Art and design – and the artistic approach to materials – possess the unique ability to both propel Additive Manufacturing into new areas, and to provide an eye catching, even awe-inspiring, demonstration of the applications of this technology. Additive Manufacturing is increasingly moving into the public eye, and high-profile public art projects bring wonderful attention to the industry by presenting new possibilities for the materials and processes involved, as well as by capturing the imagination of those within and outside our industry.
I was drawn to this industry initially through my arts background, which led quickly to a fascination with new materials and technology. Additive Manufacturing offers the impetus for large-scale innovation, where wholly new processes are developed, and existing paradigms are expanded and modified. New technologies are always disruptive, and manufacturing, as a huge and mature industry, has some segments that have stagnated, while others have just begun to take shape.
The key tenets of AM are still being defined and, while some attempts will overreach and be discarded, others will certainly become ubiquitous, and in a decade’s time will seem an ever present part of the whole. Testing these possibilities from as many different angles – and with as many different ideologies as feasible – empowers the market to both innovate and edit itself to produce a stronger, more efficient process.
Traditional paths of progress are certainly present in current Additive Manufacturing. That is to say that those who have been in manufacturing for some time, both persons and companies, look to the new materials and processes offered by AM to discover new ways to solve existing problems. This is the classic application of technology, and a critical one. Traditional manufacturing is a long-standing industry into which a massive amount of research and testing has been poured into literally millions of products.
When GE wanted to increase the accuracy and efficiency of its fuel nozzles, it looked to Additive Manufacturing to achieve internal shapes which were desired, but impossible to produce via conventional manufacturing. Through a collaborative process involving designers, modellers, engineers, and machinists, they presented a concept in 2015 that, by 2018, had developed to incorporate the use of a dedicated facility filled with a fleet of industrial metal AM machines to produce more than 30,000 nozzles (Fig. 2).
The project was an unqualified success, and an excellent example of solving an existing challenge with a new technology. This classic application of new technology has been repeated countless times in numerous sectors of industry, and was made possible through the skill of designers and digital modellers who could collaborate with traditional machinists and engineers to yield the desired product.
Manufacturing looks to solve problems, art looks for them
Utilising new tools to solve existing problems is just a part of the benefits available to the industry though, and this is where the less structural approach comes into play. For centuries, artists and designers have looked to new materials and new processes, not as a possible solution to existing problems, but as an opportunity to redefine how a process or material can be applied. Yes, being able to ‘build’ metal in three dimensions allows the internal cavities of a part a freedom of design that conventional casting and machining cannot match. That method means that parts can be shaped more to an ideal, or with more precision or ease, than was possible with previous manufacturing methods, and that is a huge boon to industry. Artists, however, seek new challenges and possibilities, often so impractical at first that industry would not conceive of or devote the resources to test them.
Alberto Giacometti, a sculptor long before the advent of AM, embodies this process of experimentation and discovery. Giacometti was a Surrealist who became drawn to Realist sculpture, eventually becoming identified with the Existentialist movement. In making his renowned series of Walking Man sculptures, Giacometti experimented with different methods of casting bronze to find how little material he could possibly use in order to convey the desired frailty while still maintaining a rigid figure at the desired scale. He experimented with different methods of making moulds and pouring bronze to get the thin, even shape he required. His work yielded a sculpture that, even sixty years later, draws crowds and admiration.
That process is well-known today as an example of lightweighting. A critical step in the manufacture of a vast number of industrial parts, lightweighting allows a part to be reduced in mass and complexity to the minimums needed to safely perform the needed task. This offers huge advantages in production weight, in the cost of materials used, and in the efficiency of moving parts whose reduced mass equates to reduced energy consumption. Giacometti had no such grand plans when he poured Walking Man, but the process is much the same, and offers great rewards.
The craft of art and the study of science are, while distinct, deeply complementary. Giacometti made repeated attempts to reach his ideal Walking Man, just as a scientist would run experiments, producing a number of sculptures in this style from the 1930s to the 60s. Shown in Fig. 3 is the first large-scale Walking Man, produced in 1947.
Whether for art or engineering, this iterative design process is designed to find a solution to a problem posed, if from different directions. An engineer uses science to work towards the end goal of a product, and utilises technology and materials to reach that desired goal. The artist tests the materials and the process for their own sake, often without a strict goal in mind, testing to see what the capabilities of the new material or process are, and letting the goal grow from that. The tools may differ greatly depending in the task; Giacometti used plaster and wire to build moulds in ways never before attempted, while, today, engineers use focused software tools to refine their designs and perform the tasks of lightweighting, topology optimisation, or material analysis to optimise manufacture to be fast, cheap, precise, durable, and replicable.
