot allowed them to better keep up with the demand of their growing contract print business by offering not only options for people looking to do larger prints, but also by doing small production batches for clients. It wasn’t long before they again found themselves pushed to their limits of production capacity, and Gigi Two entered the picture.

“We needed it. The workload…” Pam pauses. “It was amazing. You never turn down an opportunity to be involved in a project. And what was happening is that the deadlines were coming too close. And that’s a great problem to have.”

Having two Gigabots has taken a lot of stress off their plate: they’re able to run multiple projects at one time, break batches between the printers, and offer large-scale capabilities to their clients. “The advantage of the Gigabot has always been size. The companies are able to come to us with these large parts,” she says. Their longest print clocks in at over three weeks.

“The size is the thing that really sells a lot of the clients,” Pam says. “‘Woah, you can print it this large?’ ‘You can print that many pieces?’ Well yes, we can. And once companies hear about this, the work will continue to follow.”

And follow it has. Pam recounts the early days of their jump into large-scale filament printers, musing that life has never been the same since. The trajectory of their workload has been trending upwards ever since. “We had grown to where we needed the second printer,” she says, “and where we’re at right now, we will need a third.”

The Work

“From soup to nuts” is how Pam describes the Pamton 3D business model. “If it fits, we’re gonna print it,” she says.

They have done projects for large manufacturing facilities and for students, steel mills and environmentalists, construction companies and building restoration teams, for entrepreneurs who want to prototype as they bring a physical product to market. Pam recalls a job producing models for an environmental organization working to educate the public about how water should flow away from their homes and into reservoirs in order to better control pollution.

They’ve helped old industries threatened with obsolescence to replicate parts they need that are no longer being manufactured, components with no drawings or STL files. “We’re breaking new ground for them, and that’s the really exciting area of additive,” Pam muses.

The darling of their client list is NASA Glenn, who approached them at a large additive manufacturing show in Cleveland looking to produce batches of prototypes of the new Compass Satellite.

Pam realizes that it might not make sense why one of the foremost scientific research institutions in the nation turned to a basement production facility to fulfill an order that they surely must have the capability to do themselves. Yes, NASA is doing 3D printing, Pam confirms. But – “The volume of parts that they needed,” she pauses, “they never would have been able to keep up with it.” 

The beauty of Pamton 3D is that the task no longer falls on the business owner’s shoulders, whether a budding entrepreneur or a behemoth like NASA.

The Advice

“These are not plug-and-play instruments, they’re not plug-and-play toys,” Pam says, of 3D printers.

“You’re watching these four-year-olds on YouTube with the printer that their parents bought them…and it shows this four-year-old put the filament in and – whiz bang – there’s the part.” Pamton steps in to fill the chasm that lies between the internet persona of 3D printers as magical creation boxes and the reality of technology that takes time and dedication to master.

“With Pamton being a service bureau, we take the stress and the frustration away,” Pam explains. “It’s our job to make sure everything is running smoothly when the business owners are going to sleep at night.”

She means this quite literally.

The analogy of her Gigabots as “her girls” is more than just cutesy anthropomorphizing: the time the printers take up in her life and the attention she gives them is somewhat akin to children. “It’s like having a baby in the house or a new puppy in the house: you have to just get up and check on these things,” she explains. “It’s just a little bit of reassurance when you wake up in the middle of the night and just take a look at it and say, ‘Yep, everything’s running good,’ and you go back to sleep.” For bigger jobs or ultra-time-sensitive projects, she and Tony will take turns babysitting the printers practically around the clock.

They’ve gotten much unsolicited advice on the topic of their basement as company headquarters, and Pam can agree that there are drawbacks. “But,” she says, “there are more pros than cons.” The ability to simply pop downstairs in the wee hours to check on a print – this is their advantage. “At 2 o’clock in the morning when the filament needs to be changed, it’s being changed.”

With this all-hours accessibility, she explains, they can quote clients ultra-competitive turnaround times on projects. There is no way to speed up a print beyond its inherent print time, of course, but their down-time between batches and jobs is slim to none. Says Pam, “We lose no time.”

Of course there are disadvantages to living with your work, she acknowledges. “It’s always there,” she explains. “They take maintenance. It just isn’t something that’s a walk through the park.”

For anyone toying with the idea of bringing a 3D printer home to start a business, she’s quick to jump to advice. “Try it,” she says. “If it doesn’t work out, you can always move it to another facility, but it’s something to consider.” But, she stresses, don’t underestimate the work this will entail. “It is time-consuming, and if you’re not willing to invest the time and the money into this, it will not succeed.”

Pam has more words of wisdom where this came from, and with over twenty years in the additive space – both with PolyJet and FFF printers – she’s a good person to give it.

She gives herself a dose of her own advice every day in the form of helpful reminders stuck to the side of each printer. They range from technical prompting – Clean gear after filament rethread – to attitude checks – Be patient.

“Be patient,” Pam says. “I cannot stress that enough.”

This mantra becomes all the more important when a deadline is rapidly approaching and she has a customer breathing down her neck. When something unexpected goes awry, calm amidst the chaos is what allows her to maintain a cool head as she works her way down the checklist of what could be causing the problem.

As far as other advice for people new to 3D printing, Pam stresses not skimping on quality, both of equipment and of materials. “Filament will make or break you,” she says. She understands it can be tempting to go with the budget option. Don’t, she says. “It will catch up with you in the end.” She found a filament she likes and has stuck with the manufacturer, maintaining a close relationship with John Hosbach of Village Plastics. “John knows his filament,” she says. “It’s unbelievable. Our prints look like spun silk when we get finished with them.” 

Pam has come to understand that 3D printing is never an exact science, and that with so many factors playing into print quality – from filament source to the weather that day – even experienced additive manufacturing veterans can wake up to a spaghetti bowl. Starting with a level playing field in the form of reliable equipment and materials rules out preventable problems that will save valuable sanity in the troubleshooting process. “That’s a great starting point, to have good equipment and good filament,” she stresses.

“But,” she goes on, “patience is by far the most important thing you need to have.”

The Lessons

“Oh, the printers will teach you lessons every day.”

The past twenty years of additive manufacturing have been a journey of learning for Pam. “You have to be teachable,” she says. “Once you realize that, then the sky’s the limit. But if you always feel that you know it all, then you’ll never grow, you’ll never advance.”

It helps, Pam says, that the 3D printing community is so supportive and eager to assist their peers. “With this particular community of individuals that we’ve met, everyone is very helpful,” she muses. “YouTube videos, directions – people are willing to talk and willing to help you, which is a huge asset. And when you have a support team like that, it makes you want to grow.”

The pace of the industry can sometimes be overwhelming, she says: technology changes at such a clip that it’s hard to stay at the forefront of it all. “But yet, at the same time, everyone’s been so helpful,” she says. “Like, ‘Hey, did you hear about this new material on the market?” Or, ‘What’s the temp on your extruder? What’s your speed?’ It’s an incredible community to work with.”

The payoff is reflected in the work they do. A 500+ hour print under their belt. NASA on their client list. Fluency in a wide lineup of materials, from flexible filament, to Nylons, to Teflon. “None of this was ever dreamt of when we bought the first printer,” Pam says.

