A herd of miniature monochromatic sheep rests next to a tiny Reims Cathedral. A few inches away, an angry bust leers at a pile of colorful chains.
These plastic miniatures are not children’s toys, but the products of the Makerbot Replicator 2, a 3D printer, owned by the Visual Resources Center in the Gund Gallery.
Professor of Art History Sarah Blick was inspired to obtain the printer after observing the work of artist Cosmo Wenman.
“He printed out a life-size head of the horse from the Parthenon,” Blick said.
The Art History Department purchased the printer this past May, believing it would aid in the observation and study of sculpture and architecture. The Makerbot Replicator 2 cost $2,199. With an added service plan, the Art History Department spent $2,549 on the device.
Additionally, an Essentials Grant from the Center for Innovative Pedagogy purchased the spools of plastic filament that comprise the printed objects.
Associate Professor of Neuroscience Andy Niemiec, Blick, and Blick’s husband John Pepple spent the summer learning to use the machine.
“The Makerbot Replicator 2 is one of the more user-friendly of the 3D printers,” Blick said. “The computer program tells the machine where to go and for how long, and tells the extruder how long to stay in one place. First of all, you need to preheat it to 270 degrees Celsius.”
An extruder is the part that the plastic filament comes out of. The filament cools extremely quickly after the extruder layers the plastic onto the object it’s creating.
Blick said the machine now boasts a 50 to 80 percent success rate, in that the objects it prints come out as planned. In the beginning, she said, herself, Pepple and Niemiec had about a 20 percent success rate with the machine.
“There’s many, many failed prints,” she said. Many rest near the printer, including a bisected sheep and a split purple flip-flop that was described as being able to hold an iPhone within it. The failures are due to glitches in the programs and in the machine.
Blick said that even though the Makerbot Replicator 2 is relatively user-friendly, it requires a lot of adjustment and cleaning. Additionally, the machine contains only one extruder, and can thus only print single-color objects.
“The [Natural Sciences] Division ordered one with two extruders, so you can do two different colors,” she said.
Niemiec said the printer will be useful for its capacity to construct 3D models.
“I think that it would be helpful for students to be able to hold a 3D model of an ion channel in one hand and a 3D model of the neurotransmitter molecule for that receptor/ion channel in the other to see how they interact,” he said. “Another example might be to construct 3D anatomical models of structures such as the ossicles of the middle ear. These tiny bones could be printed up at many times their normal size and interconnected as they are in the human ear to study the complex three-dimensional vibration patterns they create in response to sound, something that I currently tell my students about but can’t really effectively demonstrate.”
Blick added that the problems the printer is experiencing now, such as occasionally misprinting objects and requiring careful maintenance, will be obsolete in several years.
“This reminds me very much of personal computers in the late ’70s and early ’80s where ﾅ you had to do a lot of work, and there were tons of codes,” she said.
To use the 3D printer, a student will have to arrange access through the Visual Resources Center by contacting Visual Resources Curator Yan Zhou.
“We still have yet to set up the charge scheme, to cover the cost of the filament used, but it will be inexpensive. We first need to make sure enough student workers are trained to help others,” Blick said.
Right now, there are no plans for a dedicated 3-D printing class.
“We are thinking about how [we] are going to use this as a pedagogical tool,” Blick said.
Blick’s current big project is printing out a complex, 70-80 piece version of Riems Cathedral. She currently has 5-6 pieces finished.
The next step for Blick and her fellow 3D printing researchers is to learn Google SketchUp, so they are no longer dependent on other people’s designs.
Despite the cost and technical difficulties the printer has exhibited thus far, Blick believes that 3D technology will be an important part of art history in the future.
“This is a baby step. What ultimately I dream of is three-dimensional projection, which they do have now but it’s hideously expensive,” she said. “I would love to, when teaching about a church, have a design where the students could step into a room, and you wouldn’t be there, but it would be close.”