Friday, 17 April 2015

Dimensional thoughts and things

I have made a recent discovery. With so many things changing in the world of design and technology, as a designer one sometimes feels left out and left behind if one cannot add the latest technology to one's repertoire. 3-D printing, 3-D scanning, CAD, SLS … the list of acronyms is endless. And then you might even have to name- drop a popular CAD (computer aided design) program or 2 to seem convincing. As an independent jeweller who makes and designs her own work, I have not yet found the need, nor urgency (nor funds!) to invest thousands of pounds in training to use the best CAD tools. I have learned to do 3-D CAD independently years ago – but due to planned obsolescence of everything computer based, sadly my 10-year old 3-D package no longer works on my 2015 computer system. There was absolutely nothing wrong with the “old” 3-D package. It would still work had I kept a working old Windows 2005 computer (my own one crashed!). Sadly time moved on and the very useful and powerful CAD package now gathers dust among other defunct DVDs of the era. Is it fair to call a mere 10 years ago an “era”? (The answer is no, in case you were wondering … )

Has time improved CAD and the need for it? At the risk of revealing my age, I was taught 3-D Design while studying an Engineering Drawings module at university – by hand. I then privately studied 3-D CAD later on, but never really found the need to use it often, as my hand drawings were sufficient at the time. When I started jewellery design, I used my head, my hand, pen and paper. Designs were not always written down – they developed “organically”. Every designer who uses a notebook and pen (or the modern digital equivalent, although I am not sure if this works when the power runs out ... ), will understand that an idea, when you get it, has to be visualised in one way or another. I myself tend to draw in 2-D paper space with a pen in my trusty non- digital black book, and then develop the actual idea in 3-D manually, in the workshop. It is a small technicality that our vision is only 2-dimensional, and is also the way we transfer the written word / design. Yes, our spatial world (as many understand it today) is 3-dimensional, yet our perception of it is 2-dimensional – because of our eyes (for those of us with sight). Our eyes have light cones which collect light in a 2 dimensional array. Our brain interprets these signals and allows us to understand our 3-D space using the 2-D data our eyes have collected.

I don't want to mind- boggle anyone – just lay down the basics of my discovery. Explorers of the past “discovered” America, Africa, Australia, yet they already existed to the native people. In a similar way, I discovered 3-D writing. It exists perhaps as a standard tool for those who already know, but for me, it is a new find altogether.

3D pens are here! I was tempted a year ago to get one: a 3D pen. Last year it was too expensive. This year, you can get one for less than £40. So I took the plunge. I bought one. Why? Do I need one? Could a 3D pen have the ability to visualise my 2D ideas, and express them in 3D before I actually make them?

A 3D pen uses a plastic filament as the “ink”. The filament (“ink”) is a certain thickness (mine takes 1.75mm), and is supplied on rolls of a few metres. The concept works in a similar way to using a hot glue gun, but with better precision and finer scale, and a wide colour range. See photo below.

Excitedly I opened the packaging, read the instructions and loaded the filament. Yikes! This was not easy and not straight forward. However several hours later (and mindful of my limited supply of filament), I made 3 bracelets in ABS plastic (see photo). I used a simple repeat design based on a hexagon,with the following result after a few hours of play.  The crude finish shows it is clearly hand drawn, but this was not possible for me before now, so it is significant, if not exact.


Once the design has been made on the page, and the filament cooled sufficiently (a few seconds), you get such excitement by lifting the creation off the page. Your 2-D doodle is now in 3-D! It has a shadow, it has a thickness, and it has a certain amount of flexibility. It can be touched. You can really send words to someone now! Solid ones! The sense of creating something out of nothing can be slightly euphoric. Give it a go. I dare you!

It became so much clearer to me now why I need the 3D pen. It enables me to visualise a product design idea much sooner. It reduces the cost of incremental improvements, which many fellow designers can commiserate with me.

The best bit is that the molten filament sticks to the surface of the paper. It gives me a base from which to create. Tutorials abound on the Internet and many “how to's” regarding the 3-D pen concept. This invention definitely raised the barrier to 3-D design for many. Firstly, cost savings: The cheapest 3-D printer is at least 10 times or more the cost of my 3-D pen. I don't need to know a CAD package to use my 3-D pen effectively. Secondly, it adds another dimension to paper ideas. Magically, I can doodle away on the flat page, and then literally lift the design off the page, and it becomes a 3-D tangible object. The object might not be strong enough or durable enough yet for rigorous use, but it gives you a good start on an otherwise simple two dimensional route to design. The precision is not yet there based on my limited expertise, but I guess with lots more practise, I will achieve better results.

As a conceptual tool, the 3D pen will stay in my toolbox. I am excited about the prospect of using other filaments – there are ones that contain wood, elastic many other colours and other environmentally friendly plastics like PLA. Many say to me that it is just a toy. Who knows how far a toy like this can push boundaries, and change the way we see / make / do things?

I wish the 3-D pen was perhaps even more advanced than it is – that it could print my jewellery design directly in precious metal or a metallised powder that can be fired afterwards. Perhaps “they” have already done that? It would be a shame for a technology with lots of potential like this to become obsolete like my 2005 CAD DVD. Luckily, my 3-D pen is not digital nor needs a computer to control it. So there is still hope for it to be continuously useful. Now I just need to order some more filament …