It’s clear that the journey has held its fair share of ups and downs, but it seems that the right attitude is at the core of it all. “Additive will teach you patience,” she reiterates. “Additive will teach you persistence. Additive will keep you on your toes 24/7.”

She maintains a very even head about it all, and recognizes that things could change at any moment for her. “It’s terrifying and at the same time it’s exhilarating. When things are rolling, life is great.”

When I asked what advice she would give to a new 3D printer owner who was thinking about starting a business like hers, her response was quick.

“Make sure you have a lot of liquor in the facility.”

Learn more about Pamton 3D: https://pamton3d.com/

An Update: 3D Print Blobbing and How to Fix It

Maybe you’ve read our blog from several years back about improving a 3D print’s surface quality by reducing the triangle count of your STL file, or maybe you’ve just experienced some surface blobbing on a print and are looking for an explanation and a fix.

Well, you’ve come to the right place! This update blog will serve as both a complement to our original post, as well as a jumping off point for anyone experiencing issues described here.

Have you ever had the problem of little filament blobs dotting the surface – like in the picture below – ruin an otherwise great print?

Those blobs are due to a buffering issue. There is a speed at which the board feeds the printer information and a number of commands it holds in the queue. It’s like a restaurant putting out orders for people to pick up. There’s speed at which they make the orders, and only so many spots for orders waiting on pickup.

If the printer comes to a bunch of really quick moves, it clears out all the stored commands and has to pause a second to wait for more. That pause lets some plastic ooze out and create one of these blobs. Having fewer triangles equals fewer commands to make the same shape, so the average move is longer. This is one solution to the blobbing problem.

Another fix is to increase the buffer size (room for more pickup orders) or speed. We have been playing with buffer size since it is a setting in the firmware. The buffer speed depends on the capability of the board, so that would require a hardware upgrade to be faster.Lowering the mesh count on a model helps ensure that the printer can achieve its best performance for that print. You are modifying the part to match the capability of the printer. STL files are just a list of triangles that occupy a 3D space – curves are stored as a series of tangent triangular planes. Smaller triangles give a more accurate interpretation of the curve. So long as the facets are smaller than the printer can actually print, the result is a smooth curve. Technically you are degrading the mesh curvature. It’s the same as the transition from analog to digital. Analog is more information, but it overloads the system which makes digital better.

When we wrote the first article on this topic, we changed our firmware to have a large buffer for prints via SD card. Gigabot’s board can only support a certain buffer size, so that buffer space was taken from the USB. We recommend Gigabot users to print via SD because it has a larger buffer size and it also avoids other complications involved with keeping a computer connected to the printer. Recently we have been working on a touchscreen interface for Gigabot, which communicates over USB. We started to see print quality differences in SD card prints versus touchscreen prints in the form of globs on curved surfaces. Changing the buffer size for the USB is one of the changes that will roll out with the new touch screen.
 
Join the conversation on our forum if you want to continue this discussion with us!

High-Voltage Innovation: Creating Tools and Training Models with a Utility Company

Here’s a question: when was the last time you thought about what happens when you flip on a light switch?

We take for granted this everyday miracle without much thought to what goes on behind the scenes to make the lights turn on. Only once the power goes out do people suddenly take notice of this invisible luxury that our daily lives rely on. Lighting our homes, charging our devices, refrigerating our food, powering hospitals and public transportation and the nation’s economy – life as we know it hinges on the seamless, invisible flow of electrons we call electricity.

But, perhaps, everyone once in a while, you have taken note – maybe while driving on the highway past towering transmission lines stretching as far as the eye can see – of the massive system around us that goes mostly unnoticed on a daily basis, and how little you know about how that system functions.

Today’s story may change that for you.

The electrical grid in this country is over a century old. The first commercial central power plant in the US – Pearl Street Station in Manhattan – opened in 1882 and served 82 customers.¹ Today, the US electrical grid is made up of over 7,300 power plants and 160,000 miles of high-voltage power lines, serving over 145 million customers.²

The focus of our story today is one of the largest of the roughly 3,000 utility companies keeping the lights on in the US. (Due to company policy they cannot disclose their name in external-company features and thus will remain nameless in this article).

Making safety a priority with hands-on training

Jim Patchen is a high voltage work methods specialist for said utility company. His job is to develop procedures on how to work safely around high voltage. His office is a veritable mini-museum of utility relics from a bygone era.

As equipment from the field has been retired over the years, he’s rescued treasures from a certain fate as scrap metal. Artifacts like ammeters, voltmeters, control switches, and molten and re-hardened piles of metal from errant tool mishaps start at the floor and line shelves up to the ceiling.

As for his collector’s habit, Patchen explains his motivation behind this essential preservation of history. “It is important to understand the legacy of this industry,” he says. “Early on, work methods and tools were quite primitive, but over time they have evolved. It’s good to know where you came from so that you know where you’re going.”

The job of every utility company is to generate electricity and transport it to customers. This is, of course, a highly simplified explanation, but the general flow is as such: electricity is created at a generator – taking the form of power plants, hydroelectric dams, solar panel arrays, or wind turbines – transported along transmission lines, and distributed to communities for end use.

Along the way are substations – the large, somewhat hectic-looking clusters of wires and electrical equipment you may notice while driving on the highway – which transform the electricity into high voltage for fast transport along transmission lines and into lower voltage for its final use in homes and businesses. Far from the chaos that they can appear to be to the untrained eye, substations are meticulously-organized, well-oiled machines that are crucial components of the electrical grid. And while designed for maximum safety of workers, they are also extremely high-voltage environments, which inherently pose a unique set of dangers to those in the vicinity.

“Working in a substation is difficult,” explains Patchen, “because it’s many, many circuits coming into one small location, so the high voltage environment is really concentrated. We have to work really [safely] around that to prevent injuries and incidents that could affect the grid.”

This particular utility company has over 1,000 substations in its service territory. As a work methods specialist, Patchen’s current role revolves around creating procedures to ensure the safety of workers in addition to the integrity of the grid and the power they’re providing to consumers. “If you make a mistake in a substation, you can impact thousands of customers,” he explains. “If I drop a screwdriver in a substation, I can take out 90,000 customers. So, everything we do is critical.”

Workers at the company go through a roughly three-year apprenticeship of rigorous training on how to work safely in such an environment. “Traditional training involves PowerPoints and lecturing,” explains Patchen. Unfortunately, he continues, the retention rate of knowledge taught in these sorts of settings tends to be abysmal. Their goal is to incorporate more tactile learning to keep students engaged throughout lessons.

There is always hands-on training out in the field for all students in the apprenticeship program, but the company wanted the ability to bring this type of learning into classrooms on a daily basis. They saw the value of using scale models of real-world equipment on which students could practice skills like protective grounding in a safe, unenergized environment. The models give students the opportunity to test their proficiency, and teachers the ability to confirm that their lessons are getting through and sticking. “They’re able to practice and prove their understanding of what they’re being taught,” explains Patchen, “and then you’re able to validate knowledge that way.”

Patchen began by building these training models by hand. He estimates that he created his first substation model in 1999, using components that he found at the hardware store. Cardboard tubes and spark plugs come together to form a miniature substation on which students can practice, with no danger of a deadly misstep.