How the arts have engaged with AM
With the Italian Renaissance serving as perhaps the greatest example, art has always offered the potential for great works that draw broad attention to scientific advances, benefitting technological progress simply by bringing innovations further into the public consciousness. When the MIT McGovern Institute for Brain Research commissioned a piece of installation art to reflect the mission of their scientists and research, they engaged Ralph Helmick of Helmick Sculpture; focusing on the intersection of science, art, and technology, Helmick was a natural choice for the task.
Ralph Helmick sought to depict the human brain, with its myriad of connected neurons, in an additively manufactured metal sculpture. More than a hundred individual neurons of different sizes and configurations, all produced by Binder Jetting (BJT), hang overhead as one enters the lobby, each wrapped in gold leaf, reflecting the light along their curves, adding to the chaotic nature of the installation. The piece, titled Schwerpunkt, German for focal point, takes on a different meaning once a visitor reaches the perspective of the balcony, where the disparate pieces coalesce to form a pattern of neurons inside the classical outline of a human brain (Fig. 4). The piece is stunning, and references the abilities of both the critical research being performed and metal Additive Manufacturing in the hands of an artist.
A similarly heralded work, the MX3D Bridge in Amsterdam, was produced using metal Additive Manufacturing to form a foot and cycle bridge twelve metres in length (Figs. 1, 5, 6). For this installation, several challenges were overcome, with the largest being the ability to create items far larger than the bed of the AM machine involved. A mixture of methods was used to create the massive, flowing form of the bridge. An AM process called Directed Energy Deposition (DED), with wire as the feedstock, was used. Also known as Wire Arc Additive Manufacturing (WAAM), the process, which can broadly be considered continuous additive welding, was central, as was the use of non-planar deposition to offset the stair stepping effect so often found with additively manufactured items, especially at large scale.
Could a similar bridge have been made conventionally, from metal, wood, stone, or concrete? Certainly, but this project was the work of artists, designers, modellers and engineers, intended to stretch the limits of new technology. In this case, the collaboration not only produced a beautiful bridge, but spun off a new company, MX3D, which produces software to operate robotic DED systems, allowing the end to end creation of large-scale additively manufactured metal objects. MX3D was later awarded the STARTS Grand Prize for Innovative Collaboration by the European Commission, which recognises companies that have promoted collaboration between industry or technology and the arts (and the cultural and creative sectors in general) that open new pathways for innovation.
Moving further, MX3D is spearheading the production and adoption of DED robots and seeks to maximise their impact through certification and a portfolio of engagement with other artists to produce large-scale works using the technology. What began as a design exercise has quickly developed into a recognised manufacturing process, and MX3D has now evolved into an industrial supplier of wire-based DED technology to both the arts world and critical industries such as maritime, oil & gas, aerospace and automotive.
Of course, Additive Manufacturing in the sphere of the arts involves the use of a great deal more diverse materials than plastic and metal. While these account for the bulk of current production, many other materials are currently being worked with and many more will be developed and adapted as the technology continues to mature. When the FRAC Centre commissioned Michael Hansmeyer to make Grotto I as part of the BMW Art Club exhibition, and the Centre Pompidou did the same with Grotto II, they desired not only to print with sandstone, but to do so with a 0.1 mm resolution. Each piece presents an astounding complexity of form, presenting hundreds of square metres of surface area in a work only 3.5 m tall. The breathtaking architecture of these works was entirely created by algorithm, optimised with highly differentiated geometries that fold in upon themselves seemingly infinitely. The structure that results is at once entirely fictive and abstract, yet at the same time organic and familiar. These works not only utilise cutting edge technological processes for production, but depict the math that underlies the design in physical form, allowing a viewer to marvel not only at the art, but the technology that underpins it.
Technology, arts and heritage
The Digital Grotesque exhibition, a collaboration between Hansmeyer and BMW, featured an immersive 3D printed sand installation that sought to examine the interconnectivity between art, technology, and humanity (Fig. 7). Hansmeyer specialises in utilising advanced technology and AM at the highest levels of precision to discover the limits of both the technology and the art it produces. Working in a field that is constantly redefining itself and its limitations allows the artist to examine the partnership between humans and the technology we utilise and rely upon. Such an examination may begin very much in the abstract, but the interaction of humans and technology reaches to the core of most manufacturing challenges, and improving the understanding of the desires and needs of the end-user offers tremendous advantages moving forward.
