Straddling technology and art: 3D à la mode

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Dara Jegede

Written on 05/12/2014 | Posted 3 years 2 months 16 days ago

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3D couture: Noa Raviv's utilised both 3D printing and traditional textile techniques for her collection 3D couture: Noa Raviv's utilised both 3D printing and traditional textile techniques for her collection

The 3D Printshow at the Old Billingsgate in London was an excellent opportunity to witness different sectors converging under the umbrella of 3D printing. Reflecting a recent flurry of enthusiasts entering the sector, the Art Gallery and Fashion House features were compelling examples of 3D printing applied in the creative design space that sits between art and technology. 

Electrical engineer Michaela Janse Van Vuuren and designer Noa Raviv both elaborated upon their experiences with 3D print, along with their respective creations, at the event. Van Vuuren had previously presented wearable pieces including an exquisite corset at the New York edition of the show earlier this year; in London she demonstrated shoes, bracelets and other accessories from her 'Garden of Eden' collection.

For Van Vuuren, 3D printing presents a new experimental platform for creating items impossible via either traditional manufacturing methods or her preferred process: making, painting and assembling parts by hand.

"As an engineer you experiment with things that haven't been done, and you try to be the first people to make something happen and to see how it works," she submits. "With 3D printing, there is more freedom because there aren't really any structures involved and there is no framework. What is also fascinating are the many disciplines you can wrap around it." 

Raviv's Grecian-inspired creations are delightfully artful pieces that explore the concept of space between 3D and 2D realities. According to Raviv, a recent graduate of the Shenkar College of Engineering and Design in Israel, the volume and novelty of the shapes that she is able to achieve were, previously, inconceivable.

Mixing draping techniques with technology required the application of different parts of her skillset, with the 3D print element facilitating novel designs without taking precedence over traditional methods of manipulating fabrics. Her constructions are the result of a collision between design and 3D printing: in essence, 3D couture.

"I'm more familiar with textiles; it's easier to know how the fabric will respond to manipulation and you can be spontaneous and drape in that moment on the body," she explains. "With 3D, you have to plan it all on the computer, but it has the advantage of being able to make changes without actually having to alter the fabric physically, especially where it would be very complicated to do so by hand."

The spirit of collaboration, which is ingrained in Raviv's work, reflects the wider trend within the 3D printing space, from Shapeways's 10,000-strong creator community and online forums to Stratasys loaning out its facilities to designers. Yet the crucial, technical software skills that she requires for her work had to be self-taught, at least in part.

"CAD was not taught as part of my course at university and it was not easy to convince them to allow me to take it as an extra course," Raviv recalls. "People are only now starting to understand the benefits of incorporating such modules into non-manufacturing degree programmes – and it might become part of more courses in the coming years."

Engendering the designer's new mecca

Adoption and creativity will fabricate the environment for younger people to come into the industry. To this end, Dassault Systèmes, provider of design program SolidWorks, has taken steps towards creating a platform to engender more cross-disciplinary collaboration between university students studying STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) all over the world. Using its cloud-based 3D digital resources, students can apply their different faculties to tackle a project. In France the company runs 'Course en Cours' initiative, which encourages ten- to 18-year-olds to conceptualise, draw and build a racing car powered by an electric motor, expanding their range of skills not only in these STEM subject areas but also in design, communications and marketing.

Within its commercial arm, the company's SolidWorks software is just one among an abundance of design software available for both amateurs and professionals. These range from selectively free-to-use tools, like Blender and Autodesk, to Rhino for engineering and architectural applications and 3D print newcomers Adobe. This ever-growing roster seems to be moving the industry forward, opening up new paths through which people can become involved.

While some may shout for design programs to be made more accessible to the user, Nick Allen, founder of 3D Print UK, is of the mind that an easier process would only result from removing important features from the software. "Many companies continue to bring out new packages all the time that claim to make 3D printing more accessible and CAD modelling simpler, but all they're doing is dumbing down something that you can't really get around, and they only end up shooting themselves in the foot," he says. "The high-end packages are complicated because they have a setting for every feature that you could possibly require; simplifying that just eliminates tools, leaving you with a sub-standard model." 

CAD software has been around for decades, he points out, and while developers are continuously attempting to narrow the process, people are mistaken in believing that the advent of 3D printing means that pre-production will become easier.  

Arguably, most current design software does give designers creative flexibility; however, today's designer requires a great deal of skill to make the most of a program's potential. Even software targeted at beginners requires a bit of a learning curve. For designers, in the face of abundant choice and techniques, the challenge is still in choosing the right software and mastering it.

There is no quick fix to this, but one tool proposed by both Shapeways and the Maker's Café in London could save considerable effort and wastage: a '3D Print preview mode'. Similar to what those in the 2D print world would call 'pre-flighting', this would suggest to the designer when the model is not printable and propose alternatives. It's easy to see why such a function would be welcome in light of the steep costs generated by material consumption and, of course, labour hours when a printed piece isn't usable.

Design is the crucial element for all creative processes and 3D printing is no exception. As demand for entry-level design software packages grows, developers will need to tread a fine line between providing functionality and giving users something that they can make use of, no matter what level of expertise they possess or what application they want to create. Getting it right for artists, fashion designers and other consumer-facing work, however, would be an excellent first step in ensuring continued interest in the sector from younger creatives.

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