When Patchen caught wind of the powers of 3D printing, its potential to be applied to his work was immediately apparent. “When 3D printing came into the picture, we thought, ‘Oh man, we could really make these models much more realistic.’” He also saw the opportunity to start reproducing models for other locations at a pace that just wasn’t feasible when he was building each one by hand.

“If I was gonna buy a printer, I wanted one with a big print platform,” Patchen recounts. Their size requirements are varied, he explains. Sometimes their prototyping needs are small-scale, but other times they want the ability to create large objects that would dwarf the average desktop printer. “We wanted…a single purchase that would best fit both those kinds of parameters,” he says.

He did his research and found re:3D. “The Gigabot was amazing because of its large platform and the ability to print small and large, no matter what our needs might be.” Patchen is now in the process of 3D modeling his original substation in CAD and printing out its 21st century cousin.

Patchen explains that the company recently invested in a state-of-the-art training facility, where he sees abundant opportunities to use their Gigabot for educational purposes. “Our goal as a utility is to be a leader in our industry,” he says. “In order for us to do that, we have to lead in safety, innovation, and technology. We believe that 3D printing is gonna help us get there.” 

Tool creation from then to now

One challenge of the work is that, between different eras of design and the wide range of equipment manufacturers, a single type of equipment may have several different designs out in the field.

Because of this, there is not necessarily a one-size-fits-all tool for every job and every company. This can leave utilities to do their own tool creation when needed, to make the job safer and more efficient for workers and keep power flowing to their customers. Oftentimes, workers see areas for improvement, opportunities for a new tool that doesn’t exist that would make their jobs easier.

“When I first hired on, I was a high-voltage substation electrician. I worked in the field for many years,” explains Patchen. “If you had an idea for a tool that you wanted to create, you would have to draw it on a piece of paper or a napkin and bring it down to a local machine shop, and then they would do their best to build it.” That process, Patchen recounts, could take weeks to months – and that was just to get an initial prototype.

Anyone who’s been through the development of a product knows that the back and forth of the process – when not done in-house – can be quite costly in both time and capital. The first iteration comes back – often after a lengthy lead time – and design flaws become apparent. Revisions are made and submitted, and the process is repeated. More waiting, more money.

“Today with 3D printing, you can take your ideas and concepts and prove them out,” Patchen explains. “The average person can change the industry.”

3D printing cuts down on the tool design process in both the time and cost departments. A design can be printed and reworked on repeat until all the kinks are ironed out. “Then,” Patchen explains, “I could go spend the money at the mill or the machine shop, and it’s actually effective spending at that point.”

It goes without saying that this also slashes a massive amount of time from the process. They can internally turn around dozens of 3D printed iterations and settle on a final design in less time than a machine shop could get a first version back to them. “It’s a very cost-efficient way to change the industry using the field employees’ input.”

The challenges of tool development

Nowadays, Patchen’s tool creation process typically involves a manufacturer, so that when a design is finalized it can be mass-produced and made available on the market to any utility company who may also have a need for it.

There are several challenges that Patchen is confronted with when he’s approached with a tool idea from a field employee.

The first is the broad range of equipment designs that they’re making these tools to service. “In these substations, there’s stuff that was built in 1920, there’s stuff that was built last month,” he explains. This means that the same device with the same function can take different forms depending on what era it’s from. “When we have to build something, we want to make it fit all of those,” he says. “We want to be able to make one product, one time, and do it right.”

The second challenge is their partner in tool creation: the manufacturers. Patchen starts the process by approaching a manufacturer with a tool concept, they come back with an initial design, and the utility workers trial it out in the field. This, Patchen explains, can be tricky with manufacturers who aren’t in their line of work. “A lot of times, when the manufacturer’s trying to understand what your needs are, they’re not in the field, they don’t work in your environment,” he says. “They make tools, [but] they don’t understand how you’re using them.”

This can result in tools that are inconvenient or awkward to use and therefore difficult to actually put into practice, defeating the purpose of creating them in the first place.

With 3D printing, Patchen found a solution to this flaw in their design process. “When you get an end-user involved in creating prototypes, you’re really closing the gap on the amount of time and the cost it takes to create useful tools.”

Now, he and his team handle the early stages of the process, modeling CAD files and printing initial prototypes in-house. By the time they approach a manufacturer with a tool concept, they have a 3D printed prototype that’s already been put through the ringer out in the field. This allows them to leapfrog several steps ahead in the production process. “3D printing has enabled us to improve our innovation when it comes to creating new tools or specialized tools across a very diverse line of equipment,” he explains. “We’re able to come up with concepts, print the prototypes, and trial them out in the field, so when we communicate back to our manufacturer, the data is more accurate.”

Rather than discovering a design flaw after something has been expensively injection-molded, Patchen and his team can work out the kinks on their end and ensure the design they send to a manufacturer is accurate from the get-go. All that’s left to do at that point is create the tooling to mass produce it. Says Patchen, “It saves [the manufacturer] money, it saves us money in the long run, and lots and lots of time.”

At the 2019 ICUEE conference in Louisville, Kentucky – the largest utility and construction trade show in North America – four tools Patchen and his team helped design were on display. It’s a big honor at such a lauded industry event, but his focus remains on safety and sharing innovation so that other utilities across the nation can benefit. “I’m not trying to make money,” says Patchen. “I’m just trying to make it better for the employees in the field.”

Sparking industry innovation through new tool creation

Where taking a tool from concept to a purchasable physical product used to be a months- to years-long process, Patchen explains that 3D printing has given them the ability to slash that development time down into the weeks. “That’s huge when it comes to our type of work where we’re in such a high-voltage, dangerous environment.”

Much of the challenge and danger of the job stems from the simple fact that a utility company’s singular focus is keeping the lights on.

When equipment needs maintenance, they do what they can to keep the power flowing. This means that workers are almost always working near energized, high-voltage equipment – hence the necessity of Patchen’s job. And although there is always an inherent level of risk to a job which necessitates working in close proximity to high voltage, Patchen’s aim is to protect workers through the development of new tools, training, and work methods.

“Technology is changing our industry,” says Patchen. “Every six months, there is something new.” The blistering pace of innovation lifts the industry as a whole, but the challenge, Patchen explains, is staying on the forefront of that.

“We don’t want to sit back and just watch that happen. We want to be a leader in that,” he explains. “3D printing gives us the ability to be part of that process – to lead innovation.”

One ubiquitous tool used in the field is a live line stick, commonly known in the business as a hot stick. The lengthy, fiberglass poles allow utility workers to perform a variety of tasks on energized equipment, insulating them from the electricity and keeping them at a distance from machinery in the case of a malfunction or electrical arcing. The end of the stick operates as a mount for a variety of different accessories that serve a wide range of purposes, like pulling fuse and operating switches. 

One hot stick variation that Patchen’s team uses is a switch lubricator. Workers were struggling to open sticky switches, often having to use a stick to forcibly hit at a switch five or six times. They remedied this with a hot stick that dispenses lubricant onto a switch so that it can be opened easily with one knock.

Part of the design is a control unit, mounted on the opposite end of the hot stick, with a button for the user to dispense the lubricant. The unit the manufacturer sent was large and clunky: a worker had to remove a hand from the stick in order to get to the button, sacrificing dexterity.

