Making Big Art with 3D Printing

As I’ve learned more about what people recognize as “fine art,” I’ve come to realize that there are inherent problems in using 3D printing for the direct production of art. I’m not talking about philosophical questions, like whether “real art” should have hand-built elements to it. In this post I’ll discuss more a more technical question: scale vs economics.

In Mathematics, scale is rarely part of the definition of an object. The Mathematical definition of “cube,” for example, makes no mention of how tall it is. However, there is a very real visceral difference in our experience of a physical cube when it is one inch tall, versus when it is ten feet tall. A lot of artwork plays on this. As my friend, Clare Graham would say, larger objects have a certain “gravitas.” An inflatable bunny that’s 10″ tall probably won’t be considered art. These HUGE bunnies by Amanda Parer are.

Scale is one of the biggest obstacles to producing art by 3D Printing.  Home printers top out at about 12″ in capacity, and won’t have the quality to make anything recognized as fine art. These days you’ll hear news articles about giant cement-extruding printers making houses, but someone like me doesn’t have access to that technology. There’s a company called Materialize that has a “Mammoth Stereolithography” machine, but they charge so much to use it that only the highest end artists and designers like Janne Kyttanen can charge enough for their artwork to justify this technology.

The best solution I’ve been able to come up with to the scale problem is to create  triangulated modular designs. I decided to try this to create a large version the seashell model I wrote about in this post.

The larger version I ended up making is about 5.5 feet long. It consists of 153 sticks and 59 nodes. Each stick is a different length and each node is unique. I wrote a grasshopper script to model each node and emboss numbers on them near each “socket,” so I knew which stick went into which node/socket.

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I then printed out a spreadsheet with all of the stick lengths, and hand-cut clear PVC pipes to those lengths with my chop-saw. As I cut them I wrote their number on each end with a marker that I could later wipe off. Then it was a matter of matching up the end of a stick with a particular number with the socket that had the same number, and gluing them together.

It took a few weeks of 3D printing nodes to get through all of them, a week for cutting and labeling PVC sticks, and another week or two to assemble and glue. Here’s the final piece.


It came out ok, but not really “fine art” quality. I would have had to use more permanent materials than ABS plastic and PVC. The goal of the project was really to see if I could leverage the power of 3D-Printing and still make something of a decent size. I didn’t want to spend much, since I had no idea if any of it was going to work. I believe I spent less than $100 on materials.

I’m not sure this is a viable solution to the fine-art vs scale vs 3D-printing problem. If I were to really try to sell this as a piece of artwork I would have Shapeways print each node in steel and use some kind of metal tubing for the sticks. All connections would have to be welded or soldered instead of glued. Shapeways would charge me an average of $50 to print each steel node, so the printing cost alone could be as much as $3K. That much metal tubing could also be pricey, depending on its quality. And then there’s the fact that I’d either have to learn how to weld, or hire someone to do it for me. (I’m fine with soldering, but it might not be strong enough.) In a high-end gallery such a sculpture might sell for $10K, but as much as half that would go to the gallery. You can see that the numbers start to look dicey very fast.

If anyone reading this has any thoughts on the scale vs 3D-printing problem, please share in the comments!

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