Low Hanging Fruit (2022)

Low Hanging Fruit (2022)

Nathan Wilson

An exploration of procedural modelling tools to make voxel printing more accessible

While Nathan Wilson enjoyed creating intricate, colourful and dynamic designs on his computer screen, he was frustrated because he lost most of these qualities during the 3D printing process. Interestingly this loss of detail was not due to restrictions by the printer’s capabilities, but rather because of the lack of appropriate software. He could see so much more potential for the in-house multi material 3D printer if only people could generate files that could use the printer’s full capacity. Either the software offered only clumsy design options or if more sophisticated, like Houdini, it was too complicated to fully utilize and not designed to talk to 3D printers. In his Master’s thesis Nathan explored how procedural tools could be developed and used to fully utilize the printer’s capabilities with an easy, intuitive interface and creating files that the printers could understand and would print out correctly.

The latest Stratasys printer J850 offers an amazing range of printing opportunities as creators can define an object’s qualities down to each voxel – which here refers to a volumetric pixel – each representing a single droplet of liquid polymer from the printer. Each voxel, subsequently each printed droplet of material, has a size of 0.0423mm by 0.0846 with a layer height of either 0.027mm or 0.014mm, offering microscopic control over colour, texture and hardness. This ability to define qualities at a ‘molecular’ level expands and exceeds the designers’ creative software options.  While this amazing printer has been around since (2018) together with a research agreement between the university and Stratasys – granting access to the developers, software and materials – the research outputs had been restricted by the lack of dedicated creative software to open up this potential to everyone. Not every designer is a software developer, and usually software developers are not designers. As previous research (Siblings of Code) has shown, more collaborations are required.

During his research Nathan collaborated with other Masters students and developed intuitive controls to achieve the wanted design outcomes. He developed procedural tools that built on voxel-based 3D printing software developed by researchers at VUW and created slider-like interfaces which made the creative process for the designers more intuitive. Instead of having to spend days writing code, the designers use the time creating fascinating new designs. These ‘tools’ all speak the same language, so they can be converted into files that talk to the printers and contain ALL the information desired. For example, for Izzy Robb (Body of Matter) he developed a way of translating monochrome medical 2D imaging data into colourful 3D objects to create aesthetic interpretations of this data to suit the individual’s desires. For Sophia Neill (The Iced Slipper) he created the tools to add voxel-based gradient colours to her designs, in fact it only took 10 minutes to transform a monotone shoe into a multi coloured and vibrant design.

On top of these collaborations Nathan used his procedural tools to develop a design which can have useful implications for the fruit industry in New Zealand: a fruit picker with more than just the full mobility and functionality of a hand, but also the ‘softness of flesh’, to carefully harvest fruit without damaging it. This is achieved through precise mixing of the rigid and flexible printing materials currently available for the Stratasys printers.

Nathan’s research has shown that the current programs can be adapted and modified to take away those restrictions and explore the new technology fully. Whatever a designer can conjure up on the computer screen can become a reality to be physically held and treasured.

This research was supported by the NZ Product Accelerator.

Materials and Processes

Software

Adobe Photoshop, GrabCAD Print, Houdini

Hardware

Stratasys J850 printer

Project level: Master of Design Innovation (MDI) thesis, supervisor Ross Stevens