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I’m an enthusiastic user of the technological tools sold here on the ComputerSculpture site, as well as of some we don’t sell, while of course there are some I can only dream about. This space will be dedicated to explorations of what’s out there, what we’ve done with it, and what others have done as well. I’m not ruling anything out at this point, so watch this spot for philosophical ramblings, site reviews, projects we’ve done, kudos and complaints, breaking news, and ancient history.

Andrew Werby

The Inside 3D Printing Show December 13–15, 2016

Frontier Tech Forum, San Diego, California
December 13–15, 2016

Brain made from resin

This is your brain on 3D printing.

Since being taken over by Rising Media from founders Meckler Media, this show has morphed from a focus entirely on 3D printing to embrace virtual and augmented reality, robotics, and other technical fields, but 3D printing-related booths still predominated. There were representatives from some—but by no means all—of the major players in the field, but the most interesting were the new machines from small companies, and some of the peripheral products being introduced, such as new materials and software products that expand the range of possibilities for those involved in this sort of thing.

I was especially impressed by the proliferation of relatively low-cost resin-based printers, which, since Formlabs introduced the Form1 a few years back, have offered better resolution and detail than the hot-plastic extrusion machines which have dominated the consumer market. Formlabs was there with their newest offering, the Form2, which features a wiper mechanism to refresh the silicone rubber tank liner and combat sticking, but two other machines based on LED and LCD light (like the screens of an iPad) offered quicker build times and much longer tank life, due to the replacement of the fragile clear rubber with a more durable teflon sheet. Two new entries were particularly impressive: the Slash printer from Uniz and the Liquid Crystal line of printers from Photocentric 3D. The Slash, which retails for about $2000, boasts a build volume of 192 × 122 × 200mm, an active cooling system, which is supposed to help it build more quickly, and three different resins, described as “ABS-like”, “silicone-like”, and “wax-like”. Based on an array of blue LEDs, masked by a high-resolution LCD screen, with a printing speed of 1000cc per hour (or 200mm/hour for hollow and thin-walled structures) it claims to be the “World’s Fastest Desktop Printer.”

Photocentric 3D: Athena in Resin

Photocentric 3D: Athena in Resin and other samples

Photocentric3D has three models to choose from, which use “daylight” (white light) rather than blue: the LC 10, with a build volume of 200 × 100 × 200mm and a minimum z-axis layer height of 50 microns (.002″) for $1083 suggested retail price; the LC Hi Res, with a slightly larger build volume of 200 × 150 × 200mm and a minimum layer height of 25 microns, priced at $2195 suggested retail price, and the much larger LC Pro, with a build volume of 450 × 280 × 300mm, a minimum layer height of 25 microns and a suggested retail price of $5599. This company started out as a manufacturer of chemicals, so they also have proprietary “firm”, “hard”, “flexible”, and lost-wax “castable” resins available for their machines. These resins are all water-washable, which seems like a significant improvement over having to use solvents like isopropanol to rinse out the tanks and clean the parts of excess resin.

There were also some new fused-filament printers worthy of note at this show. I liked the approach taken by the Workbench from 3D Platform, which mounted a gantry that resembled a CNC router on an actual workbench with drawers. It seemed more like a router in its construction as well, with anti-backlash ball screws throughout instead of the less precise rubber belt drives that predominate in consumer-grade machines. This printer’s build area is quite large: 1 meter square in X and Y and half a meter high, making furniture-scale projects possible, as well as being able to make a lot of small parts at once. It has a heated platform (they say an enclosure is in the works) and offers layer heights down to 70 microns (.0027″). It supports 3mm filament for faster builds, and has dual .6mm nozzles standard, with the option of other sizes from .4mm to 1.2mm. It sells for about $30,000 in its standard configuration, which takes it well out of the consumer range, but puts it in the lower price bracket for industrial printers.

Airwolf was there with the new Axiom20, with a build volume of 12.5″ × 12″ × 20″, an enclosed, heated chamber, dual printheads, and the ability to print in a wide range of filamented materials. This printer retails for about $10,000. The MarkForged printers were also there, represented by one of their resellers. These boast the strongest parts being built with extruded plastic, since they use filament that not only has carbon fibers dispersed in it, but they also have a continuous thread of carbon fiber in the middle of it, which imparts considerable tensile strength in the X-Y direction (although strength in the Z direction is much lower). And Arfona was showing off their R.Pod desktop printer, specialized for dental use. In the dual-extruder configuration ($2499) it is capable of printing parts with soluble support, using PVA which dissolves in water, or HIPS, which dissolves in limonene.

For those on a restricted budget, there were also a couple of small plastic-extrusion machines that were producing parts with barely-visible lamination marks. Asian manufacturers are starting to dominate the low end of the market, replacing some of the home-made looking machines of the early days with sleek little boxes that seem to do a great job on small parts.

Of course, there was more at this show than machines. Some of the most interesting booths were devoted to promoting applications or extensions of the technology. There were people showing off progress in things like bio-medical printing, an application for tracking fruits and vegetables as they are hand-picked in the fields, and processes that take advantage of 3D printing to do things that are difficult or impossible without it. A company called Collider, for instance, showed how to make parts in materials that are impossible to print and difficult to pull out of molds, using a process that involves printing a mold in a soluble material, pouring it full of urethane plastic, and then dissolving the mold. They plan to offer this as a service, for what seemed like a quite reasonable price. Hungary-based Leonar3do, known for its innovative stereoscopic 3D modeling system, was showing off a modeling application for the HDC Vive VR platform; this allows people to interact with their models within a virtual space, viewing it in 3D stereo vision and manipulating and changing it with simple but powerful tools, but apparently they don’t plan to offer this product to consumers; it was more to show off the possibilities of VR and their capabilities to the commercial customers they’re now focusing on.

The Nature Game: Shelf of Items

The Nature Game: Shelf of Items

I came down there to participate in something called “The Nature Game.” Billed as a sort of Turing test for 3D printed objects, the idea was to see if people would be able to tell the difference between manufactured objects and the unaltered products of Nature. I volunteered a couple of my sculptures for this, not because I hoped to fool anyone (they look like sculptures) but in hopes of expanding the dialogue about what exactly constitutes a natural object. Turlif Vilbrandt, who came up with this idea, is also the developer of a new file format and geometric API, called Symvol which enables designers to create complex structures without having to deal with the huge file sizes this would require if the standard STL format were used. They’ve so far released a version that plugs into Rhino and a stand-alone version called MeshUp; you can get it at uformia.

Andrew Werby

Out of Hand—Materializing the Post-Digital

Museum of Art and Design, New York City
October 16, 2013 – June 1, 2014

This is a fascinating show, and an important one. For the first time (that I know of) a major museum has embraced the concept of digitally-mediated sculpture and design, which has captured the imagination of many workers in these fields during the past decade or so, and given it the attention it deserves. Ranging from recreations of classic sculpture to algorithmically derived furniture, it highlights developments in the field that have largely been ignored by the art establishment so far. Although this is an institution that has been dedicated to hand work and artisanship, it has embraced approaches that often seem at odds with these values, giving them a chance to challenge the prevailing orthodoxies on the role of artists and their methods of making things, but leaving open the questions they raise.

The most interesting thing that this exhibition explores is the extreme variability in how different people have reacted to the opportunities afforded by advances in technology like 3D printing, CNC carving, 3D scanning, and Computer Aided Design. Where one might expect a certain sameness, given any particular technique’s path of least resistance, there turns out to be a wild profusion of outcomes, depending on the sensibilities of those accessing these methodologies.

Chris Bathgate, for example, has derived a unique aesthetic from the way different metals can be combined in the hands of a skilled machinist. Looking like abstractions of mysterious machines, his austerely beautiful constructions explore the artistic possibilities unleashed by CNC machining of metals as normally employed in the manufacture of mechanical devices. Using basic techniques like lathe-turning, drilling, tapping, boring, facing, pocketing, grooving and slotting along with innovations of his own, he has built up a vocabulary of forms that while uniquely his own, has an internal logic that seems somehow inevitable.

Chris Bathgate

Chris Bathgate

At the other end of the aesthetic spectrum, some artists revel in computer-aided design’s new dictum, that “complexity is free.” While this is not true in all cases, it certainly comes at a reduced cost in time and effort, compared to producing it by hand. Two artists in this show take it to extremes, building multi-layered structures from 2D cut-outs that dazzle the eye, seeming like hallucinations, or visions of the architecture of other worlds. While the means they use to produce their work are similar, the artistic intent and emotional effect couldn’t be more different.

Belgian sculptor Michael Delvoye’s “Twisted Dump Truck,” for instance, looks like a nightmare Gothic eight-wheeled confessional ready to hurtle sinners off to Hell, souls beating frantically against their ornate nickel-plated steel cages. Constructed by assembling multiple intricate laser-cut panels, it hovers between the graphic and the sculptural, the traditional and the mechanical, the functional and the fantastical.

Michael Delvoye: “Twisted Dump Truck”

Michael Delvoye: “Twisted Dump Truck”

On the other hand, Michael Hansmeyer’s “Subdivided Column,” while also constructed from laser-cut 2D panels, was generated procedurally, using algorithms that mimic the morphogenic processes of nature. By applying simple mathematical rules repeatedly in an iterative process, the basic structure and fine details were simultaneously refined and elaborated. Then this architectural-scale columnar structure was cut out layer by layer in cardboard and assembled over a wooden armature, much like a 3D printing process but laminated manually. The total effect is balanced between light, airy filigree and architectural solidity, with a satisfying blend of the geometric and the organic that is interesting and different. I’d love to see a whole room or building produced this way.

Michael Hansmeyer: “Subdivided Column”

Michael Hansmeyer: “Subdivided Column”

Barry X Ball

Barry X Ball

As well as using technology to bring artistic impulses into reality or to explore new ways of generating forms, some use it to re-envision the art of the past. Barry X Ball, for instance, thinks of himself as completing artistic projects that their original authors had neither the means nor the time to finish themselves to the level that’s now possible. One of the most famous icons of Modernism, for example, is Umberto Boccioni’s “Unique Forms of Continuity in Space,” a striding figure built up of shapes representing the vortices of air through which it moves. While this bronze is justly celebrated as breaking new ground in sculpture and helping to establish Futurism as an artistic movement, its surfaces, according to Ball, are not as perfect as its author intended. So, using 3D modeling techniques borrowed from the automotive industry, he set about to take them to the next level. The result, while still recognizable as the same piece (flipped left to right), does have a somewhat different quality, although I’m not sure I actually like it better. One can’t help speculating on what Boccioni would think of it.

Steve Jones: “Bust of Lady Belhaven”

Steve Jones: “Bust of Lady Belhaven”

Another approach is taken by Steve Jones in his reworking of Samuel Joseph’s 1827 white marble “Bust of Lady Belhaven.” Rather than trying to improve the original, he adds concrete representations of what’s (literally) going through her head. The weightlessness of the plastic used in the 3D printing process works well in this case, since these objects—symbolic of her interests in design, millinery, fabric, family, music, etc.—seem to float in the air around her. The result is a pastiche of the old and new, which is less jarring than one might expect, as the added forms harmonize with the original while the white resins used recall the white marble that symbolized ideal purity for Neo-Classicists like Joseph. One can envision a whole movement devoted to adding artistic commentary like this to the sculpture of the past, much like electronic sampling quotes earlier performers, embedding them in newer music.

