3-D Printing Brings Rapid Prototyping To The World Of Art

What if artists could create life-sized monuments that would normally take six months to a year or longer to build, in a matter of hours, and do so at a fraction of the cost? What if museums were able to create digital backups of all of the masterpieces in their collections so they could produce exact replicas should pieces be badly damaged or stolen? The folks at Additive Workshop are using 3-D scanning and printing to do just that, and it could forever change the way we look at art. 

"Additive Workshop bridges the gap between the real world and the virtual world," says Mark Ghiglieri, CEO of Additive Workshop. "Our technology allows us to bring pieces of art into the world in an infinite number of ways, and that is why our business is exploding. Everyone from museums to movie studios needs our help to create incredible works of art in a short amount of time."

Traditionally, creating 3-D art has meant hundreds of hours of sculpting, creating a piece from scratch using wood, clay, and other materials. Given their labor intensiveness, an artist might only be able to produce 4-5 projects in a given year. If they want to create an exact replica, they would have to start over from scratch. 

Using 3-D scanning and printing, artists are now able to capture digital images of their creations down to the smallest of details. Using today’s technology, it’s possible to generate 8 million bits of information per square inch scanned—precise enough to capture fingerprints and eyelashes. Once the object is scanned, a 3-D mold is created and can be sent to a 3-D printer, where they can determine the size of the object, which can be as small as a dime or larger than a 747. As a result, they can focus on new art instead of laboring for months on end creating one life-sized bronze statue. They’re also able to easily produce exact replicas of each piece in different sizes, which allows them to make their art available for customers at different price points.

Beyond the obvious benefits to artists, 3-D scanning and printing allows museums to, for the first-time ever, create digital backups of every art masterpiece in their collection. Until recently, the only way to create molds of ancient artifacts and statues would have required going into each museum and carefully placing Plaster of Paris over each piece—something that would have been incredibly time consuming (if a museum would even agree to it). Now, in a matter of minutes, it’s possible to create digital scans without even having to physically touch the statues. Having digital scans would have made it possible to recreate exact replicas of items that were stolen or damaged when Cairo's Egyptian National Museum was looted in early 2011—items which included a statue of King Tut.

Business and entertainment companies are also hopping onboard. Nike recently commissioned the creation of 10-foot-tall basketball players to hang from the ceiling during the grand opening of their anchor store in Times Square (pictured, top)—pieces Additive was able to create from only a drawing. Among other projects, Additive also created Spirit Bear, which was displayed during the Opening Ceremony of the XXI Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver B.C. and was a whopping 65-feet tall.

As 3-D scanning and printing becomes more and more sophisticated, art and engineering will continue to converge. Artists will be able to harness the power of rapid prototyping to bring their ideas to life and do so exponentially faster and at a fraction of the cost. That same technology will also help to ensure the world’s masterpieces and artifacts are safe for generations to come.

Find Shawn at shawngraham.me or continue the conversation on Twitter.

[Image: Additive Workshop]

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  • Nadra Angerman

    Great article, Shawn!

    3D printed art will be on display in the Contemporary Art Gallery at RAPID 2012. The Society of Manufacturing Engineers introduced this event in 2010. It's dedicated to
    creativity and design. Artists familiar with design software and
    additive manufacturing processes can display their work to an appreciative

    As your article points out...

    Additive manufacturing/3D printing, 3D imaging and digital sculpture are
    used creatively in a new approach to art creation and production. This
    new, high-speed, on-demand medium allows the impossible to be possible
    from the finite barriers of reproduction for a single artist, to the
    unlimited reproductions of artists' works. This new artistic medium will
    provide an economic boon to the artists themselves, as well as to the
    additive manufacturing industry as a whole.

    To learn more about the May 22-25 event in Atlanta, contact Angie Szerlong or Nick Smith at 800.733.3976. For more info about the event, visit: www.sme.org/rapid