Steps from a Virtual Concept to Finished Work using 3D Printed Components
The following is the step by step process I use to develop a design or artistic idea into three dimensional reality using modern tools and technology. The images are from a current project just completed, and are not retouched, so you can see the raw process as it progressed.
Creative Process – In the virtual universe
The Transition from Virtual to Realization Requires a Few Process and Conversion Steps
The Design is Now an Object in the Real World
While the part produced by the printer can be used as-is, the layering process leaves lines and surface qualities that may not be acceptable for their final intended use. This is acceptable for concepts, internal parts, prototypes, and for some finished end use products that are not primarily aesthetic. For artistic work, I spend a significant amount of time refining every printed part. This includes sanding, as well as other methods of surfacing, to eliminate the layering and surface effects, for a final finish that is more attractive as a visual object. This comprises the largest investment in physical time. It is not uncommon for the finishing process to take as much as five to ten times the time it takes to complete all of the above steps. This is particularly true for large objects made from bonding several components together into components to be used in an assembly. The process of bonding and seam finishing starts in the design phase, and carries forward as multiple parts through the print process, then finished here in the final processing steps.
And Now for the Finish
For art and finer work, the surface of the printed part is treated to a finishing process. This is a little bit of a black art to some degree, and I do have my own secret sauce combination of techniques – that I prefer to protect. I will share the basic steps I use. First is to rough sand the part smooth with a low number grit paper (60 to 80), avoiding taking too much material away that the part is no longer the correct dimension. Next, I have discovered – after several years of testing – filler-primer materials that bond perfectly with the plastic. These fill sanding marks and any remaining surface scratches or print lines. I do this several times, sanding between with 220 grit wet paper, occasionally using automotive spot putty where needed for pin holes that show up, until the part is smooth and clear of any surface imperfections. At this point, the part is sealed with a final sealer primer, then wet sanded one last time with 400 grit paper to make it ready for paint. For gloss finishes, I might do one additional sanding step with 600 grit wet. Top coats vary, including high gloss, textured flat, artificial rust, gold leaf, metalic… With the sealer applied, any finish can be applied and secondary process, such as polishing or pumas buffing, to create whatever finish one might desire.
Final Result Realized
The processes shown here is the very basic steps from realizing a design concept in 3 dimensions directly from a CAD model. Not shown here are hours spent on the design, which is the same as it might be for a tooled product, or sketched by someone to work from in another media. The 3D print process accelerates the phase between having a drawing or model file, and putting hands on a solid material part – without having to carve it from a solid block, or tool it in some manner that takes months and costs thousands. For short run commissions and one-off artwork, this is an amazing and exciting technology. Further, making additional copies, or iterations from the basic design, is enabled, freeing me to explore creatively, without every iteration absorbing more time than is necessary.
This process can be utilized to make one, or many parts and assemblies. My first large project using 3D printers in 2010 included making 87 complete fixtures, each made from 4 to 5 printed parts, combined with light sources and heat sinks sources elsewhere.
The ability to fine tune, iterate, revise and customize the finished product is unlimited. This enables the concept of made-to-idea products in ways that no other process can support. Use of abbreviated steps to test and iterate, then moving to the more involved finished phases when a piece is finally developed, means that changing ones mind is not going to create an upset – as it is simply a part of this approach. For me, this is the perfect marriage of art and technology, as it allows expression to be realized in a way that encourages exploration. By injecting the hand finishing process, the finished work is even more refined and special in character.
Whether this is all practical for production purposes, is a matter of what the end product is, what price it can capture, and what volumes are involved. There are certainly exciting opportunities to be realized.
I hope this provides some insight into my process and results. More to come!