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No program in the School
of Art has added more high-tech equipment in the past few years
than the Metals Program.
“We tend to work
on a small scale,” says Professor Mary Hu, chair of the Metals
Program. “I talk a lot about precision and craftsmanship.”
With traditional tools, achieving precision on intricate metal pieces
can be challenging. But recently introduced laser and digital technology
is changing that.
Hu and James McMurray with a 3-D scanner and the resulting
computer images. Photo by Karen Orders.
Several years ago, Hu
and instructional technician James McMurray identified and purchased
several high-tech tools—a software program, a three-dimensional
scanner and 3-D printer—thanks to a grant from the UW’s
Student Technology Fee Committee, which funds technology tools for
The software program, Rhinoceros, enables students to create and
manipulate three-dimensional designs. With the 3-D laser scanner,
they can scan three-dimensional forms and alter them in the computer.
A portable three-dimensional digitizing arm captures larger images.
When the computerized
3-D designs are finalized, the next step is to print them. A regular
printer can’t capture that third dimension, so Hu and McMurray
purchased a three-dimensional printer, the Solidscape Pattern Master.
“You start with a computer model—the design you want,”
explains McMurray. “The pattern master then ‘prints’
a 3-D model in plastic wax, a layer at a time, until it builds up
the entire object. Now you’ve got a three-dimensional representation
of what you had in your computer, in wax.” With the model
completed, a plaster mold can be made to cast the object in metal,
or the wax model can be electroplated to achieve a metal object.
“In the past,
we would carve waxes by hand,” says Hu. “Often we still
do. Depending on what you are doing, sometimes carving the wax is
faster and easier. But the new equipment makes possible such fine
detail, such precision, that you can do things that would be almost
impossible by hand.”
Once they discovered
what their newly acquired equipment could do, McMurray and Hu were
eager to add other advanced tools. They submitted a second request
to the Student Technology Fee Committee in 2002. “We got everything
we asked for,” says McMurray, somewhat astonished. “The
committee members were so excited by what we’d done with the
first grant, they felt good about giving us additional support.”
The second grant funded
a larger 3-D scanner, a three-dimensional printer that makes models
out of more durable plastic, a machine that casts models in titanium,
and a laser welder. “With the laser welder, you look through
a microscope, bring pieces together, and in one shot they are welded
while you are still holding them in your fingers,” says Hu.
“It is much less cumbersome than traditional welding methods.”
Despite her excitement
about these new tools, Hu has no intention of ditching traditional
approaches. It’s all about balance, she says.
“I want my students
to have a traditional understanding of the process, the materials,
and the handwork,” says Hu. “Then they can start adding
on. For those interested in technology, these are wonderful tools
to use when they make sense. They just extend the possibilities.”
Beyond Traditional Media
[Autumn 2003 - Table of Contents]