Nervous System: “Hyphae Lamps”

Nervous System: “Hyphae Lamps”

The advent of 3D printing has empowered artists and designers in various ways, mostly by freeing them from the necessity of forming materials themselves, which requires tools, studio space and quite a bit of technical knowledge. One can say that this is a bad thing, since it opens these already crowded fields to more competition from the less skilled, but this has inarguably led to many new ideas being realized that never would have otherwise seen the light of day. Service bureaus like Shapeways, one of the main sponsors of this show, have been in the forefront of bringing this ability into the hands of those without 3D printers of their own, and some of the participants in this show seem to have been selected from the roster of their customers. One of these, a design firm called Nervous System, uses Selective Laser Sintering in nylon to produce a series of “Hyphae Lamps,” the product of an algorithmic design process that mimics the formation of leaf veins in plants along lines determined by the flow of growth hormones. They have used this process to develop forms that resemble fungi, corals, diatoms and fingerprints as well as leaves. The results are quite organic-looking, and with the addition of LEDs, function very well as lamps.

While most people use the 3D printing process to produce objects directly, this has its limitations. The size of parts is restricted by the build envelope of the machine being used, and the materials are also just a small fraction of those available. Furniture designer Joris Laarman, realizing that, decided to take an opposite approach. Instead of printing a chair as a positive form, he decided to print multiple negative pieces which would bolt together to form the 79-piece mold for his “Bone Armchair.” Into this he could pour a marble-filled resin that’s much stronger than those typically available as 3D printing feedstocks, and cast the chair as a single piece. While this required a lot of hand-finishing, the stunning result speaks for itself.

Joris Laarman: “Bone Armchair”

Joris Laarman: “Bone Armchair”

Iris von Herpen and Neri Oxman: “Cape and Skirt”

Iris von Herpen and Neri Oxman: “Cape and Skirt”

As well as the design world, the world of fashion has been excited by the 3D printing revolution, although the rigidity of most printing materials available has been something of a stumbling block. Numerous “firsts” have been announced, such as the “first 3D printed bikini” or dress, or shoe. But most of the garments resemble chain mail more than fabric, and the shoes tend to be cage-like rather than comfortable-looking. Nevertheless, due to multi-material printing in soft as well as hard plastics, a new generation of 3D printed garments seem more wearable than previous attempts. A “Cape and Skirt” by Iris von Herpen and Neri Oxman is a case in point (or points, since this is an assembly of conical elements). Conceived of as “human augmentations inspired by nature” this a boldly sculptural garment, which transforms the wearer into something resembling one of Jorge Luis Borges’ “Imaginary Beings.”

Of course, imaginary beings have always been prominent in sculpture, and no modern sculptor is better at evoking them than Elona van Gent. She describes her creations straight-forwardly as “monsters,” but they are more fascinating than horrible. Realized in a 3D printing technique known as LOM (Laminated Object Manufacturing) which involves laser-cutting and pasting sheets of paper together to build up forms, the slightly burned edges of the paper adding interest to the surfaces. The material used gives it a quality that resembles polished wood rather than the usual plastics we expect from 3D printing, giving it a nineteenth-century “steampunk” aura. The piece in this show: “WheelsClawsTeeth” seems like a monster in the process of self-assembly, each semi-animate part groping for each other until it can drag itself off and grow huge in the dark.

Elona van Gent: “Monsters”

Elona van Gent: “Monsters”

As the imagination champions, however, one would have to acknowledge Luca Maasen and Unfold, producers of the “Brain Wave Sofa.” Rather than creating a design by manipulating images on a computer, or even by programming the computer to generate forms by itself, this one was made by directly recording the varying frequency of the artist’s brainwaves with an EEG (electroencephalography) machine as he slowly opened and closed his eyes over a period of three seconds. This variable determined the depth, while the height was the varying strength of alpha-wave activity as his eyes received visual stimulation and the length was the duration in time. The 3D output of this device was sent to a CNC milling machine, which cut it out of soft foam. This was then covered with felt and secured with buttons, as in a normal upholstery process. Perhaps this points to the future of design, when it will no longer be necessary to do anything but conceive of something, whereupon a myriad of perceptive and dexterous machines will take it from there.

Luca Maasen and Unfold: “Brain Wave Sofa”

Luca Maasen and Unfold: “Brain Wave Sofa”

There were, of course, many other interesting artists and designers in this show, more than I can deal with in this short article. These were some of the highlights, in my opinion, but others would certainly make different choices. If you can’t make it to the show, or if it’s over by the time you hear about it, here’s what’s posted about it on the museum’s website, including pictures, an audio tour, printed information and some videos of artist interviews.

The museum has produced an excellent catalog for the exhibition (also available on Amazon), which I highly recommend.

Andrew Werby

“Claybodies: Reinterpreting the Figure”

“Claybodies: Reinterpreting the Figure” at the Hunterdon Art Museum, Clinton, New Jersey Feb 27-June 12, 2011

This excellent show, co-curated by Ingrid Renard and Hildreth York, is presented with a statement by the curators which I found somewhat provocative, if not altogether accurate. They said, in part:

“Clay…demands a direct involvement of the shaper’s hands, unlike other modes of sculpture where tools, whether simple or complex, must mediate between the artist and the work. Perhaps in an era defined by technology it is deeply satisfying to be so connected to a material which is so essentially earth.”

While it is certainly possible to work with clay and use a minimum of tooling, I don’t know of anything about clay that makes it immune to technology, any more than other materials. One can cast or press clay into molds just like metal, and these molds, or the masters for them, can be made by computerized carving or additive techniques. It’s even possible to build 3D prints in ceramic by consolidating clay powder with a binder applied via ink-jet technology—untouched by human hands (video). In fact, the Shapeways, site which makes these technologies available for the general public, recently added a ceramic material to the options it offers. When one invests a work of art with romantic expectations about the primitiveness of the process involved in making it, does the satisfaction disappear when one finds out that it was actually produced using highly technological means?

Two works by Paola Borgatta

Leaving that question aside, this show presents a range of approaches to figurative sculpture, and clay is utilized in various ways from the most basic—modeling it directly with the fingers—to the relatively remote process of making a highly-detailed clay model, taking a synthetic rubber mold from that, and casting an edition of sculpture in high-strength gypsum cement. The work of Paola Borgatta is an example of this first method; her deceptively simple arrangements of female figures engaged in domestic tasks or arranged in tableaux were achieved with a minimum of technical contrivance but a high level of skill. Deliberately eschewing the seductions of color and shine, these small-scale works in brown stoneware have a quiet timeless air about them that validates the curator’s intention to seek out the primary products of hands and clay. But most of the rest of the artists in this show deviate from this ideal to some extent. Personally, I don’t have a problem with that—any technical means artists choose to utilize which helps them achieve their vision is fine with me. Of course, if one avails oneself of the benefits of high technology, then higher expectations are aroused, just as one expects more speed from a Nascar event than from a footrace. In this show, however, none of the artists seem to be engaged with any technology that’s particularly advanced, and most could comfortably have done their work with the methods available a century ago—but that’s not to say that their aesthetic sensibilities would have aligned with those of that period.

Works by Judy Moonelis, Tom Bartel, and Kukuli Velarde

If any theme characterizes the wide variety of work on display here, it is metamorphosis—the classical ideal of the human body has generally been discarded in favor of heterodox fantasies—or nightmares—that the very different imaginations of this collection of artists have brought forth into tangible reality. Disembodied heads on pikes by Judy Moonelis, adorned with lacy jewelry, glance down on an empty set of feet surrounded by broken glass. Tom Bartel’s armless mutant children assume shamanic roles in worlds a bit different from our own. Some of these artists have ransacked the closets of art history to come up with pieces that straddle the divide between present and past, like Kukuli Velarde’s “Indianus Zopilotense” and “Pacharatense Indianus,” or Akio Takimori’s “Venus and Island 4” which refer to ancient tomb sculptures of the Western and Eastern Hemispheres while keeping one foot in our own time. Others seem to hark back to the punishments predicted for sinners in the afterlife: Adrian Aeleo’s “Gathering” shows a person in a repentent posture, being colonized by birds in her back, while Bruce Dehnert refers specifically to eternal damnation in his “Hades Revisited.” Mike Prather portrays the victims—or tortured perpetrators—of these otherworldly castigations with his dunce-capped—or inquisitorially-garbed—busts that plead with us to “Kiss me Baby.” Mark Frank’s “Split Head” is just that—perhaps a graphic portrayal of the right-brain/left-brain divide, or the dilemma that faces those who want to live in the real world as well as inhabit the world of art.

Works by Akio Takimori, Adrian Aeleo, and Bruce DehnertWorks by Akio Takimori, Adrian Aeleo, and Bruce Dehnert

Splitting and hollowing out seem to be popular metaphors among the artists in this show; I’m not sure if they are employed as political or psychological commentary, or just an extension of the normal processes of ceramic practice, but Etta Winograd also employs it explicitly, in her smoked-clay piece called “Split,” in which an impassive iconic figure (Mother Earth?) averts her gaze from the small people restlessly climbing and delving in her body. Rob Kirsh takes a more cerebral approach, removing pieces from a hollow fetally-crouching figure and the hand that shelters it in “Nursery” until just a framework is left to reference the body. Sergei Isupov’s approach was different from most of the other artists represented here, in that he uses sculpted human and animal figures as a canvas for illusionistic painting, which works against the recognizability of the base sculptures in much the same way that all-over tattoos alter our perception of people’s bodies, when their skins function visually as the background for graphic art.

Works by Rob Kirsh and Sergei IsupovWork by Judy FoxWork by Viola Frey

A few works were anomalous in the context of this show, and made me wonder why they were included. Judy Fox’s hyper-realistic portrayals of over-sized infants, unlike the rest of the pieces there, were not composed of ceramic at all, but were cast in Hydrostone, a type of gypsum plaster, or in “bonded marble” which is basically a plastic resin, using rubber molds. It’s hard to reconcile the curators’ rhetoric about the direct involvement of hands in clay with pieces like this in which the shaping is done early in the process and what we see is the result of a technical process at some remove from the act of fashioning. Certainly it can be argued that this is the most appropriate means for this artist to achieve her particular vision, and I have no problem with that, but it seems somewhat at odds with the stated themes that were supposed to underlie this exhibition. The other piece that didn’t quite fit was a plate by Viola Frey, which is basically flat where every other piece is in the round, and doesn’t really present a body of any sort but rather features a disembodied face and hands. Perhaps it was meant as an homage to the late sculptor, who stood her ground as a champion of figurative art and craft techniques in an era in which these things were anathema to the critics who ruled the art establishment, and a way for her to be present in spirit, if not to actually participate. In any case, I think she’d be glad to see the resurgence of the things she stood up for, as exemplified in this strong and diverse exhibition.

Andrew Werby

Stan Dann at the Benicia Library September – October 2010

To its everlasting credit in these days of ever-shrinking budgets, the Public Library of Benicia California has maintained its art gallery as a separate exhibition space with an ambitious program that has showcased many artists of outstanding quality over the years. The current show, featuring the work of Stan Dann, may be the best one yet. Consisting of shaped and colored wooden pieces assembled in frames, these constructions accomplish what great art is supposed to do—make one see the world through new eyes.