Patchen designed a new mount with a slim profile – probably a quarter of the size of the original unit – enabling the stick operator to keep both hands on the pole and simply move a thumb to hit the button. “We were able to use our 3D printer to create this new prototype that’s much more ergonomic and gives the end user more control when working in an energized, high-voltage environment.” Printed on their Gigabot and mounted to the pole with velcro straps, the new unit Patchen created is being adopted by the manufacturer as an option on new purchases.

Gigabot has opened a door for Patchen and his team, and the tool requests are streaming in.

There was the gas cap to attach a generator to an extended time fuel tank, out of stock when they desperately needed it during a widespread emergency and power outage. Patchen 3D printed it.

There was the camera mount hot stick used to inspect energized equipment that carried a price tag of nearly $500. Patchen printed it. Their 3D printed version of the mount attaches to other sticks they already have, at a grand total of $1.67 apiece.

The list goes on.

“We were recently approached by several field crews to create a special plastic cover that would protect them in high voltage environments,” Patchen says. There was no product on the market that fit the bill, so he got to work on a design with a manufacturer.

The equipment that needed to be covered took a wide range of forms in the field, complicating the product development process. Patchen gave the manufacturer drawings of the equipment and their product idea. Eight months later they still didn’t have a workable prototype.

Patchen stepped in. “I used my 3D printer, made a prototype, and got the product finished within three weeks. Now it’s actually purchasable on the market.”

But perhaps Patchen’s most impressive project of all is a small, unassuming plastic hook.

He and his team were confronted with a scenario in which they needed to perform maintenance on a 500 kV substation. “In our system, the highest voltage that we have – and one of our most critical circuits – is the 500 kV,” he explains. “To clear that equipment or take it out of service, we’d have to de-energize the whole grid, which can be quite costly – tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

A teammate came to him with an idea to circumvent the clearance with the help of a specially-designed plastic barrier which would allow them to safely perform maintenance without shutting down the system.

The solution came in the form of a rectangular-shaped, high-voltage plastic cover, which would enclose each of the 13.8 kV circuits that connect to the main 500 kV bank. The covers would be mounted from below and secured in place with rubber rope and plastic hooks. The hooks that the manufacturer sent with the covers, however, posed a problem.

Maneuvering from the ground at the end of a 14 foot hot stick, a worker had to insert one end of the hook into the eyelet of the plastic cover in order to fasten it. Workers were finding the hook’s design difficult to navigate into place at such an angle.

Patchen took the feedback from the field employees, reworked the hook’s design, and printed out a new version on their Gigabot. The slight tweaks to the hook’s form were a game-changer. Where workers previously had to fight the old hook into the eyelet at an awkward angle, the new design naturally wants to snap into place.

“This small, plastic hook took about three hours to print, and it cost around five dollars.” Patchen can’t underscore its value enough. “We were able to take that [3D printed] hook and share it with other crews, and we avoided many, many 500 kV clearances because of it. This small, five dollar device saved us hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

He smiles and gestures towards their Gigabot. “That’s paid for the printer quite a few times.”

UAV Innovation Taking off at United States Air Force Academy

Download our whitepaper on 3D printing and drones

Steve Brandt has been flying airplanes for 20 years. F15s and F16s, mostly, with ten years as a test pilot flying new systems for the Air Force.

Given his history, it’s curious to hear him describe the latest tenure of his career. “I always like to say I’ve flown more first flights since I’ve been here in [four] years than I ever flew actually flying airplanes,” he says, “because just about every airplane we build has never been flown before.”

Brandt leads the Unmanned Aircraft Systems Flight Test Research at the United States Air Force Academy. The elite institution – perched idyllically in the mountains ten miles outside Colorado Springs – is home to just over four thousand cadets pursuing degrees ranging from business to engineering. They will also graduate as Second Lieutenants in the Air Force.

The experience cadets go through at the USAFA, Brandt underscores, is unparalleled – even among the ranks of engineering behemoths like MIT or Ohio State. “There’s probably not another undergraduate senior in college that gets this kind of experience,” he says. “The Department of Aeronautics here is definitely the most well-equipped aeronautics lab in the country, especially at the undergraduate level.”

The Academy is home to impressive manufacturing labs, multiple levels of wind tunnels – from lower-speed options all the way up to supersonic (Mach 4.5, or four-and-a-half times the speed of sound, or 3,425.43 miles per hour) – a huge airspace for flying, and a long list of faculty and researchers to mentor cadets through their studies.

Cadets march their way through the Aeronautics Major, which culminates in conducting a capstone project of designing, building, and flying an unmanned aerial vehicle, or UAV, under Brandt’s watch.

The aircraft that the cadets build and fly are not the balsa wood models of your childhood. They boast wingspans ranging from two feet to over five, retractable landing gear, jet and electric fan motors, and autopilot systems. They take off down runways, shoot off bungee cord launchers, and are released off the top of trucks while driving. 

“Everything we do here in the design of the airplanes is not normal,” says Brandt. “It’s abnormal.”

The aeronautics workshop is brimming with bodies of aircraft – spilling out of workshops and lining hallways and filling shelves up to the ceiling – that don’t exist in the real world…yet. “We’re doing cutting edge things. We’re trying to make airplanes do things that haven’t been done before,” Brandt explains. “When everything’s not normal, 3D printing is the solution, in so many ways.”

Designing One-of-a-Kind Aircraft

Lieutenant Colonel Judson Babcock is an assistant professor at the Academy currently teaching the senior capstone aircraft design course. This, he explains, is where students take on a project from a customer like the Air Force Research Lab and have the challenge of creating an entirely new, unique aircraft to meet a specific set of needs.

One such undertaking is a personnel recovery system: an airplane designed to rescue a fallen soldier from enemy territory using a retractable capsule released from the nose of the vehicle midair. Another is a supersonic air refueling tanker: a stealthy, high-speed craft capable of zipping into enemy airspace above the speed of sound, slowing down to refuel fighter jets mid-flight, and buzzing back to safety.

In the past, Babcock explains, UAV construction at the Academy typically happened in the mediums of balsa wood and foam. But with the unusual vehicles they’re making, traditional fabrication techniques are not always ideal. “Indeed, our students are making aircraft that have never flown before,” he says. “They’re unique shapes, unique designs, and unique structures.” All qualities, he explains, that render them “difficult to construct by hand.”

Pushing the envelope as they are, the Academy works to stay staying cutting edge with their facilities and technology. It was several years ago that 3D printing blipped on their radar.

Brandt and his colleagues in the aeronautics and mechanical engineering departments were researching methods that could increase their efficiency and accuracy in the aircraft design process. “Pretty much everything we design has got uniqueness to it,” he explains. “We can’t go buy something off the shelf.”

Brandt was aggressive about bringing 3D printing to the Academy for the technology’s ability to manufacture parts quickly and accurately: the technology could give them the ability to create these unique components in-house for rapid prototyping of aircraft.

“The value added to being able to print the parts over anything else is that there’s detail that can be made without flaw,” he says. “I can build holes exactly where I want the holes to be for a motor mount; I don’t have to machine it out of a piece of aluminum and spend a lot of hours and it be a lot heavier than it needs to be.”

