Art and Design

Art and Design

Classes At Stafford Art Glass – Two-Day Intensive


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This is what you came here for.  This is the one class that gives you the most bang for your buck and the most in-depth experience in blowing glass.  With two days available you have the opportunity not only to try certain objects for the first time, you get the opportunity to hone your skills and create work that any budding artisan would be proud to call their own.  I often explain to students that were you to buy the objects that you will make in this class, you would wind up spending almost the same amount without ever having gotten the experience of doing it yourself.  And it is true. A handblown ornament made by a U.S. artisan approximately 5 inches in diameter easily sells for $24.00 in most galleries and boutiques across the nation.  You will have the opportunity to make up to three of these during the class including a large suncatcher, which we were told were selling for $110.00 at a gift shop in North Carolina recently (these large suncatchers are slightly smaller than a soccer ball and work great in large sunlit windows and can be adapted during class to be used as a yard ornament on a copper holder).  Paperweights range from a low of $75.00 on up to $200.00, for example.  This is a great class for making truly one of a kind gifts as well as building skill in a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

The Two Day Intensive Class at Stafford Art Glass is a stellar opportunity to immerse yourself in the art of hot glass in a fun and supportive environment.  For beginners, there is no better way to satisfy your curiosity about this ancient craft that is part art and part alchemy!  I pride myself on taking people who do not believe they have a creative bone in their body and showing them the rich potential that glass has for expression and creativity.  When you consider that for a material that looks dazzling after it has been drizzled onto the floor, think what you can do when you apply some direction and burgeoning skill into the mix!  We guarantee that you will come away absolutely amazed by the beautiful things that you will get to make.  There is nothing in the world quite like glass for its color, brilliance, and expressive potential.  So far, we have a long list of believers that are growing by the day.  This makes glass an excellent material for teaching art and craft.   You owe it to yourself to catch the wave that is glass and find your own creative inspiration!

What’s Included

All materials, tools, and supplies are included for the making of the work you choose.  All color that is currently in stock is available to students to use during the class.  Shipping costs extra but is done so at cost.  No packing charges are made for our students (only costs for materials and actual shipping costs for the carrier of your choice – USPS, FedEx or UPS).

Lunch is provided by the studio both days. We make for our students a  large hero sub on freshly made bread sourced from our local artisan bakery made with fresh ingredients with condiments of your choice to add.  A variety of drinks are available from iced tea, water, juice, and soda from our local healthfood store.  Fresh fruit is served for desert.  Anyone who is vegan, vegetarian, or who has food allergies or sensitivities to certain food, should alert us  and we will accommodate your request with an option agreeable to your needs! All food needs require three days notice prior to the start of class so our staff can make sure all necessary menu items are on hand and prepped for the day in question.

The studio stocks a variety of healthy snacks for those who need an energy boost through any part of the day.  These vary but may include protein bars like Cliff bars, nuts, trail mix, and fruit.  The studio also has a shower for anyone who would like to dress out of sweaty clothes and get cleaned up.  Towels are available for your use as well as several types of shampoo, conditioner and soaps.

Classes at Stafford Art Glass begin at 9:30 and after introductions, the course begins with a review of safety guidelines and the tools and equipment used to make hot glass.  After this brief introduction, guests are taken right into the making of their first object; the ornament and sun catcher.

Each student learns how to gather glass from the furnace, shaping the “gather” and apply color to the clear glass coming from the furnace.  The glass is heated at the reheating furnace, and,  working together, the student and teacher work to blow the ornament or sun catcher ball.  A hanger is then put on with hot glass and the piece is put in an annealing oven where it will cool slowly.

The next piece is the paperweight, which will include all of the same color applications and shaping processes as the ornament but in a solid piece of glass.  A wide variety of shapes have been made during these classes from egg shaped, spheres, and disks.

There are a number of options available to students based on their interests. Normally we teach students how to make their own tumbler first in order to introduce them to the world of vessel making.  It is also pretty cool to have your own drinking glass.  It is after the drinking glass that we then focus on making bowls.  A variety of techniques will be covered from frit application, color wraps, as well as optic molding for unique ruffled shapes.  Normally all of this is accomplished the first day, although the course is paced to the students so sometimes we can move quicker or slower depending on how the day goes.

By the second day, we are working either on bowls or beginning to work on flowers.  We finish up the day with the option to repeat tumblers, bowls, suncatchers , paperweights, or to go on to make a small vase form.  If there is time available students will be shown how to make a special art glass pumpkin (with unique colors and metallics utilized in the design).  The class ends at approximately 5:00 p.m. each day.  I say “approximately” because if necessary, we can stay longer to complete an entire rotation if we are close to getting everyone finishing up tumblers or bowls on the first day, or getting all objects complete for everyone on the second day.  Me and my staff work hard to make sure that students who lose a piece on the pipe (rare but it can happen) get to make up the work so they get as many pieces completed as possible!