"Ringing the Hobs" by Stan Dann

Starting with his sketches—of suburban landscapes, interior scenes, and compositions of mundane or natural objects—he transfers their predominant linear elements to laid-up slabs of wood and cuts along the lines as if making a jigsaw puzzle. But instead of leaving the pieces flat, he painstakingly transforms each of them into sculptural elements, which are reassembled to form sculpted pictures with a marvelously fresh and often whimsical presence.

"Foyer" by Stan Dann

In one piece named “Foyer” he represents, reconstructs, and reimagines the interior entrance to his home, transforming it into a unified composition that simultaneously flattens the scene while bringing its components out into the third dimension. The result is an Escheresque visual paradox in which foreground objects slice into their backgrounds and conventions of perspective are flouted with utter impunity.

"Flora" by Stan Dann

While most of the pieces in this show remain anchored in reality, and most objects are recognizable even when transformed, this is not the case with all of them. “Flora” is an intriguing piece that echoes the forms of nature without precisely duplicating any; it’s the most abstract piece presented here, where one sees most clearly the artist’s ability to construct and arrange sculptural forms that interlock and interweave while rhythmically reinforcing one another. In “Ringing the Hobs,” one gets the sense that he started with some familiar household objects, but has metamorphosed them with his artistic wizardry into strange and exotic semi-animate beings.

"Ringing the Hobs" by Stan Dann

The majority of the works on view here, though, are based on the architecture of California’s suburban neighborhoods, places the artist has obvious affection for, which he interprets for us in a way all his own. In “Martinez #1” the scooped-out street resembles a child’s slide while the buildings that line it take on the aspect of a child’s game or train layout from the 1950s. In “Neighbors,” he lovingly articulates the scrollwork of a metal gate, and embues the humble columns of a porch with more beauty than one would ever imagine they possessed. But “Martinez #5” has a more ominous quality, as if the house portrayed rather literally here has become detached from its surroundings, which seem to be in a state of flux, tending towards chaos and ruination.

"Martinez #1" by Stan Dann, "Martinez #5" by Stan Dann

Dann’s work, while certainly not unknown, deserves a lot more fame and attention than it has received. Perhaps some of the fault for this is his own, since he didn’t turn to art full-time until after he retired from a successful career as a commercial sign-carver. But the technical skill and unique vision he has honed, and his prolific, consistently excellent output over many years, should guarantee him a position alongside the great artists of our time.

Benicia Public Library
150 East L Street
Benicia, CA 94510
(707) 746-4343

The Rapid 2010 Show

SME, the Society of Manufacturing Engineers, sponsors various expositions relating to the design and production of manufactured items in the USA. The Rapid show is dedicated to “Rapid” prototyping (which has morphed into Rapid Manufacturing) as well as 3D scanning technologies and the ancillary software and materials that make it work. This year’s event was held at the Disneyland hotel in Anaheim California on May 18-20, and featured a conference (which I didn’t attend), the trade show, and an art show (in which I participated, along with 19 other artists using this sort of technology to make sculpture of various types.)

The main stars of this show were the additive 3D printers—big-ticket items which make it possible to create physical parts by accretion, building things using various strategies including laser sintering of powders, photochemical curing of polymers, deposition of molten plastics, or printing binders into beds of powder with ink-jet technology. The manufacturers of these machines had the largest booths, and were eager to let everyone know about the latest and greatest improvements to their systems. Just for fun, attendees at this exhibit were encouraged to collect the parts for a toy rocket-ship by going from booth to booth and picking up components which each manufacturer had fabricated, turning the event into a high-tech scavenger hunt. (I collected some parts, but must have missed some, because my rocket never came together…)

Probably the most impressive 3D fabrication machine was Objet Geometrie’s $200k multimaterial printer, which had the ability to print in a variety of materials ranging from hard to rubbery and in various colors including clear, so that parts could be created with soft exteriors and hard interior parts—useful for realistic prosthetics—or clear exteriors through which interior structures could be seen. Printing directly in metals has advanced considerably as well. At this show, EOS of North America introduced new aluminum and nickel materials for its DMLS (Direct Metal Laser Sintering) machines that build up parts by melting metallic powders layer by layer—other metals used include bronze alloys, titanium, tool steel, and stainless.

Liberty by BFB

There was a major RP price breakthrough announced; an ABS printer for under $4k. Based on the open-source RepRap project, the Panther is made by Bits from Bytes in the UK and distributed locally by Purple Platypus, who also sells the Objet printers. I looked at the samples it had built, and while some stratification was evident, it looked a lot like the output from much more expensive RP printers 4 or 5 years ago. It’s a bit coarse, but the amazing thing was that this could be done at all for that price, and with a substantial build volume (11.2″ × 11.8″ × 7.9″). Stratasys had some new offerings as well, their “personal” Dimension uPrint and uPrint Plus FDM (Fused Deposition Modeling) machines, which although considerably more expensive than this, still represent a new low price-point for machines of this type at $15k and 20k respectively. With layer thicknesses of .010″, detail and surface smoothness was considerably better than output of the BFB machine, as one would expect for the considerable difference in price, although the build volumes were smaller. Z-corp, known for its powder-bed printers, was showing off a new system, the ZBuilder Ultra, licensed from another manufacturer, which builds objects by flashing a glass tank of photo-sensitive liquid with layer-images from underneath. The results were smoother and more durable than the objects Z-corp normal machines build from consolidated powder (although they don’t print in full color), and since Z-corp is a much easier company to deal with than the company that developed it, they might have some success with it.

Several of the manufacturers I deal with were there, including Creaform, showing off the Handyscan line of hand-held scanners, capable of unrivaled flexibility in gathering surface information from complex 3D objects. Roland DGA was promoting CNC milling (AKA “Subtractive Rapid Prototyping”) with a challenge to users of additive 3D printers: “Can your 3D printer do this?.” The MDX-540 they had running was indeed making objects with surfaces smoother than any produced by the machines of their additive rivals, using solid plastics that were both less expensive and more durable than the costly feedstocks they require. GeoMagic was demonstrating the latest versions of their Studio and Qualify softwares for reverse engineering and inspection; I found the Studio interface quite intuitive for such a powerful piece of software. Rapidform also was present, with their new XOR3 software that enables users to recover “design intent” from a scan of a manufactured product, starting with an imperfect (or worse) scan and building a perfect solid parametric model feature by feature.

Other scanner and digitizer companies were also there, from Faro, which makes articulated-arm devices for precision metrology, including one that mounts a laser head for faster and longer-range image capture (up to 395 feet away) to Konica-Minolta, with the Vivid 9i, a new version of its tripod-mounted big-box non-contact 3D digitizer with interchangeable lenses, which claims the ability to capture detail of +/-.05mm at its closest-range settings. 3D3 Solutions was another interesting exhibitor. Instead of producing a one-size-fits-all 3D scanner, they offer customized scanning solutions which are individually tailored to a client’s needs. For a podiatric application, for instance, they constructed a multi-scanner array which captures a patient’s foot from a number of angles quickly and simultaneously, turning what could have been a tedious ordeal into a quick and simple procedure.

An array of service providers were on hand, from companies like Direct Dimensions offering sculpture scanning and enlargement, to those who specialized in making complicated one-off pieces of military aircraft or producing custom implants in titanium based on someone’s CT scans. There were foundries which leverage rapid prototyping technology to skip the mold-making process, making patterns that could be burned out cleanly and cast using the lost-wax process (InvestCast) or pressed into service for sand-casting (ACTech). And there were several companies, like Metalise-it America, VacuCoat Technologies, and Quaker City Plating which specialized in electo-plating metal onto RP plastic parts; this wasn’t cheap, though, since a lot of hand-finishing was involved if a shiny metal surface was desired. One company, CloudFab, was trying to create an online marketplace for rapid prototyping and manufacturing services where clients could upload a proposed project and get bids from a range of people ready to build it for them, who would pay for the service on a sliding scale, depending on price, if they got the job.

Somewhat surprisingly, the range of exhibitors was not limited to companies selling software, esoteric services, or high-tech gizmos. There were quite a few providers of basic materials and supplies for molding and casting, many of whom I knew from being a sculptor (before going digital). Silicones Inc, Silpak, Smooth-On, and Polytek, suppliers of rubber mold materials; Reynolds Advanced Materials which also sells plaster and cement-based products used to fill molds, and a number of manufacturers of castable plastic materials, mostly urethanes, such as BJB Enterprises, PTM&W Industries, and Innovative Polymers were all there, hoping to catch this new wave of American manufacturing and design.

Shawn Smith + Heather GorhamHeather Ezell + David Van Ness

Of course, for me, the hit of the show was the sculpture on display—this was the first year in which this show has featured a Contemporary Art Gallery. Twenty artists (including myself) using various additive techniques to produce something other than industrially-focused parts helped elevate the experience of attending this event to a higher aesthetic plane. Interestingly, more than half the artists in the show, although experienced at making art in various media, were new to the technology of CAD modeling and digital 3D printing. Brought together by SculptCAD, a Texas-based service provider and vendor of scanners and RP machines, they responded with enthusiasm to the challenge of a new medium and way of working, and came up with a wide range of works that took advantage of digital technology’s possibilities in a variety of ways. Shawn Smith built a swarm of dragonflies in the shape of a French horn. Heather Gorham created a hare with windows into its inner structures. Marble sculptor Heather Ezell contributed an elegant transformation of a leaf form, while David Van Ness wove the antlers of rutting elk into a complex fractal meshwork. Mark Grote scanned fingers and replicated them 234 times, each dyed with the blue ink used to signify voters in Afghan elections and equipped with box-cutters (for some reason). You can find out more about this interesting project here.

Mark Grote + Harry AbramsonKenneth Miller: “Family” + Andrew Werby: “Nautivert”

Aside from them, there was some interesting work shown by veterans of the digital sculpture movement as well. Harry Abramson of Direct Dimensions contributed a bent, scaled-up and nickel-plated fork that’s a marvel of verisimilitude. Kenneth Miller exploited the ability of the Objet machine to produce solid forms in clear resin to make a series of pieces called “Family.” I sent in “Nautivert,” a piece I made by scanning various natural forms, such as bones, shells, and mineral crystals that were combined in a virtual 3D environment, applying photographic textures based on floral images, and output on a color-capable 3D printer. And mathematical sculptor Bathsheba Grossman, probably the closest thing to an art star the movement has produced so far (on hand for a presentation entitled “How I Quit My Day Job”), showed an array of her latest complex topologies spanning a range of media from plastic to direct metal and glass prints, the latter made by consolidating glass frit with a binder and firing it with a glaze. Just seeing the amazing results from this process close up made the trip worthwhile for me—I can’t wait to try it.

Bathsheba Grossman Sculptures

Andrew Werby

Artists: Richard Shaw, Robert Hudson, and Clayton Bailey

Works by Artist Robert Hudson

Last weekend (March 20, 2010), I had a chance to reconnect with the work of some of the people who supplied much of my original inspiration to make the sort of assemblage-oriented craft-based art I ended up pursuing. Richard Shaw and Robert Hudson had an amazingly prolific creative partnership in the early ’70s, sharing a studio in Marin County and collaboratively fashioning wildly fanciful combinatory objects in polychrome slip-cast clay that were hugely influential to myself and others of my generation. Clayton Bailey was another major figure in the Funky Clay Renaissance of that era, producing hilarious takes on paleontology (as discoverer of the Kaleolithic age and the ceramified fossils of numerous legendary creatures), mad scientists, and museology (as the eponymous pith-helmeted head of Dr. Gladstone’s Wonders of the World Museum). Fortunately for us, all three of these men are still alive and productive, opening shows simultaneously in three San Francisco galleries within walking distance of each other.

