Printing a Set

by Eric Hart

Tony Castrigno of Design Contact, Inc., first modeled this mountain set piece using a 3D printer.
Tony Castrigno of Design Contact, Inc., first modeled this mountain set piece using a 3D printer.
More and more designers are turning to 3D printers help bring designs to life

Tony Castrigno designed a mountain. He could see it on the computer screen. He could print out a drawing of it. If he wanted to hold a scale model piece of it though, he would have to build it by hand. That seemed inefficient.

Castrigno is the chief creative partner at Design Contact, Inc., a scenic and exhibit design firm in New York City. The company models their sets in 3D CAD for drawings and renderings. They looked for a way to create a model of the mountain directly from the CAD file. John Moyik, Jr., the managing partner, explains, “We found a rapid prototyping company in the Midwest that usually did automotive part tests. This was new to them, too, and they were excited to try it. The model came out far better than we thought it would and the shop did a fantastic job carving out the full size version based on it.”

 

Here’s the model of the mountain set piece, with a quarter to show scale.
Here’s the model of the mountain set piece, with a quarter to show scale.

What they had found was a type of rapid prototyping known as “3D printing.” Many types of 3D printing exist; the company Castrigno found uses “stereolithography,” where a pool of liquid polymer is selectively hardened by an ultraviolet laser. Other 3D printers use different materials and techniques, but the result is similar: a digital 3D file is used to build a 3D model in the real world.

 

A 10-Year Overnight Sensation

Though the technology has existed in some form for decades, 3D printing has only recently become economical enough for scenic designers to use. The kind of machine that printed Design Contact’s model pieces is prohibitively expensive for most studios to afford; however, lower-cost “hobbyist” 3D printers have appeared in recent years, with names like RepRap, Thing-O-Matic, Cupcake and Solidoodle.

 

Kacie Hultgren, a scenic designer, with her Makerbot Replicator 3D printer
Kacie Hultgren, a scenic designer, with her Makerbot Replicator 3D printer

Kacie Hultgren, a Brooklyn scenic designer and one of John Lee Beatty’s assistants, has followed desktop and DIY 3D printing technology for a few years, thinking it would be a great tool to apply to model building. She first researched the available printers in 2010 but “The resolution and typical results weren’t delicate enough, or accurate enough, to be useful in my work. Many of the machines required assembly, and required much tinkering and calibration.”

 

She looked at 3D printing again in 2011. “Makerbot had just released a new extruder design on their Thing-O-Matic printer, and the detail that users were achieving was really impressive. I bought a Thing-O-Matic, assembled it from scratch, and started work on developing model furniture ready for 3D printing.” It took about 60 hours to assemble, tune and troubleshoot the printer before her first model was printed.

“I got a new printer, the Makerbot Replicator, in the spring of 2012.  The new model is preassembled, though it maintains its open source and DIY roots. The build area is larger, it prints in two colors, and the out-of-the-box accuracy is even better. Many of the hardware struggles the Thing-O-Matic presented are solved in the Replicator, and it’s an amazing tool to have in my studio.”

Efficiencies and Opportunities

Owen Collins, a designer and chair of the Department of Theater and Dance at Washington and Lee University, talks about how he stumbled upon 3D printing: “I was wishing for a 3D equivalent of an ink-jet printer.” He began researching the available printers in 2008. “I kept thinking about how I could use them for outputting scale model pieces.”

The advantages are considerable. Collins says, “Printing out the pieces and putting them in the model theatre helps me take in the spatial relationships better than viewing a 3D world represented on a 2D screen. The 3D printer makes this a lot easier.”

 

Kacie Hultgren prints chairs with her 3D printer for her designs and to sell to others.
Kacie Hultgren prints chairs with her 3D printer for her designs and to sell to others.

Hultgren runs her 3D printer constantly as she works on other pieces. “Building scale chairs has always been a challenge and headache. I’ve created several styles that I use over and over: bentwood, Queen Anne, Windsor, etc. I can print a 1/2” scale chair in about 15 minutes.” She has built up a small collection of scale furniture that she uses repeatedly. “The time put into the 3D modeling process really pays off when you will print multiples of an object over time.”

