Ravensbourne students are testing the boundaries of digital manufacturing technologies. Alistair Welch discovers more on a tour of the college’s state-of-the-art rapid prototyping facility
From Ravensbourne College’s rapid prototyping suite, the porthole-style windows of Thomas Heatherwick’s distinctive building on the Greenwich peninsula offer striking views of the O2 (née The Millenium Dome) and The Docklands. The purpose-built, open-plan space is quite a contrast with the stereotypical image of a product development workshop: a dark, dusty basement filled with the noise of CNC machines.
More than an impressive view, the setting is indicative of Ravensbourne’s desire to broaden the horizons of product development technology. “In our old building we were separated from fashion and print students,” explains Jake Durrant, senior lecturer in digital manufacturing technologies. “Here, we made a conscious decision to roll the technologies together. In our first year of being here we have found that a lot more fashion students are wanting to produce things, such as jewellery and accessories, using 3D printing; conversely, product students are embracing fashion techniques like stitching.”
Roland CNC mills stand next to a Zcorp 450 3D printer and two Hobarts PLS660 laser cutters. The workshop also holds Dimension and Matrix 3D printers, three Mimaki fabric printers and a range of cutting-edge 3D scanning equipment.
Ravensbourne has been based in its new home for a year now and Durrant explains that the students’ engagement with the technology has been extremely positive. The Zcorp 450, a 3D printer that prints layers of glue into an inert powder, is described by Durrant as “our workhorse”: in its first six months of operation the machine has printed over 600 models.
Furthermore, the Matrix 300 printer, which prints using layers of standard copy paper, is proving popular because the material is cheap. The laser cutters are also always in demand, with everything from leather components to Mother’s Day cards having been fabricated on them. The Hobarts machines work directly from Illustrator, or similar programs, and are safe, quick and easy to operate.
Durrant explains that he wants the equipment in the studio to be as accessible as books in a library might be at another university. Students are welcome to use any of the machines paying cost price for materials; they submit an STL file to the course tutors and the jobs are then grouped to be run on the machines overnight.
It is an interesting time for 3D printing. The technology has now been around for two decades, but with the advent of MakerBots and RepRaps (self-replicating 3D printers), machines are becoming more affordable. Ravensbourne recently purchased its first MakerBot and Durrant sees these smaller-scale, lower-cost machines as key to the future of prototyping: “If we can have rows of these machines in the future, it will allow people to be more creative as there is more scope to experiment without having to justify the job in terms of cost or time.”
However, he still sees a role for larger, more sophisticated kit, particularly in printing more complex, even mixed material, models. Furthermore, the traditional tools are unlikely to disappear entirely from the workshop. “Despite committing to a digital workflow, we still have some manual model making facilities; you can never get away from the fact that you need saws, sanders, lathes and the like,” says Durrant.
The space also hosts a formidable arsenal of 3D scanning equipment. In addition to a Roland Picza scanner and a Microscribe MLX, students have access to an Artec MHT handheld optical scanner. This piece of kit, because it is not laser-based, can scan people with their eyes open. It is also one of the quickest ways of transferring a physical object to the digital realm.
Within five minutes, John Fidler, a technical tutor at the college, has scanned my face and uploaded the 3D model onto a computer - the data could then be exported to a 3D printer to produce a rapid model of my mug. Seeing your own face rendered, quite literally warts and all, is a strange experience, rather like hearing your own voice on a recording.
Despite the speed and uncanny fidelity of the scan, Fidler warns me against assuming the process is as straightforward a business as it may seem: “3D scanning is a dark art - it’s not as simple as scan it, have it. Yes, you can print straight from 3D scans, but the bulk of the time you need the data for manipulation.”
For the 2011 academic year, the college launched a new course, an MSc in Applied Technologies, specifically tailored to allow students to explore the potential of rapid prototyping and digital technologies. The course was designed to take advantage of the college’s impressive range of prototyping technologies.
Students are invited to challenge the boundaries of the equipment and find new applications. The course aims to place students at the forefront of the creative application of 3D printing techniques - an industry sector that looks set to experience significant expansion in the coming years.
Fidler has embarked on his own project to explore the potential of the college’s equipment. A fantastically detailed model of the college building and surrounding area, which sits proudly in the studio, was fabricated by Fidler using solely 3D scanning and 3D printing - this method, supported by geographical resources such as Google Earth, might encourage architects to move away from the time-consuming and costly techniques of card and craft knife.
Furthermore, the college facilities and staff are available to work with entrepreneurs and industry on 3D development projects. Recently, an inventor approached Ravensbourne with a medical implement he had designed and modelled in plasticine. He had no knowledge of CAD, but college staff scanned his handmade model so that it could be reproduced.
This sort of reverse engineering, explains Fidler, is also useful for animators working with clay: “They create things in the traditional manner and can then transfer them digitally.”
Encouraging cross-disciplinary involvement in 3D technologies, beyond the core of product design, is an important feature of the college’s approach. Fidler has already worked with fashion students in scanning human bodies to design garments to fit individuals exactly. Also, a number of artists are beginning to explore the possibilities of the technology.
Flora Parrott, a digital artist and lecturer in art at Ravensbourne, has worked with design tutors over recent months. “We are looking for happy mistakes where we don’t quite know what is going to happen,” recalls Durrant. “On one occasion Flora went out on a foggy day to capture some landscape with a 3D scanner, but all she got was a ring of fog - yet that turned into a beautiful piece of art in itself.
“We are trying to engage as many people from different areas as possible. Flora, for example, uses the equipment in a very different way to an engineer.”
Rapid prototyping technologies, it seems, are moving out of the basement and Ravensbourne wants to lead the way in exploring the potential of digital manufacturing techniques.
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