Robert Hudson has turned to metal sculpture without letting go of the somewhat crazed vitality that characterized his ceramics. Welding together shards of sinks and tubs, odd tools, scrap steel, and broken pieces of old decorative cast iron, he has constructed complex but exquisitely balanced pieces, some of which actually spin, when pushed, like post-apocalyptic merry-go-rounds. The shattered enamel clinging in delicately fissured pastel fragments contrasts with the prevailing rusty or brightly painted metal surfaces. The form of these pieces differs radically from the ceramic works I was familiar with, but the artist’s enjoyment of—and ability to capitalize on—the particular qualities of these different media was evident. In these pieces Hudson exploits the ability of welded metal to support a big piece of material on a small attachment point to great effect. The installation in the Patricia Sweetow gallery gave each piece enough space to facilitate appreciation from multiple angles, with direct lighting that translated the interpenetrated three-dimensional forms into an intricate play of shadows. But what is one supposed to think about precious objects like this made from broken junk? Is he putting us on or what? Hudson’s work confronts us with a host of paradoxical dualities, existing in a zone where clutter and harmony, buoyancy and ponderousness, order and anarchy find an oddly satisfying balance.

Richard Shaw, unlike Hudson, has concentrated on the medium of ceramics throughout his long career. At this point, his work has reached an apogee of technical excellence that has rarely been approached, especially by an independent studio artist unsupported by the resources of an industrial firm. But more interesting than the means employed—in this case, slip casting, hand building, decalomania, hand painting and glazing—is the use he puts them to. His trompe l’oiel still-lifes, all in ceramic, seem to be enigmatic clues to a mysterious disappearance, with open books, scientific specimens, art supplies, crockery, and houses of cards preserved exactly as they were.

Works by Richard Shaw

Another facet of his work recalls an episode in one of the Oz books (and in the movie “Return to Oz”) where the young heroes, needing to quickly assemble something to rescue them from peril, throw together a strange assortment of household items and sprinkle it with the Powder of Life, upon which it suddenly becomes a living, sentient creature that flies away with them. Shaw’s figurative constructions have that same giddy improvisatory quality, achieved with impeccable craftsmanship that renders these improbable creations immediately convincing, both as the collection of baskets, tin cans, paintbrushes, cigar boxes, sticks, etc. that they appear to be, and as characters with peculiar personalities of their own. Shaw’s new work, full of erudite references, hints of narrative, and evocations of a fantasy world, seems at first to be the polar opposite of Hudson’s raw struggle with obdurate scraps of metal. But at base, they still operate in a similar way, rearranging components that retain past identities of their own into new patterns with meaning to themselves—and maybe even to us. The show, at Braunstein-Quay Gallery’s cavernous space south of Market street, runs through April 17th 2010.

Works by Richard Shaw

Clayton Bailey is another artist who started out working in clay but moved onto other things, without totally abandoning the ceramic medium. For a while now, he’s been heavily involved in making “robots” from miscellaneous household and industrial cast-offs like coffee-makers, toasters, cylinder heads, lawnmowers, etc. Presumably to furnish them with an appropriate armamentarium, he has branched off into the production of guns made using the same assemblage techniques, most of which actually function; shooting corks with air compressed using an integral slide-action pump. The craftsmanship in these weapons is really excellent—I asked him about that, and he confessed to having taken gunsmithing classes years ago at a vocational high school—lessons he has put to good use. This Gun Show includes a number of variations on the theme of firearms, from ray guns to floor-mounted swivel guns, dueling pistols, rifles with elegant wooden stocks and an ingenious set of backward-pointing guns (cast in ceramic) which promise to stamp out crime by promoting involuntary suicide on the part of the gangsters using them. Several well-armed robots were also in attendance, accompanied by exploding containers marked “explosives” and several charming drawings by the artist’s wife Betty which comment wryly on life in the world of art.

Works by Clayton Bailey

The A440 Gallery is a small venue in a building full of galleries that is well-suited to this show’s intimate scale. At the opening, as well as the artist himself, long-shot California gubernatorial candidate and conceptual artist Lowell Darling was there promoting his “do nothing” pledge (since it’s virtually impossible to accomplish anything in California as long as any spending requires a 2/3 majority, he has vowed to do nothing as governor until that law is repealed—a more honest and realistic stance than anything the front-runners have espoused.) Clayton Bailey and Lowell Darling will be making a joint appearance at the Richmond Art Center in Richmond California (which recently hosted a show of Bailey’s robots) on April 16 2010 from 5-8 PM—it should be an interesting and amusing evening. One can see more of Clayton Bailey’s work on his extensive website—enjoy!

Works by Clayton Bailey and a photo of Lowell Darling

Andrew Werby

Digital Stone Exhibition Doland Museum of Modern Art, Shanghai China

Beasley's MeetingBruce Beasley discusses the enlargement of an RP modelBeasley's “Untitled”

The world’s center of gravity has been tilting eastward lately, and the digital art movement reflects that with this ambitious exhibition, in three Chinese venues, sponsored by design software powerhouse Autodesk, whose CEO, Carl Bass, appreciates the challenge posed by artists using computers in unusual ways. The Beijing show, at the Today Art Museum, ended in October, but I got to Shanghai in time for the November 6 opening at the Doland Museum of Modern Art, on Duolun Road in Shanghai. This little street with its increasingly rare old low-rise buildings is quiet for that bustling city, due to a prohibition on (most) 4-wheeled traffic, and large granite pieces by the show’s four featured participants—Bruce Beasley, Jon Isherwood, Kenneth Snelson, Robert Michael Smith—were displayed prominently along it, where passersby ranging from dog-walkers to wedding parties and fashionistas felt free to engage with them. These sculptors had been given the opportunity to produce large scale stone pieces in China, based on digitally-mastered maquettes produced on a smaller scale with 3D printers. These were sent to a stone-carving factory in Southern China and “pointed up” (enlarged) by traditional hand methods. (While it’s also possible to carve stone with specialized computer-controlled milling machines, it turns out to be a lot more expensive, while the Chinese stonecarvers did an amazingly good job of interpreting these unfamiliar abstract forms.)

RP model for Ken Snelson’s “Holding Pattern” with markings by the stone-cutters

All four artists rose admirably to the challenge, producing pieces that translated well from small plastic parts to large stone ones—something that’s not as easy to do as it might seem. Beasley, a technically-adventurous artist who has been using computers to design sculpture since the ’eighties, chose to work with a restricted set of basic forms, in this case slightly lentoid disk shapes and bent tubular elements, using the computer to arrive at exactly the right combination of shapes by trial and error, eliminating the work of producing mock-ups in physical materials. Here’s an article I wrote about Beasley’s 2005 retrospective at the Oakland Museum of California .

Ken Snelson, who is mostly known for his “tensegrity” structures, which use tensioned cable to float structural steel members in seemingly impossible fashion, drew upon his deep meditations on atomic structure to produce a remarkably different series where weightiness is as important an element as is the weightlessness of his previous work. They also play upon a familiar Chinese sculptural trope (originally imported from Europe): the “mystery balls” nesting carved balls within balls, although in Snelson’s interpretation the concentric spheres are not cut free of each other.

Snelson's Holding PatternSnelson's Base Station
Isherwood's A Fish Out of Water

Jon Isherwood’s stone pieces were the most diverse of the lot, playfully combining stripes and scales, with gently rippled surfaces intersecting more deeply carved and patterned ones, or erupting as bulbous protrusions. More than the other sculptors in the group, he experimented with various different stones and surface finishes including polish, which brings out the color in the material much more strongly than leaving the surface matte. This let him use the contrast between matte and polished areas effectively, as with the bottle-shaped component in Tellers of Tales.

Isherwood's Tellers of TalesIsherwood's Burning Through History
Smith's Trilabiabyte Trala

Of the four featured sculptors, the work of Robert Michael Smith comes closest to my own aesthetic preoccupations, although he interprets natural forms abstractly where I use them directly. So while no particular natural objects are actually identifiable in his work, it has an organic quality that both unifies it and sets it apart from culturally-based art, giving it a timeless quality that doesn’t rely on a social context to communicate its deeply-rooted beauty. A master of interpenetrated forms, his pieces often resemble a frozen sequence of unfolding motions—budding, growing, segmenting, or dancing—as captured by a stroboscopic 3D camera. Not surprisingly, he is also an animator, which allows his objects to shed the fixed aspect, to move and metamorphose like the subjects of an alien nature documentary.

Smith's Paradise Bird BurlesqueSmith's Timebender Bouquet
Jesse Small InstallationHigham's Heart Sutra TsunamiVan Gent's Duopod

The scaled-up stone works also filled the bottom floor of the Doland Museum, a Bauhaus-style building that somehow manages to coexist happily with the traditional architecture that surrounds it. On the floor above was the “e-form” part of the show; a collection of digitally-mediated sculpture, animations, and graphics by a fairly large group of international artists. Some of them were familiar to me from the Intersculpt shows in France (see blog) but others were new, like Jesse Small, who, since he lives part-time in China in order to take advantage of its facilities for having things made cheaply there in plastic, porcelain, and other materials, was able to attend the opening. He contributed hanging pieces loosely based on Chinese lanterns, with a plasma-cut steel structure at the core supporting injection-molded modular plastic components in the popular “lucky” red color. This modularity made it possible for him to construct a site-specific installation around a spiral stairwell, linking the transparent plastic elements into larger units which partially screened the space but let festive red light through.

A couple of the artists, Mary Bates Neubauer and Paul Higham, used complex datasets like stock market dividend and hog futures yields, or wave readings from the Tsunami of 2005 as inputs for creating digital sculpture and graphics, resulting in some surprisingly simple and elegant forms and images. I’m not sure how much interpretation goes into making art this way, but Neubauer’s results tended to be delicate and flowerlike, which Higham’s were more massive and mechanical-looking. Elona Van Gent took another approach, using high-tech tools to produce a creature that might have stepped out of the work of her fellow-Netherlander, the medieval master painter Hieronymus Bosch. (Navigating her site’s a little tricky; you have to click various parts of the pictured pair of pants to get to the unipod, duopod, tripod, quadropod and n-pod categories into which she divides her work.)

Lavigne's ?

Of the people I knew already, Christian Lavigne contributed something different from anything I’d seen him do before—a fantasy landscape with mountains, bridges, and the figures of horses. I thought it worked quite well in the white plastic build material used by the Dimension 3D printer (the use of which was contributed by one of the show’s sponsors) that built many of the works in show. By way of contrast, Mary Visser continues to develop themes she’s been working with for some time—the use of repeating and rearranged human figures as abstract elements in assemblage—but the new pieces she sent to China show major progress in refining the already-impressive colored and coated surfaces that make her work stand out in the mostly monochrome crowd. Michael Rees, another pioneer of the digital sculpture movement, was represented by several signature pieces that brought to mind a pair of gymnasts who have been working together (and with a horse) for so long that their bodies have merged into one another’s. An animation he provided was helpful in imagining how such a composite might act. Dan Collins, an old friend from the ISC and Siggraph’s Guerilla Studio, presented self portraits based on manipulated 3D scans, while Keith Brown, one of the UK’s foremost digital sculptors, sent in an interesting openwork piece that exploited the ability of the additive 3D printer to produce geometries of great complexity as easily as it builds something solid and simple.