 

She also solves tricky design problems, like spiral staircases or complex forced perspective, using 3D CAD. Once the CAD drawing is complete, making a model piece is simply a matter of hitting “print.”

Castrigno and Moyik like 3D printing because it helps them make their sets match their renderings. The renderings presented to clients are generated from the same CAD files they send to the shop for construction. Thanks to 3D printing, making a scale model becomes integrated within this same process. They can design complicated objects, shapes and elements without worrying how long a skilled model maker would take to build it. A piece of scale truss, for instance, would take a model maker weeks to create with brass rod and solder; the end result would not be as precise as one 3D printed.

Even with these advantages, the technology has its limitations. The biggest hurdle with owning a machine is the learning curve in using it. Hultgren explains that “you need to experiment with print speed, temperature, design tolerances and a host of other factors to get optimum results.” The time it takes to draft and print an object is sometimes longer than building it with traditional means. The pieces are also limited to the size of the machine’s bed, though Collins has found success with breaking larger objects into smaller pieces that fit together.

Larger pieces can be made if they’re outsourced to professional printing companies, but even those have shortcomings. Moyik explains that the models have a rough surface texture that often needs to be sanded. They are difficult to paint, so they typically leave them white. And thin parts may be too fragile for printing anywhere. “The smallest thickness we found we could get away with was about 1/32”,” Moyik says. He also informs me the cost for printing pieces at their rapid protyper is “around a couple hundred bucks each, depending on size, plus shipping.”

For Collins and Hultgren, owning their own printers has created opportunities outside of scenic design. Collins prints custom joints for bunraku puppets and also sees potential for creating costume jewelry and small props. Hultgren sells her 3D printed furniture on her website (www.prettysmallthings.com) to everyone from scenic designers to dollhouse enthusiasts. She also releases her designs on a website called Thingiverse. The website allows the sharing of 3D models among designers. Hultgren explains that the 3D printing community sprung up out of the open source movement. “There is a huge emphasis on sharing files, creating derivatives and sharing work in an open way. This ideology runs counter to what I experience in the theatre industry, and it’s been interesting to explore my thoughts about open source design and art in practice.”

Hultgren also uses 123D Catch, an Autodesk program that creates a 3D mesh with pictures from any digital camera. You upload 20 to 40 photographs of an object from all angles to their service, and in a few minutes, you have a 3D CAD model. “Objects that might otherwise be difficult to design in a CAD program, like a tufted sofa, or a lion statue, are easy to grab from the world around you and print in whatever scale you desire.” She takes pictures of anything she finds interesting, whether it’s in a museum, a show or prop storage.

Deciding How to Build

Should scene designers start learning how to 3D print? Collins states, “It is inevitable. We thought moving lights would only be in rock ‘n’ roll shows, and then on Broadway, and now they are common.” Moyik points out that since other businesses can do your printing, the need to know how to operate a printer is unnecessary. “Any rapid prototyping company you use can help you figure it out quickly and usually has guidelines for the files they accept.”

Hultgren realizes not all designers like working in 3D CAD. “Getting started with 3D printing only makes sense once you have a command of 3D CAD, otherwise you’ll be stuck to printing designs that are already available. The benefit of these machines is custom things, and it’s not worth having one in a studio until you feel comfortable designing for it.”

3D printers are just a tool, and not a complete replacement for all other skills and techniques. Moyik says, “We assess any set that we are going to build a scale model of and decide how each part is to be built: some 3D printing, some laser cut and some old-fashioned cut mat board and Sobo. There’s no reason to get a flat wall 3D printed when a laser cut or mat board could do it just as easily.”

Hultgren agrees, “I want to use technology when it saves time, money and improves quality.  I have to remember on occasion not to get carried away by technology; often enough, my hands are faster than the printer. I think good design requires an embrace of both traditional craft and technology.”