Students continue to come out for these classes because of the broad range of possibilities provided.  Students have a gallery and a working studio where work can be viewed in various stages of completion partly to see what is possible and to draw inspiration.  All participants also receive 30% off all glass made at the studio in the gallery or in the workshop during their visit to the studio for the class.

Cost

Regular retail cost:  $475.00 per person.

Bring a friend and get $55.00 off per person.  Bring three people and you will get your class at half price. Participants that you bring also get $50.00 off

See us on Facebook (stafford art glass) or contact us directly to learn more about current promotions that can save you 50% and more on this class!  All classes prepaid 14 days in advance receive a 4% discount.

Requirements

Requirements for classes are no open-toed shoes and all-cotton clothing.  No synthetics should be worn.  Wear comfortable clothes.  Ages 13 and up may participate in our classes. Work made must be annealed and also finished and can be either picked up three days after the class, or we can ship your items to you.  Each class requires a minimum of four students per class.  We require two week notice for the scheduling of the two day intensive class.

Registering

Purchase can be made with cash, check, or charge.  Stafford Art Glass accepts Visa and Mastercard.  Reservations for specific days can be made via email or phone by sending email to info@staffordartglass.com or text/call (540) 605-0034.  Hours of operation are Wednesday and Friday 10-2 and 3-5 p.m.  Saturday 10:00-6:00.  Other hours are available by appointment and while we do not post Sunday or Monday hours, both days are available for classes.  Normally the two day class is offered on a Saturday and Sunday unless otherwise scheduled. 

Hotel and Transportation

We can be your source for helping you find suitable lodging and if you are flying into the area.  We can provide you with transportation to and from the airport as well as your hotel for an additional fee.  There are a number of very nice local Bed and Breakfast opportunities in Giles County as well as franchise run hotels within half an hour drive of the studio.  The studio is  fifty minutes from the Roanoke Airport and twelve minutes from Blacksburg.

Art and Design

Classes At Stafford Art Glass – Daylong Intensive


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The Daylong Intensive Class at Stafford Art Glass is an opportunity to immerse yourself in the art of hot glass in a fun and supportive environment.  For beginners, there is no better way to satisfy your curiosity about this ancient craft that is part art and part alchemy!

What’s Included

The course begins with a review of safety guidelines and the tools and equipment used to make hot glass.  After a brief introduction, guests are taken right into the making of their first object; the ornament and sun catcher.  We work throughout the day on correct methods and techniques while also enjoying the process of creating beautiful objects in glass.
Each student learns how to gather glass from the furnace, shaping, as well as applying color to the clear glass coming from the furnace.  The glass is heated at the reheating furnace and working together, the student and teacher work to blow the ornament or sun catcher ball.  A hanger is then put on with hot glass and the piece is put in an annealing oven where it will cool slowly.

The next piece is the paperweight, which will include all of the same color applications and shaping processes as the ornament but in a solid piece of glass.  A wide variety of shapes have been made during these classes from egg shaped, spheres, and disks.  We include techniques that include solid jewel colors, powder applications, and even cane work.  There is a color palette available at the studio.

There are a number of options available to students based on their interests.  In some cases, flower have been made, in others we have worked on making tumblers.  While tumblers take more time, they also provide the student with the widest range of skills for glassblowing and helps to set the stage for then learning how to make vases.  Having your own drinking glass is also pretty cool.

NOTE:  Our weekend or two-day intensive includes these items while expanding the range of forms possible including sculptural glass, yard ornaments, bowls, flowers, as well as abstract sculptural pieces.

Discounts Available

Students continue to come out for these classes because of the broad range of possibilities provided.  Students have a gallery and a working studio where work can be viewed in various stages of completion.  All participants also receive 30% off all glass made at the studio in the gallery or in the workshop.

There are also discounts available to groups who help us to set up classes by bringing friends, coworkers, and family.  The cost for this class is $220.00 per person and has a four person minimum for forming a class.  If you bring friends or family with y0u, there is a $30.00 discount available per person that you bring.  You can keep this discount for your own or spread the discount to all other participants when coming as a group. Classes are considered a service and are not taxable, so you save an additional 5% when purchasing a class.  If you are a student with a valid student I.D. you can save an additional 10% after all discounts have been applied.

See us on Facebook (stafford art glass) or contact us directly for promotions for classes that can save you up to 50% off the regular list price for classes!

