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Digital Fabrication Studio Looks to the Future

Juxtapositions explores the new advent of 3-D printing

Posted 09.01.13 by mica communications

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Andy Ta, a technician in the Digital Fabrication Studio, demonstrates how objects are taken from a digital file and turned into a 3-D work of art, as demonstrated by the sculptures on the table in front of him.

The advent of 3-D printing, a technology that uses digital data to make practically any shape, has fired up the public's imagination. President Barack Obama mentioned it in his most recent State of the Union address, and the European Space Agency talks about using the technology to build a base on the moon. From simple plastic toys to controversial applications such as plastic guns, it seems as though nearly anything can be 3-D printed. It is  perhaps the most transformative technology in the world, and artists and designers at MICA have it right at their fingertips.

As technologies such as 3-D printing have become increasingly popular, MICA has stayed on the cusp of the technological revolution. One of the most dynamic hubs of activity at MICA is the Digital Fabrication Studio, a facility housing 3-D printers, milling machines, laser cutters, a computer lab, and additional tools for creating interactive electronics, located in Mount Royal Station.

"We're committed to hands-on learning, as well as to creative applications of these new  echnologies," said Ryan Hoover '06 (Mount Royal School of Art), the director of fabrication studios who also teaches in the Interdisciplinary Sculpture and Environmental Design departments.

Just a few years ago, processes that could take a digital file and turn it into an actual object were difficult to use and prohibitively expensive. Tools and work flows were designed for conventional mass-production manufacturing, and not relevant or accessible for most artists and designers-but now, inexpensively transforming design ideas into concrete reality can take just a matter of hours. At MICA, objects can be printed out of photopolymers, plastics, or a powder-based material similar to plaster.

MICA students and faculty members across all disciplines embrace these tools and technologies to create innovative works of art. Most of these projects start either with the studio's 3-D scanners, which can be used to replicate or modify already made objects, or in the studio's computer lab, where computeraided drafting takes place. Trained technicians on staff demonstrate how to use the technologies, while also ensuring the lab remains a safe working environment.

One artist who could often be found in the Digital Fabrication Studio during her undergraduate studies was Karine Sarkissian '13 (environmental design), who utilized the technologies for her thesis project.

"The exposure we have to the machines-especially in an educational institution-is so great," Sarkissian said.

"I loved the variety of things I could make with the machines," she explained, noting that she used a variety of machines to cut into clear acrylic and engrave detailed designs on paper for her thesis.

The experience paid off in a big way when she was offered a job at an architectural firm after graduation. There, she'll continue to work with 3-D software, CNC routers, and 3-D printers.

"It should be exciting as this is a relatively new technology that is booming everywhere. MICA students really have an advantage knowing so much so early in the evolution of 3-D printing," she added.

To ensure students have access to the technologies after graduation, the studio has conducted weekend workshops led by the studio technician, Andy Ta, in which participants build 3-D printers of their own. Amazingly, well-functioning printers can be created out of some basic materials from a hardware store and online, as long as the maker also has access to a 3-D printer that can produce a few specialized parts.

For Hoover, this process of replication and recreation is symbolic of the ethos of sharing prevalent in the 3-D printing community, in which many people believe everyone should have access to a product's design or blueprint.

"We are actively engaged in research and development to advance these fields, particularly in the realm of 3-D printing," Hoover said. "We recognize that we must build upon and spread access to and knowledge of these tools."

The result is that everyone who passes through the studio-including students, faculty, and staff-constantly learns new things.

"We teach our students to think critically about these tools, which are reshaping our world physically, socially, and economically," Hoover said. "While they are learning technical skills for their art and design practice, which are currently in high demand, they are also developing the knowledge to be thoughtful leaders in these new fields."