The creation of such large-scale structures from sand, when combined with digital scanning and modelling, presents a huge step forward in the preservation of antiquities. Large sculptures or fragile objects present challenges for transport and display. Additionally, a growing international understanding of the need for relics to remain in their countries of origin adds taboo to the challenge. A century ago, plaster casts were made of great structures, which then became moulds for poured concrete, and eventually replicas were made to display these antiquities worldwide. Such casting methods however, become exceedingly difficult at large scale, and inflict wearing and – potentially damage to – on the originals.
Utilising digital scanning and Additive Manufacturing processes, such replicas can be made to whatever scale is desired, without any physical contact with the original. While some museums have carefully guarded replicas a century old, such as the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, USA, this advance in technology will allow such replicas to proliferate again, while protecting the irreplaceable original works.
Not all AM occurs in a factory or even a studio. Perhaps one of the greatest assets of AM is the portability of the technology, allowing work to be performed on site, thus eliminating the transport and installation of large, completed works. Instead, only the AM machine and its materials need to be shipped, with all work occurring at the final site. This ability was used by FIT AG to design and construct Sker at the Sprengel Museum in Hannover, Germany.
Modelled after an Icelandic lava flow forming an island in the ocean, the piece was created on-site at a massive scale, 7.5 m in diameter and more than 2 m high (Fig. 8). All parts of the project, design, modelling, and fabrication were done digitally, requiring development of new processes by Additive Techtonics, a FIT subsidiary, to allow the artist to sketch the form directly into a virtual 3D model. Two robots are used for the build: the first to mix the changing custom wood blend of the fusible extrusion material, and the second to produce the sculpture itself without overlap, utilising another piece of new software developed for this project.
Bringing creativity back to manufacturing
Manufacturing has always been the spine of the modern world. Access to manufacturing is one of the primary factors in defining developed and developing nations. The relationship of manufacturing to the other functions of a nation have changed as steadily as manufacturing itself. Early on, the connections and interactions of industry, the arts, and manufacturing were tightly linked.
Artisanal products, for centuries created individually by craftsmen, were modified to allow for more rapid and consistent production, ultimately yielding assembly line mass production. While this maturation of concept allowed for new products to be created and manufactured vastly more quickly, then distributed globally, the connection between the unbounded creativity of the artisan, and the necessary efficiency of the manufacturer, grew increasingly more tenuous.
Freedom of experimentation can generate surprising solutions
Historically, artisans and designers worked, often with manual methods, to test the abilities and limitations of new materials. By approaching the materials and processes without worrying about the constraints of mass production, these designers used materials in ways not previously considered, and they applied the processes to entirely different groups of products. While those initial experiments may have had mixed results, the possibilities they exposed took a variety of industries into approaches they had not previously considered.
Take a kitchen tool that has become ubiquitous: the Microplane. This stainless steel rasp has proven perfect for finely grating citrus and cheese, as well as a variety of other produce, but began its life as a woodworking tool. Originally designed as a rasp for curved wood surfaces, the tool failed, as its tiny sharp edges wore out quickly against the hard fibres. For the softer materials of food preparation however, the tool proved invaluable, and became a standard item in kitchens worldwide. What is less known is that the tool is not stamped and sharpened as most blades are, it is manufactured through a process of photochemical machining; a process common in industrial production since the 1980s, but rarely seen in consumer goods before the Microplane. Its creator, Richard Grace, simply wanted to make new things with the technology he felt was being underutilised, then found a use for them later, to his great success.
This unfettered creativity drew from prior methods of manufacturing, then applied them to create products never before seen, finally moving back to full scale manufacture of the new items. In many ways this is the Bell Labs model, doing experimentation, research, and testing to see what is possible when unfettered by the need to immediately define a commercial use, even if the end goal was always commercial in the greater sense. Part of the core mission of Bell Labs was to utilise an interdisciplinary team – a Venn diagram of skills and knowledge – to effectively blanket the skill set. While Bell Labs is sadly gone, the organisational model persists, and offers us a critical roadmap towards the future of manufacturing innovation.