Requirements

Requirements for classes are no open-toed shoes and all-cotton clothing.  No synthetics should be worn.  Wear comfortable clothes.  A long sleeved shirt over a t-shirt is advisable for maximum comfort.  Ages 13 and up may participate in our daylong classes.  Work made must be annealed and also finished and can be either picked up three days after the class, or we can ship your items to you.  Stafford Art Glass provides bottled drinking water for all participants.

Registering

Purchase can be made with cash, check, or charge.  Stafford Art Glass accepts Visa and Mastercard.  Reservations for specific days can be made via email or phone by sending email to info@staffordartglass.com or text/call (540) 605-0034.

Art and Design

The Art of Glass


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There are a number of stories that suggest the genesis of glass as an expressive and utilitarian material. Some are more believable than others, but what we do know is that glass, unlike other materials was discovered in one place and spread from that locus (in the middle east near Ur or present day Iraq).  Glass was an entirely new and unique material whose secrets remained with those who discovered it.  It did not pop up in many places at once as did other better-known inventions or discoveries.

Glass was not first blown but was instead heated in small batches over fires more like a forge than anything we know today as being like a glass furnace.  The feat, though was significant since the temperatures necessary to make sand turn into glass requires a pyrotechnology that rivals iron smelting, and THAT dear reader is some significant heat. Consider that with our advanced knowledge and ready liquid fuels, it still takes between 2200° to 2300°F. to induce sand to move into a glassy phase.  The first objects were trails of glass wrapped around a solid core made up of sand, clay and camel dung.  These were the early core formed vessels that were not blown and sported wraps of color like ribbons running down the sides of these miniature vase-like or amphora forms that were used to hold the most valuable of unguents, ointments or perfumes.  Only the rich and royalty could afford these objects.  They were incredibly rare and the price for a vessel would be on par with the similar prices for a nice sapphire, garnet, or emerald.  The craft, science, and art of glass has been highly secretive for millennia.  Its secrets were hard won and its keepers sought to keep the gems for themselves.

That was about 3,500 years ago.

About a hundred years before Jesus walked the earth, Romans discovered that you could dip irons in glass and blow bubbles.  By coupling their knowledge of mold making in creating mass-produced ceramic items, these enterprising people turned their attention to a new way of working.  Offhand glass blowing was born.  During that two thousand-year period many epochs in glass creation have come and gone. The empires of glass are many, some more famed than others, and the march continues for the hope of the new. For as much as we would like to say there is nothing new under the sun in glass, artists and artisans continue to tease out new forms that have never existed before, cutting new soil and turning up fertile ground for new movements, ideas, and advancements.

There is nothing like hot glass.  I have had a broad background in sculpture that has put me in contact with a variety of metals for casting including pewter, silver, bronze, aluminum, and iron.  I have fabricated in steel, aluminum and bronze. I have carved wood, fabricated in wood, along with stone and a variety of materials all made in molds including paper, wax, polyester resin, chocolate, and clay.  I have built forms from slabs of low fire and high fire clay, slip cast clay, coiled it, pit fired and raku-fired it.  I have developed a slip cast clay for pit firing when I was in graduate school, and I also developed a new take on papier-mache that involved a glue that was highly reactive to heat that provided me unusual coloration. I have worked in mixed media, cloth, wood, encaustic and oil paint.  I wont claim to be an expert at all of these things, but I do know that when it comes to the mainline materials used for creating three-dimensional objects, there is no other material that is like glass.

Drop it on the floor and let it drizzle along like honey from a spoon and what you have moments later once it cools is a beautiful tenuous thread of liquid frozen light.  Add color and it gleams like a gemstone.  Exert expert control and you have a vase, a bowl, a sculpture, or a window of stained glass.  No matter the methods or the means, glass is intrinsically beautiful.  It gleams.  Like gold, glass wont save our souls but it certainly will bring us delight.  We could certainly hold our milk in ceramic jugs and life would continue perfectly fine if we didn’t have an ounce of gold upon the planet.  But we seem to need the twinkle, the sparkle.  Somewhere deep inside of us glass just makes us feel good.  For me, it is nothing short of a miracle.  For someone who has been in business since 1997, I think that is a significant statement.