As the Academy set its sights on bigger planes – “things that are two, three feet in breadth, and two, three feet tall,” Brandt recalls – he began looking for a printer with a build plate to match.

“I found the Gigabot, and it was the only big printer that I could find that had the volume that we started to think towards,” he recounts. Brandt saw a large-scale 3D printer as their ticket to print bigger sections of sizable aircraft with ease. Rather than having to break a component into multiple pieces to fit onto a small printer bed and connecting the parts post-printing, they could print entire plane sections in one go.

“When I found [Gigabot], we sat around and said, ‘Should we make this investment?’ One of our machinists said, ‘If we’re going to do it, get the biggest one, because you’re not going to want to print smaller.’”

Incorporating 3D Printing into the Airplane Design Process

The Air Force Academy invested in a Gigabot XLT, and with it, over 14 cubic feet of build volume. The printer purchase has paid off.

“To say that we use our Gigabot all the time is pretty much an understatement,” Brandt laughs. “It runs every day; there are times when it runs non-stop for three weeks.”

They use 3D printing to produce a multitude of parts in a variety of steps throughout the aircraft design process.

The first phase is the wind tunnel. Cadets take the CAD model of their concept craft, print it, and subject it to the rigors of wind tunnel testing to assess its aerodynamics in advance of flight. “We can validate the design in a wind tunnel with a 3D printed model, and then take it to the next scale and validate the fact that what we learned in the wind tunnel is accurate,” explains Brandt.

Once they confirm that the aerodynamics and stability of the aircraft are suitable, they’ll take the same CAD model, scale it up, and construct it with the help of 3D printing. Brandt goes on, “The only way to do that is to be able to develop the same airplane at a larger scale, and that requires a big printer that allows us to print larger parts so the accuracy is there in the design.” The successful scaling-up of a wind tunnel model is really only possible in the age of CAD and 3D printing. A balsa wood or foam model may pass wind tunnel testing only to fail on the runway because its larger, hand-constructed cousin didn’t quite match the geometry of its wind-tunnel brethren. 

Fuselage, tails, motor mounts, landing gear interfaces, control services for wings: all of these unique components are printed and assembled – along with batteries, servo motors, autopilot, and carbon-fiber-wrapped foam – to create a fully-functional aircraft.

“We can take the novel designs that our students create, put them on a 3D printer and assemble them together,” explains Babcock, “and we can have a totally unique design – a new aircraft that the world has never seen before – that hopefully meets the requirements that the customer gave us when we set out on that process.”

The Benefits of 3D Printing in UAV Testing and Design

3D printing is now a staple within the USAFA Aeronautics Department, and with it has come a bevy of benefits.

“We break airplanes a lot,” explains Brandt. These are planes that have never flown before that may take a little practice to get the hang of operating. Babcock echoes the sentiment. “Part of the learning process our students go through is failure,” he says. “Inevitably, when they’re creating an aircraft, something will happen and the aircraft will crash or be damaged in some way.”

Because of this, both Brandt and Babcock stress, the cost of plane production – in the form of both raw materials and labor – is extremely important to the Academy.

“That’s where 3D printing really has an advantage for us,” says Babcock. “Typically it would cost hundreds of dollars to produce scaled models of these aircraft. With 3D printing, we can produce a model on the order of $5 instead of $500. It’s literally 100 times cheaper than other construction methods we have available to us.”

Turnaround time is also of concern. They’ve found that 3D printing allows for quick crash fixes in addition to rapid design iteration in the early development stages.

“It happened this semester with my cadets,” Babcock recounts. “We put their aircraft in the wind tunnel, and it didn’t have the stability that they had predicted before we printed the model. We had to make a design change.” The group went back to the drawing board with their CAD model, made some tweaks, and printed a new prototype for the wind tunnel. The plane was ready for re-testing by the next class and passed with flying colors.

Staying on schedule is crucial not only given the cadets’ looming graduation day, but also for the customers who are ultimately relying on the results of this testing to move forward with a real-world project. Babcock adds, “It’s only because of 3D printing that we’re able to do a rapid turnaround on our design iterations and solve problems fast enough so that we can get to the goal of actually flying a prototype for the customer.”

Once cadets’ planes progress past wind tunnel testing, 3D printing also comes into play as they begin flying outdoors for the first time. The technology allows them to quickly repair crashed crafts and get them swiftly back in the air.

“One of the beauties of having a 3D printer is I can get a part at two in the afternoon, I can slice it, get it on the printer, it can print all night, and by the time the students come back the next day, they have a part in their hand,” says Brandt. “That’s the way the world works today, and that’s what we should be showing them.”

The technology functions as on-demand inventory when they have to mend broken aircraft. Once the CAD file is created, there’s no manual labor, nobody whittling balsa wood into the wee hours. “With 3D printing, we have a repeatable process that is hands-off where we can manufacture the replacement parts we need on an as-needed basis,” Babcock explains. “We don’t need to do a large bulk order of parts in advance; we can print new parts to repair the aircraft as accidents happen.”

A Challenging Atmosphere

“One of the biggest challenges of building airplanes, especially at the scale that we fly them: every single ounce matters.” Brandt explains that cadets have an extra obstacle working against them: they’re flying in a challenging atmosphere – literally.

The Academy sits at 7,200 feet elevation. It’s more difficult to take off and fly an actual airplane in these conditions, let alone a small vehicle that doesn’t have the capacity to carry a large engine. “Developing lift – which is what we need to do – is harder at this altitude,” says Brandt. “It’s a very challenging place to fly, yet we do it pretty successfully over and over.”

“And the speeds?” He smiles. “They’re fast.”

The aircraft they’re building are typically in the range of five to fifteen pounds, cruising at speeds between 30 and 80 knots – roughly 35 to 90 miles per hour. So not only do their designs need to be lightweight, they need to be strong.

3D printing affords them the ability to design and create parts in a way that traditional manufacturing or hand construction often does not, and also to adjust print settings to maximize a component’s efficiency in both volume and weight. “A 3D printed part can meet all of those contours, yet still have the strength that we need to be able to put it on an airplane and have the structure that we need to fly,” says Brandt.

Enabling Innovation with Cutting Edge Technology

3D printing is a relatively recent addition to the arsenal of manufacturing capability at the Academy, yet the headway they’ve made since bringing the technology on board is impressive.

“This capability here has really just been developed over the past four or five years of building airplanes at the volume and scale that we’re doing,” says Brandt. “We used to get three or four – maybe five – airplanes built a semester; maybe two or three of them would fly – maybe.”

Now, he explains, they have the means to significantly increase both the quantity and quality of production. They’ve essentially doubled their numbers – building, by Brandt’s estimates, somewhere between eight and twelve airplanes a semester. “And why can we do that? It’s because we have the design tools and the manufacturing tools to do it.”

It’s a boon not just to the Academy but also their customers – like the AFRL – who rely on their aerospace expertise. “I think the most invigorating thing to me is that we provide – as best as we can – a product to a customer in a very short turnaround time,” says Brandt. “3D printing has enabled us to build airplanes that are what the customer wants. The only way we do it with the level of precision and accuracy that we do it today is because 3D printing has infected it so much.”

