Printing with Objects

The UAMN production unit has just a few months left to finish designing, building, and installing our next special exhibit, Arctic Odyssey: Voyages of the R/V Sikuliaq. It’s a team effort, from the panels that will go on the wall to the large interactive elements designed to give people an understanding of complex oceanographic concepts. A special exhibit is the ultimate in multimedia storytelling. The possibilities for bringing scientific concepts and theories to life — as endless as there is space to contain them.

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With a new 3D Printer, Modeler/Animator Hannah Foss has been able to create a lifelike model of the Sikuliaq for a water column element that will be located in the far corner of the Special Exhibits Gallery. The 3.5 inch ‘test-size’ ship takes two hours to print, while the full-size, 7 inch ship can be produced in nine hours. The detail is incredible, including railing, cranes, lights and stack funnels.

Hannah says there have been challenges. “With great power comes great responsibility and room to goof up. Many times there are disagreements between the CGI software and the 3D Printer proprietary software- holes, disappearing pieces, artifacts, blobs, failed prints, glitches, etc. It’s not an exact science. Sometimes the mesh is too thin, other times riddled with holes, backwards-facing faces, intersecting planes, unresolved mesh edges. That kind of nonsense.”

I wanted to know more about what might become just another office supply now, before the unimagined is mundane.

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Is the MakerBot a special brand? Isn’t there a UAF connection? Makerbot is one of the best known brands around, with a comfortingly large user base- this makes a good safety net as far as customer feedback and support when you need help. Yes! It turns out a UAF graduate Nick Brewer works at Makerbot in a Social Media/ Outreach capacity. He has been really generous to offer us assistance and support, it’s great to have UAF connections so far and wide.

What was it like to get the printer up and working? I imagine it wasn’t just an out-of-the-box experience? It was like geek Christmas, like unwrapping a puppy. As far as set up went, it was pretty simple- we had it up and running in an hour and a half, and that was taking into consideration a lot of triple checking and time spent gushing and staring at it. Other than cutting a few restraining bands that held extruder parts steady during shipping, attaching the material-feed spool and calibrating the print plate levels, it was out-of-the-box ready. Everything was very user friendly.

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Printing a 3D object isn’t like sending a photo image to a printer. What kind of “plans” do you need? Right. It’s like sending hundreds of layers to a printer. In order to ensure a successful print, you have to think like a printer, see like the printer. BECOME. THE. PRINTER.

A 3D Printer prints in layers, like a stack of pancakes. Layer by layer it builds slices of your object in flat planes, one on another, until you have your finished object. This gives you some freedoms and restrictions. Thanks to the precision of the printer, you can print fine angled parts like flaps and flippers with relative ease. Your restrictions are that you cannot build wide platforms and overhangs in midair.

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Let’s say you’re printing a mushroom all in one piece, from the bottom of the stem up. This print will be incomplete, since the printer cannot start printing the overhanging edges of the mushroom cap in midair. It would therefore be best to print the mushroom on it’s head, this way the cap can be printed completely and cleanly. We used this same method to print our whale (belly up) so that his fins would print cleanly and completely. Some people avoid this problem by printing objects in separate pieces, or split and print bilaterally.

There’s also the matter of making sure your file is printer ready. You want to avoid artifacts that will confuse the printer and perhaps cause a failure. There are situations that can exist in the CGI world, but don’t really jive with reality- these include penetrating surfaces (surfaces sliding through each other), incomplete or hole-filled surfaces and non-manifold geometry. A printer can’t print something it views as a one-sided plane. It might not understand how to print shapes that intersect or collide with one another. You want to make things as easy for the printer to understand as possible. From your native CGI program, you export your cleaned-up and printer-friendly object to the Makerbot’s proprietary software, called Makerware. Here you can translate (move), rotate and scale your object(s), and then save and export it to an SD card.

What have you printed so far? Two files that came with the makerbot on its SD card- Mr Jaws, the shark, and a chain link, to make sure the 3D printer was up and running correctly. We have also printed a mushroom, many whales, and beveled gears. Our sea-faring research vessel was the latest project on the horizon.

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What’s your dream print job? A dragon. Or a horse. Or dinosaurs. Yeah, like a whole bunch of that combination. Or a kinetic model, like a dinosaur toy.

Maybe that’s something we’ll see in our NEXT special exhibit.

– Theresa Bakker, media coordinator

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