The truth is, in order to master glass it takes years to develop the requisite skill needed to command a material that is frustratingly difficult to manipulate.  In the glass houses of Murano and earlier in Venice, a maestro was only so-called after many years of practice.  Boys who were allowed to first sweep the floors would take years of service before they could rise to the level of a gaffer, the name used for the individual who blows the glass at the bench and heads a small team of workers who move together as a crew to help move at the speed of molten glass, which is most certainly fleet.  I did not feel like I had begun to “get it” until two years of weekly practice.  I stuck with it and I did this because the moment I saw the bubble emerge from the blow pipe.  In fact, I am a little embarrassed to say that when I saw glass being blown while in graduate school for the first time, I clapped my hands like a gleeful five year old.  I am a little embarrassed to say that, yes, but also proud.  I am proud because this material had lit such an intense and immediate fire under me right from the start.  Through all of the comings and goings in life, the hardships and uncertainties, glass has remained as the royal and regal presence it has always been in my life.  My fall for glass was instantaneous.  When I close my eyes I see a world of wooden buildings rising up along the canals of Murano some four hundred years ago as hot shops or glasshouses held the honor of being the glass center of the world.  It wasn’t until Dale Chihuly began a school in Pilchuck Washington that the center of glass shifted to the United States in a Pacific Rim city called Seattle. Wherever the crown goes, glass remains what it has always been; so simply beautiful that we need not even speak a word or seek to describe it in order for others to “get” it.  We get it.

Glass eats light.  Refraction is measured by an index that actually describes how much the glass impedes the FLOW of photons through its form.  By slowing down light, it is accumulated, and this is what gives glass its sparkle. It seems to glow from within.  And just so you know, I came by the refraction definition in a book on engineering and optics.  As light gathers within the body of a piece of crystal, it shines and glimmers.  It makes us feel more alive, reflecting perhaps the shimmer that is most assuredly in our own souls, that it reminds us in such simple and uncomplicated ways.

For all of the tradition that has built up around such an ancient material such as glass, I will be the first to tell you that I came to glass as something of an outsider.  I came to glass later in life and was not privy to the knowledge that such a tradition can amass in ones mind.  The American Studio Glass Movement whcih was largely kindled by Harvey Littleton who began the first glass program in the university system in the U.S.  It was at the University of Michigan at Wisconsin-Madison that Harvey developed  a program that would produce some of the first glass artists who would fan out through the U.S. and begin teaching or working in studio practice to spread the gospel of glass.  For as much as I feel that I stand apart, I am part of this upstart tradition, even if only marginally so.  Bill Boysen was there in that program that Harvey had just set up and was in on the very beginnings of its big questions and discoveries.  It was under Bill that I was able to rediscover glass for myself while at graduate school, and even though I was a full time student in sculpture, he welcomed me into the program and provided me with the opportunity to take part in a program where we made glass,sold glass, and used the money to build new equipment and to purchase supplies.  His method was startlingly direct and simple; learn by doing.  Let school be a lab for real life and require students to know how to build equipment and develop their own studios.  For Bill, nothing resided in the theoretical realm but was discoverable right here and now.  You learn by doing, and we all learned under his care.   I have remained outside in order to remain fresh and to always look at glass with a fresh eye.  I quickly learned that my lack of knowledge was not a deficit but an asset.  I might not have been able to blow a dragon-stemmed goblet, but I was free to ask questions that many may simply have not considered due to their involvement in a tradition that was not used to asking those questions.  There are great gifts that glass has yet to offer up and they reside within the potential which we have yet to realize.  Lino Tagliopietra, arguably one of the greatest of glassblowers the modern world has known expresses the same sentiment; there is more to learn, more to explore, more to know even as he continues to work well into his seventies.

Glass exists at the edge.  in order to work glass properly, it must be so hot that it is nearly on the verge of being uncontrollable.  There is this small window of viscosity that exists where this vitreous material is worked.  The ability to control this unwieldy material now in its molten state is where mastery emerges.  This is not easy.  Glass becomes a challenge, a mountain to surmount and along the way a great discovery of the stuff that we ourselves are made of.  Whether you are the one who has glimpsed the peak of such a mountain or someone observing the fruits of such an expedition, the result is the same. We are enchanted by this impossible, even implausible material. Yet, here it is; a miracle in our midst.  Glass is precious partly for how fragile it can be, but also for how difficult it can be to grasp on a technical level.  If you listen, it will teach you.  My greatest teacher has been the glass itself.