Inspiring Future Airmen

At the end of the day, the Air Force Academy is just that: an academy.

Its mission is “to educate, train, and inspire men and women to become leaders of character, motivated to lead the United States Air Force in service to our nation.” And what better way to do this with the next generation of pilots and flight engineers than with the challenge of designing, building, and flying a unique aircraft that solves a real-world need?

“When you design an airplane, it’s built on a computer screen somewhere,” Brandt muses. “We’re going to take that CAD drawing and turn it into a real airplane. It suddenly jumps off the screen, and now they’re holding a real piece. The fact that we can do that quickly with a 3D printer is amazing.” Babcock has also seen how the technology has impacted the learning process for cadets. “It really makes the world come alive for them.”

When the cadets’ planes finally leave the theoretical realm and go wheels up, “the whole learning loop is closed,” explains Brandt. “All of the learning comes together, and they go, ’Wow, I really do understand how an airplane flies, I understand how it works, and I also understand that – even at this small scale – these things are very complex.’”

The majority of the USAFA graduates will go on to become pilots. This experience of designing and flying scaled-down jets, Brandt explains, “gives them a greater appreciation for how those things operate, and the complexities that they inherently have inside of them.”

As for the “inspire” portion of the equation, Babcock has seen enough cadets go through the process to understand that box is being checked.

“You have to realize these cadets have worked for four years in an extremely demanding environment: extremely rigorous academics combined with extremely rigorous military training and athletic requirements,” he explains. “In their last semester here in this capstone design class, everything comes together, and they design and build an aircraft from scratch that has never existed before to meet a unique customer need.”

Toward the end of the semester is when they first send their designs skyward. “When it actually all comes together and works for the first time, you just see it on the students faces,” explains Babock. “It’s an indescribable feeling where all of their four years [have] come together to reward them with this moment where they’ve actually made an aircraft and flown it. And it actually matters because there’s a customer out there that needs this aircraft to meet a certain requirement. It’s really a special feeling for them.”

Brandt recognizes that the Academy has taken a lot of chances as they plumb the boundaries of what can be done with regards to new aircraft development.

He references back to his statement about the unparalleled educational experience that the USAFA provides, even when compared to other top-tier engineering institutions of the country. “Their level of innovation is not the same as what we do here,” he adds. “We take big risks because we want great return, and we’re willing to take those risks to give the cadets the best experience that they’re supposed to get at the Air Force Academy.”

Brandt and Babcock both reflect on the profound effect that 3D printing has had at the Academy, for cadets as well as the customers for whom they’re creating aircraft.

“In terms of performance and reliability and cost,” says Babcock, “3D printing has changed how we operate around here for the better, because it’s beat all of the previous methods hands down in all of those categories.”

Download our whitepaper on 3D printing and drones

3D Printed Play Structures and Architectural Models with Rice University

“It is certainly a beautiful campus in which to construct a temporary play structure. It also meant that I would walk by the installation every day on my way to and from work, allowing me to observe the structure over time and learn more about the novel construction system.”

David Costanza, now teaching at Cornell AAP’s Department of Architecture, was a Technology Fellow at Rice University’s School of Architecture at the time of this visit, where he taught for four years.

In Model Object, a Rice seminar that Costanza co-taught with Assistant Professor Andrew Colopy, students explored issues of digital modeling and fabrication through focuses on additive manufacturing, subtractive manufacturing, and cutting.

Costanza came from MIT where he got his M.Arch and S.MarchS, a postgraduate research degree. He was involved in a number of design and fabrication courses there, including as a teaching assistant for the class “How to Make Almost Anything,” where they were heavily invested in 3D printing. At Rice, one of his undertakings as a technology fellow was to restructure the building technology sequence in the School of Architecture, where he worked to incorporate more contemporary and digital tools for design, representation, and manufacturing.

Thanks to his heavy involvement with 3D printing during his time at MIT, Costanza brought a strong additive manufacturing background with him to Rice. This skillset helped him spearhead the bulking up of Rice’s 3D printer arsenal, where he used each machine as a stepping stone to the next level.

Sizing Up Rice's Printer Arsenal

When Costanza arrived at Rice, the department had one desktop SLA printer. In his first semester teaching Model Object, he and Colopy wrote a grant and were able to buy a series of Ultimakers, or desktop FFF printers. “We then used the work that was produced in that course to write a larger grant, and that allowed us to purchase the Gigabot,” he explains, “to allow the work that we were doing and the research at the smaller scale to scale up with the larger 3D printer.”

Their shift in focus from SLA to FFF was deliberate, Costanza explains.

They considered both SLS and SLA machines, and although the print resolution is high and allows for fine detail, the technology didn’t give them what they were ultimately looking for. “We’re trying to project forward as to how those geometries might be constructed in the real world,” Costanza muses. “The same translation that we have with an architectural scale model also happens at a full-scale on the construction site. So we’re trying to project how building that model might also scale up.”

SLS and SLA technology “works really well at a small-scale,” he explains, “but they don’t really allow for the scaling up of something that might be architectural.” If they were going to be testing complex geometries that would ultimately be building-sized, they wanted to be sure they were doing so using a method that was actually representative of real world construction.

“Because we’re very interested in the full scale here in the Architecture Department, we can really treat [an extruded] model as something that could scale up,” Costanza explains. “The thing that we’re printing on the Ultimaker can scale up to the Gigabot, and the thing on the Gigabot can scale up to a Kuka arm with [an] extruder at the end of a gantry crane.”

In the real world, building construction typically happens through an additive process: concrete is poured, steel is erected, bricks are laid, et cetera. A 3D print created using fused filament fabrication would therefore be a more realistic representation of how that structure would ultimately come to be. “Where the other models – SLS, SLA – would produce objects that were purely representational,” Costanza continues, “by using an [FFF] printer, we could essentially replicate – more or less, at a different scale – something that could happen at an architectural scale.”

The School of Architecture is now home to a Gigabot – as of several years ago – which lives in the department’s dedicated 3D printing room and spends most of its time producing models of buildings.

Now that architects essentially operate in a digital world – conceptualizing and designing buildings on a computer – “that translation from the digital models that we’re producing into a physical object or scale model can be quite complex for some of the geometries,” Costanza explains. “When the Gigabot is used to produce architectural representational scale models, it’s typically to produce geometry that would be otherwise quite difficult to replicate physically, but is quite simple to produce digitally.”

Beyond Architectural Models

Rice’s Gigabot also occasionally gets to spend some time on other real-world endeavors.

One such project was a chair that Costanza produced in collaboration with his Model Object co-teacher, Colopy. Thermoformed from a single piece of rice husk biocomposite, the final piece sports asymmetrical curves that are just as much function as they are form. The back of the chair flexes slightly to the body’s natural contours, the oblique face of the seat is perfectly angled for a natural tuck of one’s feet as it slopes to the floor, and the shape of the chair allows it to nest for packing purposes.

The design of the chair feels natural and obvious – as good design should – but much testing went into settling on its final form.

“As we were manipulating the geometry of the chair, the Gigabot allowed us to produce quick, iterative prototypes of how the chair might look that we could evaluate for its aesthetic qualities, but also even some of its performative qualities,” Costanza recounts.