Industry and academia are making inroads towards this goal. Some companies like AutoDesk have fellowship programmes, bringing in talent from quite different industry sectors, to share their expertise and help to shape products and directions from unique viewpoints. They serve not to improve the quality of the product itself, but to expand the understanding of its impact, connectivity, and interaction with the larger ecosystem. Similar partnerships between industry and the arts have been around for decades. Even NASA maintains an Artist in Residence programme, understanding that the storytelling side of their mission increases accessibility for many, both expanding the appeal and demand for their missions, and possibly encouraging younger students to choose a path of study that leads to joining that mission.
Academia, of course, has played a key role in manufacturing and technology since the beginning, and its role in AM is no less. Many institutions grew robust industrial design programmes, from Carnegie Mellon to schools like Cooper Hewett, California College of the Arts, Parsons, as well as Penn State, Virginia Tech, and Purdue. As the field has grown, the types of materials involved have expanded tremendously, compelling these academic programmes to narrow their focus and greatly increase their depth of study. While still early in the adoption process of Additive Manufacturing, these institutions are already providing study focusing on a mechanical, materials, design, or modelling approach. The expansion of available data and applications, along with the constantly steady growth of the technologies themselves, have allowed for an incredible level of specialisation in a short period of time.
Manufacturing-driven design opens novel pathways
The industrial exploration of new products can yield a wide array of pathways, often adding a novel modification onto an existing product which either improved its performance, appeal, or producibility. Often the change was more evolutionary than revolutionary. In the 1930s, Fiestaware introduced a new ceramic glazing process, allowing for a wide range of vibrant colours. The plates’ function was unchanged, but the aesthetic improvement in the colour scheme made for a smashing success and sales skyrocketed. At the turn of the last century, Bakelite became the first widely used plastic made from synthetic components. Its resistance to heat and non-conductivity made it a natural choice for electrical insulators and for heat-proof handles on machines and kitchen equipment, but its ability to be thermoset into almost any shape expanded its use to entirely unrelated applications, such as children’s toys, jewellery, and even rifle stocks. In the 1990s, Dyson introduced a line of vacuum cleaners that, while using existent industrial technology, appeared unlike any vacuum that had come before it, and were instantly popular.
These products were created not by an artisanal approach to new materials, but rather through a design process with manufacturing always the end goal. Those working on these designs understood the needs of a manufacturing system, and sought to design products idealised for that process from the start. This sort of industrial design played, and will continue to play, a key role in the design of future products, so long as those designing consciously choose to expand their understanding to utilise the new abilities presented through Additive Manufacturing.
Seven years ago, soon after being brought on board at ExOne, a manufacturer of Binder Jetting AM and now part of Desktop Metal, I found myself at the Industrial Designers Society of America (IDSA) conference, believing my best move was to learn, as a sales person, how designers thought of, and designed for, these new technologies.
I quickly learned there were very much two camps at play in Additive Manufacturing. There was the old guard, who saw the new technology as a different method of creating the products they had been creating for decades. For this camp, it was a new tool for the same tasks, offering some new efficiencies and new limitations. The new users, in contrast, saw the path to growth as moving into the manufacture of new products, especially where the designs were difficult, or even impossible, to produce with traditional manufacturing methods. While many of these designers were still looking to solve current issues, they were using the new technologies to blaze novel paths to that goal.
Beyond the manufacturer’s ecosystem, a new category entirely had evolved, one of B2C facilitators. Now, well-known names such as Shapeways, Xometry, Materialise and others linked metal AM manufacturers to a broad group of end users who sought a mix of pre-designed items and products of their own creation. Some sought individual pieces for personal use, while others desired small batch production for retail sale. The process, while limited in scope, worked beautifully, allowing emerging designers like Jenny Wu, Nervous System, and Hero Forge, amongst many others, to prototype and build entirely new creations. While the scale of this consumer production was smaller than the industrial side, the sheer volume of those involved and the increasingly public nature of this branch of AM quickly brought these technologies into the consumer sector.
Turning the Klein bottle, a topological example of a non-orientable surface that yields a shape without a definable inside or outside, into a bottle opener, Bathsheba utilised the abilities of Additive Manufacturing to achieve a shape that could not be cast or machined in any reasonable manner. It is, of course, a mix of math joke, beautiful design, and a fully functional tool; a consumer product, designed by an artist. Similarly, a set of metal AM dice for the game Dungeons & Dragons utilised industrial technology to create a hugely popular take on a common gaming item. From these small-scale manufacturers to multinational corporations, AM is becoming an intrinsic part of the overall process.
