3D Printing at DAAP’s Rapid Prototyping Center

While UCSIM focuses on developing virtual environments for education, from time to time we like to explore related technologies to discover potential benefits for future projects.  Recently, several UCSIM student staff have explored DAAP’s Rapid Prototyping Center (RPC) to learn more about converting 3D models into physical objects.

RPC uses 3D printers, CNC machining, Laser Cutting, and VACU Press machines allowing students many options to turn their projects into reality. Also, RPC is capable of two types of 3D printing: powder and plastic. Plastic is much more durable but very expensive. Powder is cheaper and usually less complicated when it comes to printing. Furthermore, a few months ago RPC acquired new machines that will print powder in color as well. The colors print dull and desaturated but they serve as a great base layer for painting. Printing color also costs the same as printing standard white.

We started the process by getting in touch with Aaron Rucker, a specialist in RPC. He walked us through the various technical issues to be aware of when modelling a project that you intend to print using a 3D printer. We use Maya for many of our projects at UCSIM, but our existing models may not be optimized for 3D printing. For example, to make modelling easier, Maya uses quads so a face can have four edges. The picture of the cube below shows what quads look like.

However the printing software doesn’t support this feature and might create problems when printing. The best way to avoid this is to run a cleanup operation. You can do this in Maya by going to the Polygons module, then Mesh>Cleanup. Scroll down to Fix by Tessellation and check 4-sided faces and Faces with more than 4 sides. This will keep the shape of the model but add edges so every face becomes the simplest shape there is, a triangle. This allows the printing software to read your model without any problems.

As a test object, we made a model of a scarecrow loosely inspired by the aesthetic of Backwater Gospel, then sent it to be printed overnight. This is when we found some problems with our model. The head and body were solid objects and the thin legs couldn’t support the weight so one leg broke off. Some drifting occurred with the fingers and left hand because they were so small, so the air blower simply blew them away. Since we didn’t have time to make changes in the model and schedule another print, we took what we had and glued it back together using epoxy and copper wires for support. The left image shows the computer model and the right shows the printed model.

While we still aren’t sure how we might incorporate 3D printing into future UCSIM projects, it was definitely worth learning new techniques and developing a better understanding of the whole process of 3D printing.

UC students and staff who are interested in using RPC for 3D printing should contact Aaron Rucker for more information. He knows all the ins and outs of printing models and can tell you what changes to make in your model before printing.  And many thanks to Aaron for all of the great information about RPC!