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
Building the Model
While we once used pens and pencils to create drawings, when the end product is to be produced directly as a 3D assembly, creating designs within solid-model CAD software is a more direct, and more satisfying process. In my case, all sculptures and designs are created in SolidWorks. This includes all components to be utilized, to insure the final product will fit together. This is a highly iterative process, that may entail dozens of attempts and variations, as the design matures and evolves.
At various stages in the process, the model assembly or its parts are rendered to see how they might appear when completed. This affords me insight into proportion, and general appearance that the CAD software is lacking.
By applying luminous properties or light light sources, as well as changing background scenes, the work can be seen closer to its final form during the creative process. This enhances visualization of the end product before physical components are committed. This visualization frequently results in new iterative design steps.
Once determined the design is ready to move to physical form, each component is then verified individually and prepared for export to a file format compatible with the 3D Print processing software. For those who do not have a 3D printer to work with, the converted file can be sent to a service bureau, or some other resource, who can carry out the printing process and provide the part.
The Transition from Virtual to Realization Requires a Few Process and Conversion Steps
Within the processing software, the part is oriented to produce the highest strength or highest quality surface finish. Orientation is a matter of controlling how layers are crated when the part is sliced. Further, parameters are set to establish slice height, solid fill, and other details that will be used by the 3D Printer to generate the finished part.
Once the parameters are set, the part is then sliced into layers and printer code is written. This includes the addition of support material needed to ensure the part is produced accurately, with no sagging from printing across open air.
Within the software, it is possible to view, layer by layer, what the printer will be doing to make the part. This is important at times, to insure that there are no undesirable voids, or paths that might produce a weak or unsuitable finished part. In this example, a non-structural part is often printed with a fill pattern, rather than waste material on making it a solid block of plastic.
Once the processing software has been used to produce the proper printer coding, the resulting file is imported into the printer control software, where it is readied for export to the printer itself. In this stage, additional parts can be added to fill the build tray, and parts ready for printing can be scheduled into the build que in a desired order to optimize printer time.
The printer is prepared by inserting a build tray for the part to be built on…
…material is loaded and/or selected from the material bay (in this case ASA Black)
.. and the print file is selected from the que, and the printer instructed to process it. When selected, an estimated build time will appear (for this part the total time is 2 Hours), and the printer begins its preparation and operational functions to make the part as instructed.
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.

A couple of hours later, the part is ready to remove from the printer.
The part is lifted from the build tray, and the supports removed. Support removal can either be by breaking the supports from the part by hand, or with a wash process, where the part is immersed in a strong high PH alkaline solution with heat and agitation to dissolve the support material away. Break away is fastest and works on course parts with minimal supports, while the wash process takes up to 4 hours, but works best with fine details and supports that are inside part cavities. One of the reasons I like ASA material, is that it does not bond so tightly to the support material, giving me the option of break away or wash process removal. PC-ABS has a tendency to bond so tightly that the wash method is the only support removal option that works.
This part came direct from the printer, processed only to remove supports, then put into service with no secondary finishing. There are instances where this is done to save time and money, and where a fine finish is unnecessary to the purpose of the final assembly/
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.

For this particular product the finish was a 2-part urethane automotive finish that has a soft texture to it. This was not used to hide imperfections, it was selected for the desired effect for this design to match a book case I had made over 30 years ago,
For another project, comprised of several parts bonded together, the finish is a satin surface finish in bright red. Any finish can be achieved from textured matte to high gloss. The processes are generally the same, with a few twists in the final sealing and sanding steps.
Final Result Realized
With all of the parts printed, processed and finished, they are assembled with the light source, controls, electronics and wiring to complete the assembly. In this case, the light sources are OLEDWorks, front and back to provide direct and ambient reflected light.

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!

Author: kwillmorth

Photographer and Artist

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