The expansion of Additive Manufacturing technologies into the arts world has been so rapid and substantial that museums have joined the field. For those lucky enough to be in the UK, The Design Museum in London now has a permanent exhibition on maker culture and small-scale manufacture. This exhibition draws from the early 2010s when ‘3D printing’ exploded onto the scene, and the hype touted it as the universal solution for the maker movement. While these early claims proved hyperbolic, as so often happens, real change did occur. The democratisation of the manufacturing process expanded, as the required scale shrank and the tools of the trade appeared in small shops, personal homes, schools and libraries around the world.
The Design Museum takes a unique approach with its permanent exhibition, Designer Maker User, highlighting everyday products that are used and customised, demonstrating a designer’s thought process. The exhibit, aside from showing off some excellent work, shines a light on some areas often hidden in shadow. Not only does it highlight the designers and users of these products, it goes on to examine and illuminate the Additive Manufacturing processes involved. It demonstrates the process of design and manufacture, making the whole of the process more accessible and visible to those outside the field. Combined with expanding efforts to make many designs and scans opensource, notably done by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, offering scans of its art and sculpture collections on Thingiverse.
One of the most highly-viewed examples of cutting-edge AM technology was seen in the costumes for the Marvel film Black Panther. In designing the costumes, Ruth E Carter faced a challenge: she needed to create costumes that showcased the technology, while maintaining the distinct flavours of East African Maasai design. She and her team spent months scouring shops globally for authentic East African prints, but, finding many were now printed in Europe and shipped, she opted to create her own. Beyond the fabrics, however, Carter saw the opportunity to use 3D printing to demonstrate the level of technology available to the citizens of the fictional nation of Wakanda. Modelled on the hats traditionally worn by married Zulu women, the headgear worn by Angela Basset as the Queen held an impossible shape with stunning translucence. The hat, along with her broad lace collar, was created from wearable plastic, as was most of the suit the eponymous character wears. This represents the opposite end of the AM art scale, where the technology is used to create items that are not installation art pieces, but rather exceptional examples of items already well-known and understood.
All of us in the Metal AM readership know that Additive Manufacturing is a permanent part of the manufacturing ecosystem going forward. The opportunities to gain efficiencies and to produce new products and new processes will be myriad. The rate of adoption and commercialisation, however, poses new challenges for the industry.
With the intense levels of competition and the rapid advancements arriving steadily, organisational innovation is key. Traditional development cycles must be updated in order to find the correct applications to work with existing clients, refine the understanding of entirely new products and methods and reduce the iterative cycles need to reach a solid design for manufacture.
Collaborative processes, involving engineers, modellers, designers, and artists, will provide the diversity of inputs and viewpoints needed to avoid the pitfalls of siloed development, which present the real risk of critical delays in a fast-paced field. Working with facilitators trained in assisting with this rapid and broad integration can allow the introduction of valuable insight and help ease the adaptation of a traditional process into a more additive and flexible one.
Understanding the critical interactions between the needs of industry, the desires of government and the innovations of academia and the arts is invaluable towards the goal of utilising AM to bolster and expand current offerings, and not be overwhelmed or outpaced by them.
Elizabeth Henry is the principal and founder of Henry General Strategies (HGS), a consulting firm focused on aligning opportunities at the intersection of industry, government, and academia.
Henry founded HGS in 2022 after serving for more than five years as a Subject Matter Expert in Additive Manufacturing for the United States Office of the Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering’s Office of Manufacturing Technology.
Henry consults, writes, and speaks on innovation, collaboration, and emerging markets in new technologies, including additive.
Combining the gothic and the modern
Studio Tessin designed its Cellular Altar Object – a collaboration between Oliver Tessin, Architectural Designer, and artist duo Empfangshalle – for the parish church of St Laurentius in Altmühldorf, Germany. Manufactured by AM specialist FIT AG, the sculpture was commissioned as part of the artistic renovation of the parish church and became, through the unique structure made possible by computational modelling and AM, the new focal point of the interior. The design is based on the insight that the altar’s cellular morphology and church’s gothic architecture are both derived from nature’s own design processes, and the latest technologies available at the time they were constructed. Whilst metal DED was initially considered, the sculpture was made using polymer PBF-LB and coated with aluminium bronze using a thermal spray process to give it structure a stable ‘shell’, before finishing with a metallic lacquer (Photos courtesy Andreas Heddergott)