When I first opened my studio in 1997, I began the second leg of my education in glass. I had only a few years’ worth of experience with the material.  I had one course in graduate school.  After that, everything was considered independent study.  I was given a key to the studio for my four hour blow slot where I would blow glass and seek to tease the secrets slowly from the great body of material that were my first years in the field.  I worked alone because I felt so behind everyone else who was in the glass field full-time.  I was a sculptor working on earning my M.F.A. at Southern Illionois University at Carbondale and I was a late comer to the world of glass.  When I left the university and decided I wanted to work glass full-time, I soon learned that the number of pieces of glass that I would make in a week would be more than I would make in an entire semester at school.  Time sped up, or seemed to.  The secrets of the language of glass began to emerge and carried me along from one discovery to the next.  I knew nothing of the world of “paperweights” and chose to make rocks with galaxies hidden within them. The truth is, most paperweights bored me.  They seemed stiff and formal.  I simply was not drawn to develop any kind of study of the old traditions even though I was aware of them.  I think that this is the place where new ground is revealled, even though we may not recognize it for what it was when we look on as observers to what an artist is seeking to do.  Instead of making my “rocks” round, I made them bumpy.  Instead of brightly colored on the outside, their shells concealed a great secret within their crystal caverns.  What would be the bottom of a piece was the top of mine.  Everything that was considered traditional in this form was exploded, lain aside like some old tool that had been used but was too worn to be of much service.  Without any bias in my mind from the burden of too much information or knowledge, I set about quite innocently making things in a very different way.  The glass, in truth, showed me the way.  I learned from it.  By remaining attentive, I discovered how I could take  piece that took forty-five minutes to make and reduce that time down to just six minutes.  I found that I could shape glass by how I moved through space instead of touching a cold wooden or metal tool to its surface, which sucked it of its life force, which for glass, is heat.  By learning this, I was able to pack into the moment more operations of shaping and streamlined the process in ways I was never taught before.  The only way I did this was by observing the glass.  I didn’t walk fast, I merely listened to what the glass was telling me. The discoveries came in an incremental way and stacked up over time.  What you see in my work is the result of a development or a route that is the result of many small steps in a larger journey.

As a result of this love of glass, I teach glass making to others. I do my part to spread the gospel of glass.  My own teacher, Bill Boysen, was a generous, excited, and enthusiastic supporter of his students and of the art and craft of glass making.  I try to pass along a little of his own spirit in my work as well as those things I have found to be of value, too.  I don’t teach because teaching brings me great economic fulfillment.  The truth is, I can make more money just by blowing alone in the studio.  That, however, is not enough for me.  Being able to be around the hive of activity that is a studio full of newcomers to this very ancient art is something that borders on the mystical for me. There is a satisfaction that I get, a fulfillment that reflects on my early days of excitement and wonder about the potential of this material.  Leaning this close to that fire is where the essence of our creative spirit resides.  So I teach.  I have the best of all worlds in a studio that allows me to display, create and teach all at once if need be.

To understand the expressive potential of glass you have to just see the possibilities.  There is cast glass, fused glass, torch-worked glass as well as blown glass.  In my own studio I have both offhand glass blowing (glass blown by hand the old way) as well as a studio-within-the-studio with a set up with torches to teach lamp working, another term used for glass made by torch.  These two realms of glass making are very different from one another and their appeal includes a broad audience.  Some come to learn, while others are content to watch as I blow piece after piece.  Looks are completely free.  Sometimes I am host to groups who want to see the work finished in the gallery while also being able to see the work being made before their eyes.  The studio is especially suited for all of this.

The classes offered at the studio are day-long intensives, weekends as well as short Blow Your Own Ball events (BYOB) where participants work with the gaffer in designing and then blowing an ornament or suncatcher as well as a paperweight option, as well as events that involve working with the artisan closely to create custom designs to your specifications.  You are right there as the piece emerges from the pipe and as the collaborate energies flow between you and the glass worker.  There is consideration of a glass pumpkin do-it-yourself class, bead-making classes, as well as evening catered events with music, food, and locally sourced beer and wines from our own microbreweries and award-winning vineyards.  Everyone who comes leaves smiling, and it is little wonder; there is nothing else quite like glass.

Art and Design

The Third Great Revolution


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The Economist in a recent article has declared digital manufacturing a Third Industrial Revolution stating

The first began in Britain in the late 18th century with the mechanisation of the textile industry. In the following decades the use of machines to make things, instead of crafting them by hand, spread around the world. The second industrial revolution began in America in the early 20th century with the assembly line, which ushered in the era of mass production. As manufacturing goes digital, a third great change is now gathering pace. It will allow things to be made economically in much smaller numbers, more flexibly and with a much lower input of labour, thanks to new materials, completely new processes such as 3D printing, easy-to-use robots and new collaborative manufacturing services available online.

Why this is so important, and critical to understand is just how big all of this will be, how fast it is growing, and how educational institutions can help guide and grow this effort into a worldwide industrial phenomenon that is the ultimate in the democratization of manufacturing.  This industry will involve the individual in the manufacture of objects from start to finish, from desktop to mailbox. It is an industry that has broad applications, and exciting possibilities.  Take the current rise of China as a manufacturing power; this has the capacity to shift the balance of power.

