Post image for 3-D printing, ‘fab labs’ marry physics, art

3-D printing, ‘fab labs’ marry physics, art

March 9, 2012

Next to a metal shop in the IU Bloomington School of Fine Arts’ McCalla building, behind a sliding glass door, sit three revolutionary machines.

These machines — two monstrous printers and a CNC Wood Router — are cutting-edge tools of 3-D printing, meaning a three-dimensional object may be printed in tangible, life-size versions.

Professor Nicole Jacquard demonstrates how to create an art object on the computer and send it to a 3-D printer. (Photo: Steph Langan | IDS)

“We’re at this fortunate moment where we’re finding out what this software and equipment can do,” says Nicole Jacquard, assistant professor of fine arts. “Before, it was more industry, but now we have students pushing the limits of these machines.”

These machines haven’t always been in the hands of artists, though. They originated in an entirely different context — physics.

Professor Paul Sokol, a professor of physics in the IU Bloomington College of Arts and Sciences and former director of what was known as the IU Cyclotron Facility, first brought the machines to the IU Bloomington campus. He purchased the 3-D printing machines in hope of designing components of the cyclotron by computer first, then testing them to see if all the pieces fit together.

“It’s not like we were building things that sold for $19.95,” says Sokol, who is also associate vice provost for research at IU Bloomington.

When Jacquard approached Sokol about utilizing the 3-D printing machines in the School of Fine Arts, he had no hesitation. The two researchers embarked on a project called “Stretching Boundaries: Nuclear Physics and Fine Arts,” funded by IU’s New Frontiers in the Arts and Humanities grants program. Their project incorporated Jacquard’s computer-aided designs and with the rapid prototyping machinery to create a body of work.

As a result of the grant, the machines were also moved, and since then, art students at IU Bloomington have been able to create a variety of customized objects using 3-D printing including  jewelry, freestanding sculptures, and guitars.

Jacquard has also interacted with other departments on campus interested in utilizing the software and equipment–an investigator in medical sciences, for example, is hoping to scan various bird skulls, and a math professor is interested in making his own dice to better teach probability.

“I think we’re really moving from an era of mass production to mass customization,” says Jacquard, who is now hoping she can bring a fabrication lab, or “fab lab,” to campus. This addition would reflect a partnership between IU, Ivy Tech Community College, and the Bloomington community.

Anne Fiala, a second-year graduate student in metalsmithing and jewelry design, started using a fabrication lab during her undergraduate studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “One of the goals of the fab lab is to offer the general public the digital technology,” Fiala said via email. “It was great to see people as young as 5 and as old as 85 learning open-source technology and finding new and improved ways to problem-solve using the fab lab resources.”

At IU Bloomington, the biology, theatre, kinesiology, and computer science departments have expressed interest in the availability of a fabrication lab on campus for research purposes. The ultimate goal would be a lab also open to the community.

To fund the new lab space, Jacquard and colleagues are currently applying for grants. As she looks forward to a time when the fabricated lab can become a reality on campus, Jacquard has high hopes for the future.“We’re thinking of a larger picture,” she says. “We want to do something that can benefit the whole Bloomington community.”

This story originally appeared in a fuller version as “Students design sculptures, guitars in fab lab, revolutionary 3-D printing press” by Jacqueline Veling, Indiana Daily Student, March 06, 2012