Visser’s “The Challenge”Collins’s “Twister2”
Monaghan's Monstrance

There were also some people represented here whose work I hadn’t encountered before. Barry X Ball’s Screaming Portrait of Matthew Barney” pursues the artist’s seeming obsession with the autour of the “Cremaster” cycle to the point of outrage—the subject seeming to object rather strenuously to being flayed, eviscerated, and nailed to a board for display. Jon Monaghan’s “Monstrance” is an interesting take on that sunburst-shaped article of Eucharistic adoration, resembling a prickly sea cucumber or a mutant (monster?) hedgehog. He also produced an animation called “Jesus, Jesus Christ” which also featured an animate object verging on creaturehood, which seemed to be suffering as it writhed on the screen, although perhaps more from peristaltic blockage than the sins of Mankind.

Greg Lock, an artist who likes to toy with the elusive line between analog and digital reality, used a scanner to create a highly pixelated version of an actual log, then replicated it in a way that rendered each pixel as a rectangular element, which he painted by hand in different colors. David Morris, who has been working with digital media for some time, sent in “Matador’s Cape” a simple but handsome piece in black ABS plastic which used the artifacts of the digital printing process to add detail without distracting from the form.

Morris's Matador's Cape

I could go on listing art and artists—there were more here, including myself—I contributed a couple of pieces combining various natural forms with integral photo-textures which I built on a color 3D printer from Z-corp—but if you’ve read this far you deserve a break. Suffice it to say that this was a great show giving an excellent view of what’s happening currently in the world of digital sculpture. As I write this, the Shanghai show is about to close, but it’s traveling to Chongqing next, where it will be at the Jinse Gallery there until the middle of January 2009. My hat goes off to the organizers, especially Robert Smith, who worked his butt off collecting, creating, and building the art, dealing with artists, officials, and media, as well as to the presenters and sponsors who made it all possible.

Werby’s “ProteanProteus”Werby’s “Magnoflora”

Here’s some video coverage of the event from Shanghai’s English-language TV station. And here’s a link to the exhibit’s official site, with lots more pictures.

Andrew Werby

Siggraph 2008

I haven’t attended Siggraph, the big summer computer-graphics conference and exposition, in a while so I made time for its 2008 incarnation in L.A. I’ve been to Siggraph a couple of times before, and always found interesting things to feed my thoughts during the rest of the year—happily, this year’s show was no exception. If you’ve never been, it’s part trade show, part art exhibition, science fair, jobs fair, academic symposium, and general geek-fest.

The world of computer graphics, widely defined, has grown so huge and diverse that what started out as a small gathering of enthusiasts for an obscure artistic/scientific pursuit has grown into a huge venue embracing worlds as diverse as Hollywood film-making, game development, print advertising, video animation, product prototyping, 3D visualization, computer programming, and website construction. Somehow, Siggraph manages to straddle them all, and provide something for everyone.

The show seemed more compact than in the past, either because of America’s current economic woes, or consolidation in the industry necessitating fewer booths. The “Guerilla Studio,” where one is able to participate in activities like scanning a part, designing a lenticular placard, or seeing ones 3D models built with a 3D printer shared the main exhibition space with the art show and the vendors, instead of being tucked away in separate rooms of their own, as had been the case in previous shows. Some of the people demonstrating odd projects (a favorite part of the show for me) were also there, although some were placed outside in an annex. In the Studio, I was fortunate enough to meet Dennis Dollens, who embodies the original techno-artistic spirit of this event. From his deep analysis of biological form, he has extracted algorithms that create spookily natural-looking “biomimetic” trees (which he sells to people making games and movies) as well as twisted “digital-botanic” structures that appear to have evolved under the influence of powerful mutagens. There was also someone there demonstrating the Gigapan system for creating panoramic photos that were huge and seamless. It involves a special camera mount and some software, but not a lot of expense, and includes membership in a site that allows participants to share, exchange and even sell their panoramas.

Scary Female Robot

Projects in the Tech Demos area included a landscape generator set up like a bar, where one could order a mixture of plants, earth, sun, moon, sky, and water, each quantified by bottles of liquid set in a weighing station. When these ingredients were agitated in a cocktail shaker, a unique landscape would appear on the monitor, with all elements in the desired proportions. Michela Magab was demonstrating a music-sorting system, which could instantly match an excerpt with a vast collection of audio stored in a database, to identify copyright violations, plagiarism, or simply to find pieces similar to those one enjoyed previously. Ph.D. student Taisuck Kwon brought a flayed robotic face capable of showing various emotions with programmed activation of artificial musculature while Jonathan Chertok was displaying a set of rapidly-prototyped versions of classical mathematical models. Another Japanese group had made a “friendly” robot with doll-like features and a soft feminine voice that I found scarier than most movie monsters but maybe that’s just me…

'Infinite 4-D Fish' by Takashi Murakami

Some projects were educational in intent, like the Calakmul simulation game by ArcVertuel featuring the ancient Mayan site as the background for a videogame-style quest intended for a kiosk in a children’s museum, or the more ambitious “Rome Reborn” which allows one to “walk through” seven thousand digitally-reconstructed buildings of the ancient city, as it appeared in AD 320. Others, like Erik Dyer’s modern 3D zoetrope in which solid objects produced via Rapid Prototyping come to life on turntables seemed basically artistic, although they may point the way towards new techniques in film-making. Interactivity and haptics (tactile feedback) were also a major focus in the tech demonstrations, with some devices, like the “Butterfly Haptic” trying for a new way to relate to objects previously only seen on a monitor, or pointing the way towards remote-controlled sex (Emotional Touch) and using touch-feedback to add a novel, if not altogether comfortable, dimension to users’ interactions (“Ants in the Pants” I especially liked the exuberant sculpting of the “Infinite 4-D fish” by Yoichiro Kawaguchi of the University of Tokyo which while reminiscent of Takashi Murakami’s work in its bright colors and slick surfaces, managed to restrain the “super-cute” content elements that some seem to like but tend to make me gag.

The art show, which had been inspirational in the past, was a bit flat this year, with few examples of sculpture shown despite the spread of 3D printing and affordable CNC equipment. Perhaps it was the choice of theme: the idea of Slow Art doesn’t exactly set pulses racing. Bathsheba Grossman’s new work in direct-metal RP was an exception—her topographically complex yet pleasing forms had a solidity and timelessness rare in a realm dominated by ephemeral materials and artistic fads. Much of the space was taken up with a display of skyscraper models, which, while they demonstrate how RP techniques have taken hold in the architectural modeling field, didn’t exactly break new ground in art. I liked the large pierced panels created by Erwin Hauer and Enrique Rosado using CNC milling, which, though reminiscent of other work in the math-art field, did show how this sort of thing might be integrated into an architectural setting. Large Pierced Panels created by Erwin Hauer and Enrique Rosado.

Out on the expo floor, a wide range of vendors competed for the attention of the passing throngs. Motion capture was a big deal here, since by tracking targets placed on a live actor, a lot of tedious animation can be bypassed, and the motions directly mapped to a digitally-created image in real time. There’s also facial mo-cap (as it’s familiarly called) exemplified by the “alter ego” system which can quickly and automatically keep track of the shape changes in an actor’s face and apply them to any sort of animated character. The latest systems dispense with the targets, and manage to follow the motions of a digital image. I was impressed by the work of some Japanese investigators from the University of Tsukuba in the tech demo area, who had figured out how to analyze the motions of a hand captured on video, which they used to control a “copycat” robotic hand in near real time.

Much of the expo space was taken up by major software producers demonstrating their newest products on big screens to scores of seated viewers happy to get off their feet for a while. AutoDesSys, makers of FormZ, was premiering BonZai 3D, trying for a product that is simpler and easier to use while perhaps more “geometrically robust” than the flagship product. Other software developers are thinking along the same lines. At a much smaller booth, I was able to get a personal demo of MOI, short for “Moment of Inspiration” from Michael Gibson, who wrote the program himself, and could explain everything about it. Having been largely responsible for creating Rhino3d for Robert McNeel, he struck out on his own to make a simpler, faster, more affordable 3D modeling program for designers and artists, using Rhino’s model of an extended free beta period and active user forum to refine the interface and root out bugs. After years of this, MOI is finally being sold instead of given away, although you can still download a 30-day demo and tell everybody what you think of it.

I was interested to see a demo of T-splines for Rhino which helps Rhino deal with organic geometries by allowing T-joints instead of the rigid grid topography that characterizes Rhino’s NURBS, where every spline must cross every other to create a valid surface. They were also talking about using the program to create NURBS surfaces from polygon meshes, which would be worth the price of admission right there if it worked smoothly.

A 2D program called Toonboom, used for producing several of the animated sit-coms popular on TV, was showing off a reasonably-priced “Studio” version aimed at the masses huddled around YouTube, yearning to produce their own cartoons. The demo made it look reasonably easy to use, but they always do that…I was also intrigued by Mathematica, a multi-faceted set of applications, widgets, and libraries which has survived for 20 years by taking a different approach than most companies—assuming that their users are smart and willing to learn new tricks. Since the academic pricing is good, it would make sense for bright students, teachers, or researchers in a number of technical fields, like Mensa in a jewelbox.

Several companies were showing off 3D scanners of various sorts. Immersion had their latest Microscribe, and the RSI laser that mounts on it, enabling a user to capture various angles of their models intuitively, positioning the laser by hand. It’s a proven solution (and one I already sell), but it was nice to see how easy it is to use. I was able to see the NextEngine scanner digitize a small part, and was impressed that it worked as well as it did. But the most exciting development was Creaform’s new VIU hand-held color scanner, which does a super job of capturing geometry as well as the photo-textures it automatically maps to the surfaces. It requires “targets”—small reflective dots applied to a large or complex model—to register a series of different scanning passes, but this allows objects of considerable size to be captured, as well as multisided objects requiring multiple points of view for a complete scan. They were able to show digitizations they had done of very complicated parts, like a tree with all its leaves, and a huge multi-level fountain, with multiple sculptural figures in place. Of all the things I saw at Siggraph, this is the one I most wanted to take home with me .

While nobody was trying to sell CNC machines to this crowd, there were several vendors of additive RP machines at the show, including Z-corp and Objet. Z-corp machines work by ink-jet printing a binder solution into a bed of powder, which slowly sinks on its piston as successive layers of powder are applied and consolidated by the binder. Since the part being built is always supported by the powder that surrounds it, it’s not necessary to provide the extra supports required by most other systems, which saves time and effort. And since one is ink-jet printing anyway, it’s possible to add color at the same time in a controllable way, even to the extent of printing color photos on the sides of the part. But the part as printed lacks strength, and must be impregnated with some kind of resin or wax before it’s good for much, while the surface is always a bit grainy. Objet was showing their Polyjet system, which gives much smoother and more durable results, but not in full color. They have, however, the ability to print in more than one material at a time, so bicolored parts are possible. While the process requires supports, it can build them in a material which can be dissolved without harming the material you wish to keep. It also allows you to use rubbery materials with varying durometers (degrees of softness) so that humanoid parts could be made with hard bones, for example, in soft flesh, all at the same time.

As well as companies trying to sell RP equipment, there were others trying to sell it as a service. Shapeways had an interesting concept, providing a wizard on their site which lets users construct objects from lines of text, that (for a price) they could then have built with a 3D printer, and have shipped to them. While not many options were available yet, this is a compelling business model, allowing people to produce personalized gifts without the requirement of craft skills.