They could use 3D prints not only to take their vision into the physical realm and allow them to turn the design over in their hands, but also to test its functionality. “To see how the plastic flexes for the back of the chair, let’s say, was something that we could test even out of PLA,” Costanza explains.

Scaled-down iterations of the chair – from palm-sized miniatures to versions big enough for a kid – still adorn one of the workshops in the architecture building. “We built a number of small scale mock-ups, all the way up to a half-scale version of the chair on the Gigabot,” recounts Costanza. “Between each iteration we were able to manipulate the double curvature of the chair, which is what produced the stiffness for the back, or the double curvature of the seat, which allowed for various degrees of comfort.”

End Use 3D Prints in a Real World Structure

Another project of Costanza’s – originally on exhibit at Lawndale Art Center in Houston – now resides on the Rice campus.

“The design of the object is a kind of communal play structure, something that would bring disparate communities together to play, where one interaction by an individual would have repercussions for someone else on the play structure,” explains Costanza. “So it’s sort of a collective bench, or possibly a see-saw made up of a series of hammocks.”

Part furniture piece, part play structure, the design sits roughly 15 feet in diameter, made up of a skeleton of fiberglass pultrusions connected with nodes and wrapped with a webbing of climbing rope. Its asymmetrical upper and lower surfaces prompt loungers to either lay down or sit upright. One design feature in particular lends the structure its name.

“Depending on the number of people that are occupying the structure, it will tip to one side or to the other,” Costanza explains. “So the name of the object is TipTap…It’s really meant to bring people together through coordinated play.”

In this particular piece of work, Gigabot played more than just a prototyping role. TipTap’s structure is made up of linear, off-the-shelf fiberglass pultrusions which were simply cut to length, joined together by a series of “highly intricate, complex nodes.” Enter Gigabot.

“There are 32 nodes. Each node is unique, and they were all printed on the Gigabot,” says Costanza. The nodes operate as a mold for a fiberglass shell structure: first printed, then wrapped with fiberglass tape and an epoxy resin and vacuum bagged, rendering them structurally sound.

The design of TipTap ultimately hinged on Costanza’s ability to use a large-scale 3D printer for the fabrication of the nodes. “I designed the nodes for the TipTap play structure around the scale of the Gigabot,” he explains, “knowing that they would be 3D printed, knowing how long it would take to print those objects, and the kind of scale that I could produce and the quality of those parts.”

He considered the alternatives – machining molds out of foam and fiberglassing the foam, for example – but noted that the other methods available to him would have been more time-consuming and labor-intensive than his 3D printing method.

“So in the end,” he muses, “we probably would have designed a different object if we did not have the Gigabot.”

Sculpting Interdisciplinary Career Paths at Monmouth University’s Art Department

“You’re always going to have the people who are going to say, ‘Oh, what are you gonna do with a fine arts degree?’”

Lauren Haug is a third-year student at Monmouth University pursuing her Bachelor of Fine Arts in Design, and she’s all-too familiar with the reactions that come with being a student interested in following a passion for art into higher education.

“But when it comes to doing this interdisciplinary stuff, you get to open up so many more avenues that you never thought you’d be able to go into.”

It was at Monmouth that she fell under the tutelage of Kimberly Callas, an Assistant Professor teaching drawing, sculpture, and 3D design at the university, and that Haug’s career visions underwent a stark trajectory change.

Callas is an academically-trained figurative sculptor and social practice artist. Her craft is a very old tradition – she sculpts in clay and casts her work in bronze or concrete. And yet she’s been on the forefront of adopting new technology and finding ways to use it to better her workflow and incorporate it into her teachings.

Her students are reaping the benefits of this as much as she is – graduating with a set of highly-sought after and directly-applicable experience: from CAD and 3D printing to creativity and adaptability.

Fostering Innovation through Interdisciplinary Projects

Callas’s curriculum has been largely influenced by her early experiences working at a makerspace.

“There was a student there who was in engineering, and then there was another student who was a nursing student, and I was there as an artist working,” she recounts. “To me it was really fascinating to work between the fields, and so I wanted that opportunity for my students.”

The interdisciplinary experience stuck with her and has impacted her teachings to this day. “It’s one of the things I really like about 3D printing and emerging technologies, that we can all work together in the space and maybe through touching shoulders we come up with better ideas or innovative ideas,” she says. “I feel like it really does foster innovation; in the arts, being exposed to the other fields, but also the other fields being exposed to the arts.”

Through cross-department projects with her students, Callas encourages the weaving of an artist’s touch into other fields, and vice-versa.

“With the Gigabot, we do a couple of different projects,” she explains. “[The students] have to go out and seek someone in another field that needs a 3D print, or may not even know they need a 3D print yet.” She’s had students work on projects with scientists, anthropologists, mathematicians, and chemists.

“Last semester, I had a student who was able to 3D model and 3D print a molecule that only exists when we make it on this campus,” she recounts. “That was really neat because the students were able to hold the molecule in their hand and look at it, and this is something they’ve been researching for a long time.”

Both Callas and Haug have a particular way of describing the tactile nature of 3D printing. For them, touch is inextricably linked to their craft, and so it’s no wonder that the transmutation of a concept from idea to digital to physical is so meaningful to them. But they also talk about it in a way that extends beyond the art world.

Haug worked on a project with a Monmouth professor to print out DNA in its building-block segments. “Her students will be able to break apart the actual double helix strand and…inspect the pieces that build them and see how they work together, how they link up, and how the actual double helix itself is formed, instead of just being able to look at the page in the textbook,” she explains. From a student’s perspective, Haug describes how this could function as a powerful teaching tool. “I know for myself, personally, when I’m able to feel things and actually look at things from all angles, that it helps me remember.”

Another student of Callas’s took on a project in the anthropology department, 3D printing a mandible from a scan. “It was a newly-discovered mandible that showed that there was this new evolutionary line in humanoids,” she explains. The discovery was so new that it was still just being researched in a lab, but Callas’s student was able to get ahold of a 3D scan that the laboratory had taken. “We were able to 3D print it for our students to look at the mandible and be able to really examine and understand – ‘Why is this significant? What’s important about this?’ – by physically looking at it, which is what they would be doing in the field.”

It’s this sort of mentality that permeates Callas’ teachings: how does this school project translate into future real-world work? How does this degree cross over, post-graduation, into a career? It’s a deliberate, thoughtful, applicable style of teaching that one would hope every student gets the opportunity to experience.

Callas took her students on a field trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Media Lab, where students got a firsthand glimpse of what a post-graduation career path might look like. “The students just saw all kinds of possibilities in 3D printing and digital scanning,” she says.

Haug also describes the profound impact this trip had on her. “We got a little backstage tour of [The Met’s] digital imaging labs,” she recounts. “That’s [now] kind of a loose goal for myself to do work with an anthropological aspect to it, ’cause I think that’s really interesting. I really like working with both past and present, and…bringing them together in a way that everyone can be interested in.”

Adaptation in the Art World

Callas explains that what she’s doing in her classes is more than just teaching her students a software and a machine. Yes, her students come away with CAD and 3D printing experience, but what she’s really trying to impress upon them is a can-do spirit of versatility and flexibility.

