When I started my career as a professional artist, my first introduction to working in 3D was to create what was then referred to as 3D illustration. Basically, I created physical clay sculptures, built small props, took photographs of them, and then used those photos to create illustrations. These sculptures began to take up a lot of space, and before long I had an entire room devoted to storing them. Soon after, I discovered computer graphics and eventually 3D modeling and animation. No longer did I have to fnd an unused shoebox to store my newest character. Instead, I could simply save it to a disk. But there was only one thing missing: being able to hold my creation in my hand and place it on a shelf for others to see.
With the advent of 3D printing—the process by which a digital model in a computer can be turned into a physical object in the real world—artists can now have the best of both worlds: the freedom of working on a computer with all its abundant bonuses and the ability to hold their creation in their hands.
3D Printing Overview
3D printing is a form of rapid prototyping that uses the method of additive manufacturing, the process of joining materials to make physical objects from 3D model data. The physical model is created by building up multiple layers on top of each other, one layer at a time, as opposed to traditional machining, which uses subtractive manufacturing—starting with a solid shape and removing portions until the desired shape is formed.
To visualize how 3D printing works, consider an apple. If you were to slice the apple into wafer-thin layers, save each layer, and then restack them in order, you would re-create the shape of the original object. 3D printing accomplishes this by stacking very thin layers on top of each other from the data of a digital mesh. As this technology has advanced, the thickness of each layer has decreased, allowing for a smoother surface to be generated.
Several options are available for how these layers are created for printing a physical object. Some methods for 3D printing involve printers that lay liquid materials and harden them one layer at a time; others melt materials to produce the layers. The most common method of 3D printing is the ink jet printing system.
Ink jet printing consists of several stages, and I’ll step through each one to paint a better picture of this process. Of course, the first step is to generate a 3D model that you want to print. The illustration below shows an award I designed and built in 3D that I took through the printing process.