Not only were companies there trying to sell things, quite a few organizations viewed this event as an opportunity for recruitment. Numerous schools were there pitching their audio-visual, computer-animation, and game development curricula, such as Cogswell College, Collins College, UArts in Pennsylvania, Florida Interactive Entertainment Academy, and the oddly-named DigiPen Institute of Technology in Washington. Turbosquid and Renderosity were promote their online “communities,” where people can sell digital models to one another, and of course Siggraph itself was soliciting members for its own Digital Arts Community site. Several big software and animation houses were looking for employees (mostly software engineers) and even the U.S. Mint was there with some Phantom haptic arms from Sensable Technologies looking for a few good traditional medallic artists willing to use digital tools to create coin sculptures.

If there was any noticeable trend to spot here, it’s the new prominence of stereoscopic display systems, mostly based on polarized stereoscopic images and shutter-glasses. Of the two, the shutter-glasses work best, although they cost more and are more difficult to implement. The old style red-blue anaglyphic system seems to be on its way out, which I don’t mind much, since it never really worked very well. It has been replaced by polarized stereoscopy, familiar to those who have visited Disneyland in the last decade or so, which works by projecting two rolls of film (or video streams) that were shot from 2 viewpoints that differ by the interocular distance. The images taken by each camera are filtered through a polarizing lens on the projector, so each is only visible to one eye, when you’re wearing the special glasses that block out the left image for the right eye and vice-versa, while letting in the image corresponding to the viewpoint it was shot from. The shutter glasses accomplish basically the same thing but more positively, by winking each eye alternately on and off very quickly, while images intended for one eye only alternate on the screen. Persistence of vision makes the 3D illusion work, since the eye holds onto the image it’s given without realizing that it has been turned off for a tiny moment. The brain takes in the different input from each eye and creates a 3D image, as it does for normal vision.

One company, Digital Ordnance, had stereo cameras aimed at the crowd, and were projecting our large-scale 3D images right back at us on the walls of their booth. It was a pretty convincing illusion, once I put on the glasses. They say they can provide a complete capture, storage, and projection system for $60k. Since movie theater owners are desperately looking for something that will get people off their couches and back into the theaters, more and more of them are equipping their venues for 3D polarized display, shutterglasses being impractical for a large audience. The success or failure of the current crop of 3D movies will probably determine if this trend will continue or be abandoned like the anaglyphic 3D system of the 1950s. The price of 3D digital projectors for individual users is also dropping, with one company, Lightspeed Design, introducing the DepthQ system designed to work with shutter glasses and able to project a high-definition 12-foot (diagonal) stereo image, for less than $6k.

Of all the companies vying to be at the forefront of 3D digital content creation, Eon Reality seems to have the most going for it. They have made it their mission to conquer the world of immersive 3D, using it for marketing, education, training, and entertainment. At the Siggraph show, they were showing a full-sized Porsche automobile projected on a semitransparent semicircular screen, a 3D image that worked without glasses. The restrictions of their booth didn’t allow them to present the full range of what they have developed, so the day after Siggraph closed, I went down to their Irvine headquarters to attend their World IDC Symposium, in order to check out some of the other technology they’ve come up with.

I was not disappointed. These people have been working at this for a while, have written software and assembled hardware that allows them to create immersive 3D content in a variety of forms. The meeting was addressed at times by a convincing 3D projection of a speaker, who was able to sense and react to the audience without actually being present. They had 3D TV working, with wireless shutter glasses that felt light and comfortable. They had a system for projecting movies into a heads-up display that fit in a pair of eyeglasses. They’ve developed web-based software, Eon Human, to generate multiple views of a user’s own face from a single 2D image, useful for creating quick avatars in an online multiplayer game. They had software that let them make changes to a virtual 3D environment and render them instantaneously, without the lag time typical of 3D rendering programs.

Most impressive of all, they had constructed a space (the “cave” aka ICUBE™) where multiple projectors created an almost palpable 3D image for a shutter-glasses and headset-equipped viewer. The headset oriented the view to the viewer by tracking the direction of view, while the shutter glasses created a very convincing 3D effect—an exploded view of a jet engine with all the parts floating in space right in front of me. (The main problem they had with it was preventing disoriented users from crashing through a wall). For companies needing to train their employees in the use or repair of complicated equipment, where the equipment itself would be too complex or expensive to work with, for schools needing a way to break through the ennui of the traditional lecture format and engage their students more directly, for marketeers wanting to break through the clutter of competing trade-show exhibits, for applications of the future like virtual tourism and 3D telepresence, these would be the folks to contact first.

Siggraph’s 36th annual event will be in New Orleans next summer, making it more accessible to people in other parts of the country. To join, exhibit your work, or otherwise get involved, you can contact Siggraph ’09.

Andrew Werby

Intersculpt 2007

Digital Sculpture and Biomorphism

Conseil Général de Muerthe et Moselle; Nancy, France

October 10-17, 2007

Sculpture and Mathematics

Arts et Metiers, Rue de L’hospital; Paris, France

October 10-17, 2007

Dan Collins’ “Twister” is a full body scan twisted in software. It was transported to France as a digital file and then carved in foam.I was scanned with an Inspeck Scanner.  I’m thinking of using it as a Halloween mask.

I was a part of this one, coming to France to participate in this exhibition and conference, part of a series of similar events that has been going on for several biennial cycles now. There were a wide range of presentations and works spread out over the week and two venues, and I missed the first day, but the parts I saw were pretty interesting. The exhibition consisted of a number of vitrines containing small RP pieces, plus some larger pieces on plinths, and a nearly life-sized foam sculpture by Dan Collins’ Twister” (a full-body scan of the artist twisted in a software program) that had been carved in France, using a robotic arm mounted with a rotary spindle, from a digital file sent from the USA. Many of the pieces in the cases, including mine, had been transmitted this way, by ftp file transfer, and were then built for the show in France by 3D printers. This is great from an artist’s point of view, eliminating hassles with art shipment companies and customs that take a lot of the fun out of showing sculpture abroad. A couple of RP (Rapid Prototyping) machines were there, cranking out parts while we watched: a Z-corp machine that uses an incrementing powder-bed printed in layers with glue by an ink-jet process, and a Stratasys FDM (Fused Deposition Modeling) machine that’s more like a computerized hot glue gun, tracing contours with layers of two types of material, one for the model and another for the support structure that holds disparate pieces together during the building process. There was also someone with an Inspeck scanner, an instantaneous white-light device that’s specialized for the capture of human heads (an ancient tradition revived!) I let them do it to me; the results were frighteningly realistic—I’m thinking of using it for a Halloween mask…

The conference in Nancy, focusing on the biomorphic aspect of things, included some scholarly lectures (mostly in French) on such topics as Classical chimerae, used as decorative elements in Greek and Roman art, embryology and mythological monsters, advances in medical imaging, and theories of growth and form. There were also videophone presentations done from remote locations, featuring Derrick Woodham’s virtual sculpture park (with a section devoted to this exhibition; a high-bandwidth connection is recommended) where one could mouse around a simulated landscape and see various sculptures from different angles, like one does in the real world.

Another notable telepresence was that of Glenn Davidson from Artstation in Wales, U.K., who showed how large groups of volunteers could put together huge inflatable forms by plotting their edges on large rolls of paper laid out on the floor, using a self-propelled computer-controlled device they’d cobbled together (it resembled a lawnmower, actually, but worked admirably well). Once the machine had marked the paper, the shapes were cut out by hand and assembled with tape, then inflated to become very large and somewhat complex sculptural forms.

Christian Lavigne’s Skull and Heads Built and Printed Simultaneously

At the heart of the conference were the live presentations by individual artists. Christian Lavigne, the founder and organizer of the event, had a lot of new work to show, using various techniques including water-jet cutting, 5-axis milling, and color printing in 3D, which was a more impressive demonstration of this than I’d seen before. Using some new technology from Axiatec, a French company that has developed advanced methodology for using the Z-corp RP machine; he built a skull covered with images from his life and work, all of which was built and printed simultaneously. While I’d seen results from Z-corp’s color 3D printing process before, I didn’t realize that photographic imagery was possible, nor that it could look so good. They also seem to have worked out a way to ameliorate the rough grainy surface that had been the disappointing element in Z-corp’s otherwise promising powder-bed process; the pieces Christian and Mary Visser (more about her work later) produced for this show had smooth and subtly colored surfaces, quite ready for display as finished works of art. Apparently, a VRML file provides sufficient data to drive the color 3D printing process; I’m not sure if other formats can be used as well. I’m negotiating with Axiatec to distribute their technology in the USA; it makes a lot of things possible with RP that people have been wanting to do, but were unable to accomplish until now.

Patrick Vissenden's Fictitious Phylum

Patrick Vissenden from Montreal shared with us a fictitious phylum, creatures of an alternate reality he came up with by “Imagining Science”; building from the roots of science fiction. Having modeled a set of organic entities in wax, inspired by the fossils of the Burgess Shale and memories of Natural History displays; he scanned them in 3D, and stars them in a series of action photos from an apocryphal microbial battlefield.

Jack Vanarsky, an Argentinean translated to France, showed us a movie composed by slicing and recombining the human face and figure; constantly reassorting its parts in a stately dance. He also produced a kinetic sculpture that reproduced the same effect; a sliced visage perturbed by a recurring motorized wavelike motion, like the shuffling of cards in the hands of an expert gambler.

Marcus Williams and his partner Sue Jowsey, both from New Zealand, looked inward to build their project, announcing it with a Maori chant and invocation. Dedicated to an intimate body-centered approach to art, they had scanned and photographed close-up details of their bodies: stubbly chin textures, hairy patches, and smooth downy expanses of flesh, mapping them to a loop of shifting organic shapes, a sculptural animation which was matched to an eerie vocal soundtrack created by modifying the recordings of Edith Piaf, the celebrated French chanteuse, to resemble an opera that may have been broadcast from Mars.

Ken Eward's Micro-inspired Objects

Ken Eward from Michigan based his series of works on Suiseki, the Chinese tradition of the “Scholar’s Object,” where specially selected natural objects, particularly rocks, would be mounted on polished wood bases to be contemplated like works of art. But Ken, trained as a scientist, looked to the realm of the electron microscope for his subjects, tapping particularly the aesthetic possibilities to be found in libraries of molecular models. The results may resemble bird’s nests, vertebrae or jellyfish, but they tap into a source of natural beauty unknown to most of us, and afford Ken a deep reservoir of forms that he can draw on for unexpected effects.

Mary Visser uses the female form as a sculptural element

Mary Hale-Visser came from Texas, where she teaches art at Southwestern University, to show us the latest developments in her work, which mostly concerns the female figure, considered as a sculptural element. She deals with harlequin jugglers and dancers holding each other up, or women seemingly caught in the wheels of machinery, enmeshed in arrangements not of their making but enjoyed none the less. A particularly striking piece referenced rebirth, through a series of boxes that connect old and new bodies or thoughtforms, darkly toned in a tour-de-force use of integral RP coloration, thanks to Axiatec’s leveraging of the Z-corp process. For her, computer technology has enabled the production of ideas that would necessarily have remained dreams if this direct route from the subconscious had not been available. See some examples in various media. Along with Robert Michael Smith, Mary also organized a highly influential 2003 show on RP and sculpture that toured several U.S. venues; RMS gave a tele-lecture the first day, which I missed, but some of his work is available on the Web.