“I think one of the things that’s really exciting about the students using the printer…is that sort of entrepreneurial mindset,” she says. “That adaptability is gonna be really important in their work life and going forward. And so 3D printing’s been really important for my students to… understand that this changes all the time and you have to change with it. You have to figure things out yourself, you have to Google it and use YouTube, and that self-direction is really important and I see a lot of growth in them through doing that.”

Callas is speaking from experience.

She got her MFA from the New York Academy of Art and her BFA from the Stamps School of Art at the University of Michigan. She’s been working as an artist in an age-old craft for decades, and yet has nimbly evolved as her field has undergone some major, rapid changes in the last several years.

“It’s been interesting to be able to watch something be introduced to my field of sculpture at this stage that changes it radically,” she says. “I liken 3D printing to when Photoshop was introduced to photography and Illustrator to design work, when everything went onto the computer. Well sculpture hadn’t been on the computer. And so what it’s done to sculpture has been unbelievably fast, so we’re all adapting quickly.”

Where Callas had to evolve efficiently and pick up a new tool midway into her career, she works to give her students a leg up by sending them out into the world well-versed in these new digital tools.

“I try to keep it integrated in every class,” Callas says, of 3D printing. “My big focus is being able to work seamlessly between the handmade and the digital. And I think that that is absolutely necessary for going forward in the world today.”

The old traditions and handmade touches will likely always remain in their own ways, but the injection of digital into the creation process is undeniably beneficial and here to stay. The message under Callas’s teachings seem to be: better to embrace this and prepare for it than to fight it. “I want my students to realize that the digital is going to be a big part of what they do in the studio, even though they still have the dirt and the dust and the plaster dust under their fingernails.”

3D Printing in the Artist’s Workflow

This fusion of digital and handmade permeates not only Callas’s teachings but also her personal work, where she uses the two mediums to complement one another.

“I work back and forth between the digital and the handmade the whole time,” she says. “Uploading drawings, and then uploading scans, printing things, sculpting from prints, sculpting from the models, scanning what I’ve sculpted in clay, going back into the computer, printing that…so it’s a real back-and-forth process.”

Callas has a long history of working in sustainability, something that has heavily shaped the work she does today.

“I realized when I was working in sustainability that people were having a hard time responding to just environmental data,” she explains. “But if it were a stream or something that they fished in as a child, then they would really protect that space. And so I wanted to find those more emotional connections in people, like where are our emotional and more intimate connections to nature and where do those exist?”

She began experimenting with incorporating local flora into her work, forming a body of work around what she called the “Ecological Self.”

This ultimately evolved into her Eco-Portraits, a mask series in which she does a portrait of an individual around a symbol or pattern from nature that’s significant to that person. “I’m looking for that connection, where is that intimate link between them and nature,” she explains. “And then I take a pattern from that…and I combine it with a portrait.’

Where Callas used to work solely in the handmade realm, she’s found immense advantages with bringing new technology into her work.

“Before, I would sculpt from a model to get the individual portrait, and then I would sculpt and dig into the clay the different patterns,” she explains. “The way that 3D printing has helped it is now I can take a scan of my model and I can 3D print their head, and then I sculpt from the head. I still work in the clay, but I’ll be working from a 3D print of the model so they don’t have to sit there that long.”

“The other thing that’s been a huge advantage,” she continues, “is often when I want to get an intricate pattern into the clay and then I make the mold and cast it, some of that pattern gets disturbed and broken [and] needs to be repaired. And so with a 3D print, I’m able to digitally scan in my sculpture, get an intricate pattern without much repair work, and I can just 3D print it rather than cast it.”

There are several different aspects to 3D printing that have proven to be of immense help to Callas in her process of creation. “One is that you can change things really quickly, and so if you’re working digitally and you need to shrink something down or enlarge it or change any part of it, it’s much faster than working in clay,” she explains. “And also then you can get copies really quick. If you have to make a mold of a sculpture, it takes you quite a long time, but I can scan a sculpture in a couple of minutes, and then I can 3D print it very quickly compared to what it takes to cast from a mold. So those are some really big advantages.”

What Photoshop is to photography and Illustrator to design, 3D printing is to the physical, Callas explains. And what more valuable function is there in these programs than the undo button? This is a game-changer to which her field never previously had access.

“Oh, there’s no comparison…it’s so much quicker,” she says. “If I make a mistake or if I just don’t like something, I just undo it. But if I don’t like something in clay, I have to rebuild it, and it takes a long time.”

Callas’s current big project is 3D printing a life-size human sculpture with patterns from nature etched into the form – “almost tattooed into the skin” – representing how place shapes us and can very literally become a part of who we are through what we eat and breathe.

She completed an artist residency at an eco-art residency called Joya in Spain last spring – paid for in part by an Urban Coast Institute Faculty Enrichment Grant – collecting symbols and patterns from the wildlife there, which she will add to the 3D printed figure. She’s currently doing test prints for the body, which she estimates will take somewhere between 10-12 prints and 1,300 hours of print time.

While she still loves working in good old-fashioned clay, Callas can’t deny the time and labor savings that comes with adding a 3D printer to her workflow. “I still love working with clay, there’s something to it,” she says. “But I think some of the advantages which I’m looking forward to [include] emailing my file to the foundry rather than shipping huge molds or carrying them…” She laughs, and says of the artist community, “I think we’re going to end up liking that.”

Callas was recently chosen to be the new Artist-in-Residence for the Urban Coast Institute. During this two year appointment, she will be making 3D printed life size figures that combine ocean science with symbols from the ocean.

Inspiring New Career Paths

There’s no denying the impact that Callas’s teachings have upon her students. The interdisciplinary elements in her classes are opening her students’ eyes to interests and career paths that were previously unconsidered.

“I definitely want to pursue something with a sort of museum aspect to it,” says Haug. “I would really like to work with cataloguing and organizing.” She explains that she’s excited about 3D printing’s ability to increase accessibility to information and open doors to research.

“What inspired me to work with the anthropology professor was when they take fossil scans and they upload them to databases, so people all around the world can just print them out and be able to look at them,” she says. A bone segment that may live in a lab a flight away could instead be printed out in the comfort of one’s own facility in less time than it would take to travel there. “That is just remarkable to me,” she muses. “I want to be involved in that.”

Beyond inspiring her students to think outside the box and consider the possibility of applying their art degree outside the world of art, Callas also gives them the final piece of the puzzle: job postings.

“I’m always collecting job descriptions that include 3D printing and 3D scanning and digital modeling,” Callas says. “One of my students could walk right into a medical position with the scanning and the 3D printing [they learn].”

“If you had told me when I was in middle school that I could possibly work in the medical field, I would have told you, ‘What are you talking about? There’s just no way,’” says Haug. “I didn’t even consider the thought that this could be something that would be so interdisciplinary.”

A 3D printed eco-mask by Kimberly will be available at an upcoming auction at Sotherby’s in New York City, October 15th: https://kimberlycallas.com/take-home-a-nude-at-sotherbys-new-york-october-15th/

See more of Kimberly’s 3D printed pieces of work: https://www.artworkarchive.com/profile/kimberly-callas/collection/3d-prints