IRIS sculpture (2024)

IRIS sculpture: Large scale FDM 3D printing with bio-polymers (2024)

Industrial designer and senior lecturer Ross Stevens continues to research new ways of using 3D printing; this time in collaboration with Richard Taylor and his multi Academy Award© winning company Wētā Workshop, most famous for their work on the ‘Lord of the Rings’ film trilogy. In their student days, approximately 40 years ago, Ross and Richard used to walk to Design School contemplating how to tackle some of the world’s big problems and in that spirit they’ve been collaborating on 3D printing projects since 2005. One of their constant aspirations has been developing a low cost 3D printing process capable of large scale and fully recyclable objects, which – like flying cars – they hoped would have been achieved by now.

Futuristic visions generated by AI are the contemporary equivalent of flying cars, teasing us with objects we want but cannot build yet. Ross termed these ‘digital mirages’. As AI improves exponentially and creates a fantastic universe, the increasing disconnect between renders and reality creates a void. He explored how his large scale printer would be able to bridge this void when printing out the digital mirage of IRIS, a larger than life sculpture, originally created by Weta Workshop artist, Steve Lambert.

The 3D printing process (FDM) of IRIS itself was challenging because of the complex shape and the printer’s preference to print in a continuous spiral. As the iterations started to pile up around the printer, the recycling process in the workshop was initiated. A band saw and a commercial shredder converted the oversized sculptures into granules that could be used in the gravity fed pellet extruder. Suddenly making a mistake or changing your mind wasn’t costly anymore, financially or environmentally.

This experiment showcased some of the problems facing current 3D printers. The digital file was created with purely an aesthetic goal in mind. The printing process revealed that the PLA layers coming out of the hot printer nozzle had something else in mind: gravity working on its soft plastic nature. While some of the ‘mistakes’ clearly required file modification, regrinding and reprinting – ad nauseam – they also revealed the unexpected beauty of the material itself. The original intent for the print was to be a mold for concrete. However, as the optical effects of translucency and refraction of the large 3D print layers and the raw PLA became apparent, it was obvious that the 3D printed sculpture itself was the star of the show.

The bio-polymer used for this experiment was Ingeo by US based NatureWorks, and provided more serendipitous insights. While recognizing that large scale manufacturing can be an immense burden on the global environment, they use and research manufacturing processes that minimize and even mitigate that impact. The pleasant side effect for the local environment is Waffles! Not literally – for the time being – but Ingeo, instead of gassing-off unpleasant fumes, emits the scent of fresh baked waffles. This scent in the workshop viscerally emphasizes their philosophy and suggests a future where human collaboration with digital codes, machines, and materials is more harmonious.

This research project has been supported by the MADE group at Victoria University of Wellington Te Herenga Waka, the New Zealand Product Accelerator, and Wētā Workshop.

Project Level:

Academic Research