My presentation was about the evolution of my “Juxtamorphic” artwork from a manual process of making 3D collages using molds of natural objects to a more high-tech method of accomplishing the same thing; assembling 3D digital scans in a computer and outputting them at different scales in various materials with computer-controlled carving machines. I’ll come up with a combined audio and visual version soon, but for now, please download a Quicktime version (139 megs), or an Acrobat PDF version (65 megs) of the slides. I’ve also got the text available in English and French.

Some other artists of note represented in the exhibition, whose presentations I also didn’t catch, were Stewart Dickson and Paul Higham, both pioneers in the field. Paul has worked out methods for extracting sculptural information from vast fields of numbers; his “Datasculptures” draw on sources like the Dow Jones Average, oil-field seismic studies and MRI data to produce solid objects resembling cityscapes, rocks, and spiderwebs; his self-generating sculptures are, theoretically at least, independent of the sculptor’s hand, needing only “intelligent design” to set them in motion. See virtualsculpture.org for more about him.

Stewart Dickson also got started early at this; his interest in the “concretization” of pure mathematics and his work for the film industry coming together in the early nineties to produce solid representations of classical mathematical figures like Fermat’s, Scherk’s and Enneper’s minimal surfaces cast in bronze. In this show I was struck by his snake-like “trefoil torus knot” built with integral color texture mapping. His site has more examples of his wide-ranging output in a number of media. (I’d really like to see the 3D zoetrope in action…)

On returning from Nancy (a beautiful little city, by the way, with many examples of Art Nouveau architecture, several fine museums and a gorgeous 18th-century plaza) I stopped in at the Parisian part of the Intersculpt show, which dealt more with the mathematical than the biological foundations of sculpture. I was already familiar with the work of some other artists with work there, like Bathsheba Grossman, Jonathan Chertok, Rinus Rollofs, Keith Brown, and Brent Collins (in collaboration with Carlo Sequin).

Bathsheba Grossman’s creations built with RP machines

Bathsheba was showing some of her signature radially symmetrical topographies, built with RP machines.

Jonathan had some mysterious forms on display that suggested the negative spaces left when forms are subtracted.

Rinus was displaying small versions of works he’s realized on a much larger scale, either crystalline arrangements of Platonic solids or variations on interpenetrating toroids.

Keith Brown’s undulating shapes

Keith had some complex organic pieces built in his seductive new style, featuring interpenetrating ovoids and softly undulating saddle shapes.

Brent and Carlo were working out the further mathematical implications of the sculpture Brent arrived at intuitively while carving in wood, which Carlo helped him to take to the next level.

Several of the sculptors represented in the show were there; I was fortunate in being able to speak with Alexandre Vitkine, who at 97–years–old qualifies as the Grand Old Man of the movement. He explained a little of his theories about simplicity, and how complex it can get when one adds a little perturbation to the formula for a simple shape. His carvings bore out his words: mostly done on a small CNC milling machine in wood, they exhibit elegance and a subtle sort of beauty I never got from Minimalist sculpture.

Some artists there were working out mathematical concepts in 3D without using machines to do it. Phillipe Charbonneau, for instance, put together curvilinear concentric revolving forms from linear elements (evidently the working out of mathematical formulae my French wasn’t good enough to fully understand). Phillipe Rips used very basic means—tubing and cable—to construct tensegrity structures that were quite stable when erected, but could easily collapse into a small bundle. Since his English was good, I was able to get from him a first-hand account of an artist’s life in France today (not as great as I’d thought) and much insight into other topics of interest, long into the night, at a sidewalk cafe, over numerous glasses of wine…

Andrew Werby

Pacific Design and Manufacturing Show

Last month (February 2007), I took some time off to visit the Pacific Design and Manufacturing show at the convention center in Anaheim California, right across the street from Disneyland. This mammoth exposition incorporated a whole slew of different shows under the same roof, which flowed into one another: the WestPack packaging show, ATX automated packaging expo, Plastec for plastics technologies, MD&M for medical design and manufacturing, and Electronics West, showcasing innovations in electronics. While this made for a somewhat overwhelming experience not to be seen in a day by anybody but a jogger, it offered some interesting cross-pollination between different worlds which otherwise don’t get together much. Since I’m interested in many of these things, it gave me a lot to see, and a wealth of information to tap, from people manning booths who would otherwise be hard to reach. Many of the manufacturers I represent were there, like Sherline Products, Flashcut CNC, Roland (helping out at another company’s booth), Mecsoft, and Envisiontec, makers of the Perfactory rapid prototyping system. It was also possible to get demonstrations of some products I’d only read about, like the Handy-scan and Nextengine 3D scanners, and see some cool machines in action, like Adept’s new parallel-kinematics parts sorter (Adept Quatro click on the “3D Animation” link at the bottom), which they claim is the “world’s fastest robot.”

Since I’m in the process of building a CNC router for myself, it was interesting to be able to visit with the makers of the various bits and pieces needed to put these together. There were several producers of drives and motor systems, both servo and stepper-based; some were integrated into single units (like “Smartmotors” ); others were available a la carte, like Arcus and Anaheim Automation, Both 80-20, makers of an ingenious system of T-slotted aluminum extrusions and the fittings to go with them that make racks, tables, benches, and machine frames (“The Industrial Erector Set”) were there, along with Bosch, which makes a competing but compatible system of their own. It was good to be able to see and play with different linear slides, like the Drylin system from IGUS, NB Corp., THK and a system from LM76 which is based on a system of precision-ground steel shafting set in aluminum extrusions and angular contact rollers with eccentric preload adjustment; this last seems like a good alternative for building low-cost CNC routers, since they are relatively unaffected by contaminants and debris. Several makers of precision ball screws were there, like HiWin from San Jose which seem about as economical as any I could find. Stock Drive Products had a booth too, so I was able to talk with someone knowledgeable about motor couplings and timing belt pulleys, which helped in figuring out some of the thorny problems I’d set myself up for in my design (which calls for driving a gantry from both sides with a single motor). At SAB Cable, I was also able to find out about cables that would withstand continuous flexing for millions of cycles, as long as the kink radius was not too small. I spoke with bearing manufacturer Boca Bearings about mounted bearings to handle my jack-shafts and hybrid bearings to rebuild my noisy router motor. I also found the makers of the fasteners and inserts I need to put the whole thing together, Precision Fasteners, who gave out a nice sample kit for free . To keep the fasteners from working their way out, not only Loctite Corp., which is known for this, but a new kid on the block, ND Industries were offering solutions. Since my machine has a deep and heavy Z axis, it was good to get in touch with the makers of constant-force springs, which will be able to counterbalance the weight and prevent it from crashing to the table when the power’s cut off. Century Spring and Vulcan Spring both specialize in these things, and I was able to get an idea of what would and wouldn’t work for this, and how much life I could expect from them (100,000 cycles seemed to be the best they can do). To keep the machine from shaking too badly, I found I could use advanced anti-vibration mounts from Vibration Mounts, and I asked about dry lubricants from Micro Care, the people who make them—they said none of their coating products would last long on a ball screw, but that their PTFE-based dry lube spray might help in a circumstance where oils and grease would only gum things up. The brush rings from Sealeze—circular brushes with inward-facing bristles—seem like they’d also be helpful in keeping debris from entering the screws in the first place, if mounted on either side of the nuts.

Many companies were there trying to get work from designers and product developers. People doing all sorts of specialized manufacturing processes had examples of some of their more intricate and difficult projects on display for us to marvel at, and afforded us a rare opportunity to quiz them about how these things are done. I learned about the rubber-plaster casting process from A & B Die Casting of Hercules, CA—this involves making a rubber master part, encasing it in a plaster mold, removing the rubber, and pouring in metal. It’s suitable for parts too complex for standard sand-casting, since the rubber can flex where a rigid sand pattern cannot. This process is also offered by A.L. Johnson Company and Armstrong Mold Corp.. Companies were also offering other kinds of metal manufacturing services, like sintering from metal powder (Colorado Sintered Metals, Precision P/M ) sandcasting (General Foundry of San Leandro), investment casting in exotic alloys, photo-chemical machining [1, 2] good for intricate cutout work in thin sheet, electropolishing [1, 2]. I was especially impressed by the ability to permanently anodize color photographs onto curved pieces of aluminum demonstrated by Sapa Profiles Inc.—the images had an iridescent quality that was quite striking. I lusted after the hand-held ProScope microscopes that Bodelin Technologies was demonstrating for part-inspection purposes—these were available in a range of focal lengths up to 400x, and worked like video cameras when hooked up to a Windows computer.

Plastics manufacturing was a major focus here, and Rapid Prototyping seems to have made major inroads in the industry. A host of companies were offering to make one-off plastic parts with short turnaround times, among them Solid Concepts, com, Rapid Product Solutions, Prototypes Plus, Schmit Prototypes, Scicon Technologies and Advatech, which claims to have the world’s largest SLS (Selective Laser Sintering) machine, capable of a build volume of 7.8 cubic feet (21.625″ × 21.625″ × 28.875″). Some companies, like Protomold were offering to make real injection-molded plastic parts from a customer-supplied CAD file in as little as 3 days; apparently in an effort to stave off the challenge from lower-priced but necessarily slower offshore competitors. These were represented as well, of course, some companies manning their own booths, while many others were represented by services like Prim Technology offering to contract out ones manufacturing needs to a host of their Asian clients. Some plastic injection firms, like Servtech Plastics were even offering to arrange the outsourcing themselves, figuring, apparently, that they could survive as middlemen even if their own services couldn’t compete. Rubber casting was also on offer, with companies like Apple Rubber—no relation to the computer company or the Beatles and Silcotech of Canada looking for parts to mold in silicone rubber, while Sorbothane of Kent Ohio offered castings in their patented visco-elastic material for various applications, and Greene Rubber Co. positioned itself as a general-purpose rubber fabricator, with water-jet and die cutting, machining, and laminating as well as molding services. I was also interested in the plastics welding equipment (basically hot-air guns with attachments) from Abbeon Cal Inc. and Loctite’s adhesives systems, which used light to cure glues suitable for difficult tasks like bonding non-clear glass to plastic.

Altogether, it made for a strenuous couple of days of walking the aisles, although with all the candy used to lure people to the booths, it would take some self-control to lose weight at this. Between that and the pens, bags and free samples given out, it was a lot like trick-or-treat time for grownups. Since I was reserving my bag space for all this good swag, I didn’t pick up much product literature at the show. But having allowed the salespeople swipe my magnetically-coded ID badge when I spoke with them, I got a flood of it for several weeks following my return. In fact, if one went at this wholeheartedly, it would be possible to heat ones home for the winter entirely on the catalogs and brochures arriving as a result of attending this one show…

Andrew Werby

Masterpieces of French Jewelry from American Collections

This show, at San Francisco’s Palace of the Legion of Honor Museum, traces the trajectory of jewelry-making in France from the Art Nouveau era to present times. Perhaps it’s unfair to try to analyze a country’s production from what a disparate bunch of foreigners happen to bring home with them, but either American taste went into eclipse during that period, or the exhibit charts the decline and fall of a great art tradition.