While 3-D printing technology has been used primarily for creating prototypes, often referred to as the “one off,” the industry is swiftly moving through this phase and into broader territory that includes everything from making organs that wont be rejected  to artists and artisans being able to either create their work in a broader mass produced way or to have their designs available for download much as we use i-Tunes to download music, which is itself a radical, even revolutionary approach to object making.  By broadening the tool kit for the manufacturers of tomorrow, we need first to prepare the students of today for the next big revolution that is coming. Well, in truth, its already here.

I will say that at first all of this was difficult for me to swallow.  I am a maker of objects, and while I am by no means a purist, the idea that I merely design an object in a CAD or 3-D software program was a bigger leap than I was used to. What I realized, though, is that it has always been the shock of the new that has always turned our stomachs, that made each new development in art or manufacturing that at first was rejected due to its newness but soon was embraced by the majority in due time.  In discussing the concept of 3-D printing with my students those who find the idea difficult to swallow are those who find being able to make things with their hands and not being manufactured, to be of prime importance.  Surely this is not something that would be displaced, but will open a new avenue for artists to make some artwork and craft objects.  Consider how great it would be to take a design you find online for a pendant that you can have in your hands later tonight by simply going to your computer room to have it printed.

A Quick Overview

Digital modeling is the next big thing. It grew out of a rather novel idea that you could substitute thermal setting polymers for ink, add two more directions in which the printer head could move (backwards and up and down), and you could have a simple device that would go from printing on paper to creating objects one “layer” or “slice” at a time.  All of this emerged out of the shops and labs of engineers eager to try something new.

For years, 3-D printers were entirely home made affairs, and the industry as it grows still retains a high reliance of self reliance and innovation.  In fact, many people still do make their own printers from scratch.  Some printers are made to create the parts for more of their own kind, which includes rubber, plastic, and even metal parts such as Prusa Mendell’s open source community project that has produced the Rep Rap, a device that easily creates three dimensional objects using an affordable footprint.  When you think about it, the possibilities aren’t just exciting, they are revolutionary in scope.  This is because 3-D printing puts the power of manufacturing in the hands of anyone with a printer and the know-how to design objects in virtual space that will wind up existing in the real world.  It is possible for the person with the right set of skills to be a virtual manufacturing resource for business both large and small as well as a source to the community at large who are now snatching up work being produced in this way.

The ability not just to model three dimensional looking objects on a computer, but to output a three dimensional artifact has far reaching consequences. Digital modeling tools have exploded in recent years alongside new devices that make it possible to actually PRINT an ever-broadening array of objects in more and more materials.  This process is called rapid prototyping, or RT for short,  and it has gone from extruding using a printer head filled with a thermal setting plastic to include printing molds for casting, organs for the human body, and intricate jewelry out of silver, gold, platinum and bronze.  This technology can make shoes, sculpture, car parts, and glass objects.  What’s more, with a few of the right digital tools on your computer, you could design your own cell phone cover  or create a lampshade the same way you might buy a song on i-Tunes.  The other leg of this type of manufacting does not include printing but a subtractive process using a milling machine which makes possible a broad range of objects to be made that are beyond the current scope of 3-D printers.  You will be able to  browse furniture designs just as you might browse for real furniture online except you can go pick up your newly made furniture from a local CNC shop just around the corner, and all of this is courtesy of a form of rapid prototyping.  Its safe to say that rapid prototyping isn’t about making prototypes anymore, but stand alone products out of the material of choice, be it metals, ceramics, plastics, or wood. The concept of mass production is being changed by this technology which creates objects one at a time but with incredible flexibility to the customer who might want very specific changes or design elements (such as color, shape, size, or material choice) as part of the product.  Now, instead of having to depend on the whim of designers to create an object in the right color or pattern, customers can simply order a single object with the options built into these individual objects.  This turns traditional manufacturing on its head and blends old world crafting with modern technology.  From where I sit, I cannot see for the life of me why this model wouldn’t work.  But the idea is new in its present form, so it can sometimes be hard to see the future from such a place.

Christopher Mims at MIT Technology Review , isn’t convinced.  He has said that:

This isn’t just premature, it’s absurd. 3-D printing, like VR before it, is one of those technologies that suggest a trend of long and steep adoption driven by rapid advances on the systems we have now. And granted, some of what’s going on at present is pretty cool—whether it’s in rapid prototyping, solid-fuel rockets, bio-assembly or just giant plastic showpieces.

But the notion that 3-D printing will on any reasonable time scale become a “mature” technology that can reproduce all the goods on which we rely is to engage in a complete denial of the complexities of modern manufacturing, and, more to the point, the challenges of working with matter.