Lalique's Winter LandscapeFouquet's Winged Chimera Brooch

The show is arranged chronologically, and starts out well with some outstanding examples of Rene Lalique’s work in enameled gold, with other materials such as horn, ivory, opal and pearls tastefully integrated. Some large bronze sculptures, in the shape of insectile women, originally used as case decorations for his breakthrough 1900 exhibit in Paris’ Exposition Universelle, show his versatility. (Although he became famous as a jeweler, he eventually gave it up and went on to even greater success in glass, although these works, in my opinion anyway, never rose to the artistic heights achieved in his jewelry.) His genius was recognized early, with a first prize given to his multi-part Iris Bracelet in enameled gold with opal background in 1897; and the piece, included at this exhibit, still seems fresh and novel today. Among his other works shown, a figurative umbrella handle in horn and gold and a purse featuring mirrored vipers in silver and embroidered leather stand out for their strength and adventurous spirit. Other jewelry houses of the Art Nouveau period are represented as well, notably Fouquet and Boucheron. Working with similar techniques, materials and subject matter, they never rise to the same heights as Lalique, but nevertheless manage some fine pieces, like Fouquet’s Winged Chimera brooch, notable for its flowerlike settings of what appear to be American natural pearls (subject of a “pearl rush” at the turn of the century) and Boucheron’s Acacia brooch, with its finely-rendered blossoms in plique-a-jour enamel, or a Butterfly brooch, where the wings of the insect are fashioned from tabular plaques of engraved diamond. Perhaps to remind us that no movement, of itself, can be guaranteed to produce nothing but masterpieces, the show includes some undistinguished works in the Art Nouveau style, mostly “maker unknown,” generally featuring the images of young women, juxtaposed with stylistically rendered verdure, that have come to exemplify the movement in the minds of many.

Cartier's Bow Brooch

Moving on to the Edwardian era, the exhibit shows how quickly the world of fashion takes up and then discards an artistic style. While enameling is still practiced, it mostly is used to cover guilloche work (also called engine turning, used to engrave gold with mechanically accurate repetitive cuts). The nicest example shown is a tiny pencil-holder by the Husson workshop. Diamonds are a lot more prominent than before, largely due to the exploitation of the vast South African deposits found early in the century, which fueled the ultimate development of the “Garland” style, based on stylized ribbons, bows, and floral wreaths. Platinum was also introduced to the jewelry industry at about this time, and this seems to have contributed to the development of ornaments that used a minimum of metal (platinum, while it doesn’t tarnish, is quite a bit heavier than gold, let alone silver) while maximizing the use of stones, principally diamonds. The best example of the style shown here is Cartier’s Bow brooch, which relieves the monotony with panels of carved quartz crystal; an example unfortunately unheeded by subsequent designers featured here, who seem to have conceived their task principally as providing a vehicle for diamond sales.

Vanity Case by LaCloche FreresPanther Brooch by Cartier

The Art Deco movement brought some fresh air into the world of French jewelry, with its emphasis on bold geometric designs. However, I suspect it was less popular with visiting Americans than at home, since most of the examples on view here are weak and somewhat atypical. A standout piece is a vanity case by LaCloche Freres, with an arrangement of roses in carved red coral, set off by lapis leaves. A jazz band charm bracelet, maker unknown, is a truly charming piece—a row of tiny geometrically simplified musicians and their conductor are composed by arranging odd-shaped stones with a minimum of metalwork, but it has the appearance of a novelty item designed for impulse purchase, not a serious artistic effort. The best example of Deco aesthetics on view is a Panther Brooch in platinum, diamonds and black onyx (for the spots) created by Cartier for the American boxer Gene Tunney, as a present for his wife. Unfortunately, most of the more serious work has a clunky feel to it, of being constructed to make an aesthetic point rather than to be easily worn, or to complement the wearer. Perhaps this is why many of the examples from this prewar period eschew Art Deco entirely or in part and draw from historical styles, using Chinese, Egyptian, Medieval, Greek, and Mughal forms and motifs. I was struck, however, by the wide range of objects that were considered fair game for a jeweler of this period. Not just rings, brooches, earrings, necklaces and bracelets—they decorated opera glasses, produced dress clips, vanity and cigarette cases, cages for animals, purses, clocks, watches, fans and perfume bottles—it seems that a jeweler’s field of work has narrowed considerably since then.

The Postwar period seems to have marked a low point in French jewelry design, at least from an artistic perspective. Perhaps the atmosphere of scarcity or the recent trauma caused designers and their customers to retrench, but the results as seen here are lamentable. Designs were either derivative of historical patterns or suffused with the blandness that still characterizes the 1950s in our minds. In searching for more inexpensive products, colored stones were used more, but usually in standardized cuts and unimaginative designs. Perhaps copying the taste of the (American) Duchess of Windsor, a vogue was created for cute jewel-encrusted animals, but these did little to alleviate the prevailing artistic emptiness of the period. A new burst of diamonds and advertising from DeBeers, reflecting their monopoly in the world market, revived the Garland style in a simplified form, and jewelers evolved the pave technique to cover everything they made with the small round brilliant-cut diamonds that were becoming ubiquitous at the time.

Flower Brooch by Van Cleef and ArpelsPicasso

The main innovation of the current era, according to this show, seems to have been the introduction of the “miracle” or invisible-setting technique. This allows stones, particularly rectangular ones, to be set edge-to-edge, without any metal showing in between. Several examples are on view, but none of them are very interesting from an creative standpoint. Yes, concentrated areas of gem color could now be created, but no—this would not be used to any great advantage, at least not here. Although technical tours de force abound, like the invisible-set ruby. sapphire, and diamond Flower Brooch created for the USA 1976 Bicentennial by Van Cleef and Arpels, no new ground was broken in artistic terms by the mainstream jewelry houses featured in this exhibition. The show does present some self-consciously avant-garde pieces designed by prominent modern artists such as Pablo Picasso, Jean Arp, Man Ray, and Andre Derain, but while striking, ultimately these are unconvincing, consisting mostly of large slabs of high-karat gold in the artist’s trademark shapes. One is left with the impression of artists otherwise committed who are willing to experiment with the jewelry medium, but only on their own terms, unwilling to adapt the mindset of a jeweler along with his materials. French artist Arman is an exception; his bracelet composed from musical instruments in gold successfully translates an essentially sculptural idiom into a workable piece of jewelry.

Striving, evidently, to end this show on a high note, the organizers rely on a single transplanted American: Joel Arthur Rosenthal (known as JAR) to convey the impression that French creativity in jewelry is not altogether dead. And in part, they succeed; his most interesting piece, a jewel-bridled circus zebra carved in variegated agate and surmounted by an elegant diamond-studded plume, recalls the heights of the Art Nouveau period, while his Blue Butterfly brooch refers back to the Deco period. The piece that hints the strongest of the artist’s own proclivities is a Daliesque Sea Urchin Clock, with its granulated gold setting for a sand-backed watch movement placed precisely in a natural urchin shell. But one is left wondering, what is being left out? Surely there are French jewelry makers commanding an original contemporary vision as well as the exacting traditional techniques preserved in Europe that enable them to express it; why aren’t they represented here? Is it that they’ve been unable to reach American customers, or that these collectors are not the high-profile types solicited by the organizers of this exhibition? For the answer, we must wait on some future sequel to this show that is more inclusive in its scope.

The Masterpieces of French Jewelry show is accompanied by a $29.95 catalog/book of the same name by Judith Price, published by Running Press of Philadelphia and London. While the pictures are nice, some are of pieces I saw in San Francisco, others are not. While many of the pieces I saw are in it, many are left out, their places filled with photos of related objects that may have been featured in a different incarnation of the show, or just shuffled in to fill things out. The rather sparse text doesn’t add much to the captions that accompanied the show, but it is annoyingly filled out as well, with fawning interviews of various peripherally-related celebrity figures like Christopher Forbes and Dina Merrill Hartley (heirs of collectors) novelist Barbara Taylor Bradford, and designer Juan Pablo Molyneux randomly interspersed.

The show runs through the 10th of June at San Francisco’s Palace of the Legion of Honor Museum. The $10 admission fee lets you into the permanent collection, featuring choice works by various European artists and a small collection of antiquities, as well as this special exhibit. While I can’t be equally positive about all the items in this show, it’s well worth the price of admission for the rare chance to see the infrequently-displayed works in the Art Nouveau section. If you can’t make it to San Francisco in time, wait until the Lalique pieces are back home at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore Maryland to see them there—this is the world’s best Lalique collection outside the Gulbenkian museum in Lisbon.

Andrew Werby

December 2006—New Items on This Site

LPX-600 scanner

Replacing the LPX-250, this laser scanner gets better results without costing much more, due to beefed-up mechanicals. The new GSI EZ-scan software couldn’t be easier to use, and it does a great job of filling holes smoothly. We’ve been using one for a short while now, and results are encouraging. Roland doesn’t yet provide it, but if you want a full set of tools for producing and manipulating scans all the way to the creation of NURBS surfaces using this machine or others, check out GSI Studio. This is the full version of the software that underlies EZ-scan, and gives users more control over the scanning process, while offering more possibilities for manipulating the final scans.


This is a new product from Mecsoft, makers of VisualMill and RhinoCAM. It is a plug-in to Rhino dedicated to producing 3D art and vectors from 2D bitmap images. On the DeskProto forum, in the context of a discussion about 2D–to–3D, I posted a picture of some RhinoArt results, using a picture I snapped on a recent vacation.

We’re bundling it with Rhino at a great price for the combo.

While you’re on the DeskProto site, take a look at an interesting project case history, showing how a trophy was designed for the Buick Open Golf Tournament (won by Tiger Woods) using Sensable’s Freeform modeling tools (which we also sell) and carved using DeskProto.


In spite of customer requests for a jewelry-specific modeling program, I’ve held out against them, feeling that they tend to limit creativity with a template-based approach to design, as well as being more expensive than general-purpose software. It took a demonstration of 3Design to change my mind. While it certainly isn’t cheap, I can definitely see it being well worth its price for a jeweler wanting to produce variations on a theme, unconstrained by a template, without having to go back and redo a piece from scratch each time. here are tons of jewelry-specific features, like stone layouts and gem libraries that would be tedious to build in a generic 3D modeling program. Here’s a link to a series of video demos on the 3Design site.


New from Mecsoft, this software does for the CNC lathe what VisualMill did for the CNC mill, with a very similar interface. Here’s a Powerpoint-style presentation of its main features.

The MDX-540 from Roland

Faster, tighter, but a little smaller than the discontinued MDX-650, this new offering from Roland’s 3D division optionally offers automatic tool-changing and a 4th axis which can both be used at the same time. Read an unbiased review from Desktop Engineering magazine: “A Mill for Every Desktop

The Sherline CNC Lathe

For a relatively modest investment, one can now turn parts automatically, using the Sherline CNC-ready Lathe and their control box. The supplied software that runs it is EMC , a Linux-based control package originally written as an open-source project by NIST (the U.S. standards institute) but now taken over by an independent group, LinuxCNC. Sherline’s version has been customized and simplified somewhat, and it works pretty well, if one can face dealing with an operating system that’s unfamiliar to most of us. Of course, if you want to stay in the Windows world, they can also be supplied with a control system from Flashcut.

The Perfactory from EnvisonTec

This “Personal Factory” is an additive rapid prototyping machine that offers total design freedom within its size envelope, giving users the ability to make a part without having to worry about undercuts or tool access. Jewelers like its waxy build material, which allows direct lost-wax casting of parts; industrial designers use it to make strong plastic parts capable of simulating a finished component; medical types can experiment with its biologically compatible material, which even allows the deposition of living cells in a matrix. Here’s a review from Prototype Magazine.

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