Every revolution has its detractors, but rapid prototyping shows no signs of slowing down.  Its catching on in large part because it is fueling a democratization in manufacturing.  Yes, you can steal a pattern in the digital realm and make your own batman toy, but so too can you have the opportunity  to have your design purchased numerous times by individuals who would like to print their own version of your sculpture or jewelry, for example, even though they are in Hong Kong while you work in, say, Newport, Virginia. If you have a sense of collaboration in you as a designer, being able to build flexibility into your designs may well provide customers the option of creating alterations that you, the artist or designer, might never have considered but that offer a new level of usability and value to your customer base.   The applications are broad, and the implications, for the arts, are huge.  Precisely how this will all play out is hard to predict.

Many small companies now utilize rapid prototyping as a way to get a design to market faster and more cheaply. A design company can print its own pattern or prototype and have their artist or digital designer make the object ready for manufacture in another country.  Eventually, even the need for the prototype may well evaporate as the technology develops so that a manufacturer can print their own object or create the mold from a digital file absent even having a physical prototype. This is already being done in the casting industry, and it is significant because it effectively removes a very large step in a process that is thousands of years old. For small companies, this is a boon because it means that one artist can do the work of an entire division, which keeps the small company more nimble and more able to compete against companies ten times their size.

The idea that this is all just a flash in the pan or absurd is short sighted in my view.  The industry continues to broaden and shows no signs of letting up.  It is now possible to scan objects using a 3-d laser scanner, input them into software programs and modify them with great ease.  This is an application that has been used extensively by the movie and gaming industry in a way that merges both traditional and cutting edge technology to speed up the process of creating objects.    George Lucas in his second to last movie in the Star Wars trilogy revealed how he decided on a given character for the part of Dax, a four-armed creature whom Obi-wan Kenobi went to for some advice.  Lucas had his modelers who were trained sculptors, to create a series of models out of a material called sculpey.   Once Lucas decided which model he wanted, it was scanned using a 3-d scanner, and it was from this model that they then animated the figure while using all of the scan data as the foundation for the creature.  Granted, this was a reverse method, but a method that relies on a range of techniques both new and old school.  From this scanned object, Lucas Arts would have been able to send the file to a manufacturer in China to have the figure made as a Star Wars figurine.  It could have also been printed using a rapid prototyping machine to any scale the printer was capable of producing.  This is a process that alos allows artists with no skill or knowledge in the digital modeling tools to create a model in the same way that Henry Moore did just a generation ago and have it scaled up to any size the foundry is capable of handling.  The only difference between what Henry Moore had done and what is happening today is that if the artist has access to a 3-d scanner, s/he does not even need to ship the model.  It can simply be sent via ftp to the server for the foundry and the file opened and work begun on creating the patterns necessary to begin making something that was five inches tall into a fifty foot tall sculpture.

How does a 3-D printer work, and who makes them? The 3-D printer has emerged very much out of labs with people who have been interesting in tinkering.  While you can purchase a growing number of these printers at very broad price points, many choose to make their own. Printers, though, are now available for the same price as a laser printer.  Prusa Mendell, whom I have been following for a while now has developed open source software and the plans for making your own rapid prototyping machine or 3-D printer called a Rep Rap.  These cost about $350.00 to build from scratch, all parts and circuit boards, nozzles, control arms, and all the rest. I like this model because of how it puts the power of building the unit and using yourself in your hands; it has the great benefit of having an operator who understands how everything works because they put it together.  This is a great teaching tool. A broad range of materials can be used in these printers, from plastics, corn starch-based polymers, metals, as well as ceramic!  Below I include a video of a printer called a RepMan.

Not everything in this realm is printed, necessarily, and to understand its broad applications and implications, one needs to understand the machines used to manufacture in this “one-off” world.

For example, one very practical application of this technology involves a device known as a CNC machine, which stands for computer numerical controlled router.  Imagine a spinning cutter head that is mounted to an arm, like a robotic arm you often see in commercials where cars are going down the assembly line and are being welded.  This arm has the capability to move along three axis’s: X, Y, and Z (height width and depth).  This cutter can take a block of foam, or wood, or just about any other material that the cutter can cut, and it will follow the digital file perfectly, sculpting the material based on the data in the file used to do the cutting.  In sculpture, this is currently being done at foundries.  An artist’s model or maquette is scanned using a 3-D laser scanner.  This is done by slowly turning the model until all points are scanned in.  It is then loaded and the file prepped and sent to the foundry. There, using the same type of CNC machine, the technicians  cut the model faithfully out of a block of monolithic foam. Thus, a model that is only inches tall can be easily scaled to any size that the foundry can accommodate.  From there, molds are made in a refractory material that can stand up to the temperatures of molten metal.

The process of this type of industry is not limited to an additive process, but it can be subtractive, just as in the case of the CNC machine.  A printer adds material while a CNC machine takes it away. Both are computer aided machines that are using the data output from a program that was used to generate a 3-d model of an object.  Thus, not all rapid prototyping is just from a printer.  With several different processes in its toolkit, the RP industry is set to explode.

The thing to bear in mind with all of this is that a lot of this has been driven by a very different approach and philosophy of how to make things.  What has driven this have been small entities, individuals who, instead of profiting on the sale of millions of widgets,  profit from the sale of a small device that can make millions of widgets.  There is also a very strong tide of what is called community projects infusing the industry.  A “community project” means Open Source computer software and the hardware driven by these systems where nothing is proprietary and anyone can make changes to the code and are free to change or improve code or hardware in order to make it more useful for their purposes.  This has led to an industry where a rapid prototyping machine can actually be used to make another of its kind and users share their changes openly amongst their peers online in the interest of benefiting everyone.  This is huge.  Its huge because of how it democratizes industry.  Think about it;  you download plans for a piece of furniture that you like and you send it to the CNC machine at CNC R Us and it cuts out your pieces for you.  This is in the next town, and perhaps in your own basement or at Kinkos (or something very much LIKE Kinkos). You pick them up and assemble them using instructions attached to the file you uploaded a few days before, or you can have the shop assemble it for you and have the piece delivered.  Studios and shops like this can just make what they sell instead of keeping inventory on hand.  You do not have to wait for the product to be in stores.  You don’t have to wait for it to be shipped to the store.  You also do not have to rely on the efficiency of scale to be any part of your business model. Your furniture is also made by a company in your own community and chances are the money you spend will thus stay in your own community. Or, if it is not in your own community, you have the choice of who to have your new bicycle manufactured by.

Because of how the process takes place, entirely new kinds of objects that were nearly impossible to make using traditional methods are now emerging.  This will have some exciting results as new materials are utilized in the manufacturing process.  Materials that were not practical to use for certain applications may now find new use with this technology. What exactly happens will largely be up to those in the industry to determine.  With every new development in a technology there are always some surprises and interesting turns that happen.  For example, I use a material in my furnaces  that allows me to have very thin insulating walls in the equipment in my glass studio.  This was made possible by the technology developed for the space shuttle program.  I also use glass in a decorative way in my glass work that was developed by a company that was a subcontractor to NASA that wanted to create a filter for its lunar rover camera to protect the film from full sunlight.  I also use mittens to place hot glass into kilns using a material that was used initially in space suits and in the cabins of the space capsules during the Apollo program.  It is not always easy to know exactly what a new technology is going to yield us as results, but it is always exciting and usually a little surprising.

So what does the future look like?  What new innovations might come about as a result of this type of technology?  I think its a safe bet that nanotechnology will have a dovetail into this method of manufacture since materials developed for nanotech are so finely ground that they would make excellent printing material.  It will also mean that new materials can be used to make objects with exceptional strength.  A bicycle frame can be printed from the inside out which means that it might be made from a honeycomb material which is light weight but very strong.  What purpose might we have for a ceramic object doped with a magnetic material capable of surviving firing?  Could this fuel a new industry of smart objects capable of interacting with the machines that drive them for increased efficiency?  Perhaps, too, new materials that did not lend themselves to traditional manufacturing methods might work perfectly with a 3-D printer.  In truth, its very hard to say as the developments will be contingent on those free thinkers who are able to come up with new applications for such a technology. This is why the cutting edge of this technology fits in so well in the university setting.  This could lead to our seeing e a 3-D printer that can make glass objects without an external power source other than the sun, running in the deserts of Egypt, or Mars, using nothing but the local sand and a flux admixture.  In truth, this has already happened.

Markus Kayser has developed a solar sintering device that allows this very scenario to unfold.  You can forward the video to the 1:30 mark if you would like since it has a slow introduction, but the result is nothing short of  revolutionary.

With new developments in technology we can often be caught straining to imagine what the uses could be for the new process or material.  Just  ten years ago the thought of using a body scan and a 3-D printer to recreate the structure of a kidney in three dimensions would have sounded like science fiction,but this is exactly what is unfolding right now in the field.

The better positioned that we are to prepare as well as capitalize on this new technology, the better able we will be in carving out a niche for this growing industry that is right on our back door step.  The first step is to begin here in our universities and technical schools to build the toolbox for our students for the next phase of an exciting and burgeoning industry.  Those who are trained in this new technology will be like those people who received the training on how to work with the computer revolution that began gaining steam in the mid 1980’s.  We all know how important that period has proven itself to be, and now we are standing at the edge of another revolution in technology again.

 

UPDATE: 5/1/2014.  For those who are interested in the many printer models currently available for purchase and assembly, this site may help to give you a rounded review of the field currently:  http://tobuya3dprinter.com/prusa-mendel-iteration-2-review/