NAU pioneers 3-D printing

2013-07-20T05:05:00Z NAU pioneers 3-D printingBy CECILE LeBLANC Sun Staff Reporter Arizona Daily Sun

Eventually, 3-D printing will be as commonplace as desktop publishing.

David Van Ness has been trying his hardest to make that a reality.

Van Ness is an artist and coordinator of foundations (the 100 level classes) in Northern Arizona University’s School of Art. He wants to help prepare students for the future.

“This will be just as much in the classroom as a carving tool,” Van Ness said. “… (I want to) make students be able to compete globally, be future proof.”

Through a grant from the NAU Parent Leadership Council, he has acquired a “desktop” 3-D printer for his art and 3-D printing art class.

What is 3-D printing? Put simply, someone creates a design using a computer program. The program feeds the design into the 3-D printer.

The printer puts down one layer of material after another to create the object. Van Ness points out minute “growth ring” layers on one of his art pieces. He explains he was in too big of a hurry to polish the piece before he painted it.

Van Ness’ printer is a relatively inexpensive Maker Bot Replicator 2x. Online, minus materials, the printer is selling for just under $2,800.

This printer lays down molten plastic to form the object layer by layer. It can use two colors. The machine’s plate lowers as the object is created. The size of the object is limited by the size of the plate, which in this case is 10 inches by 6 inches. Depending on the size of the object, it can cost more than $100 and take a couple of hours to print. Van Ness explains there is a multimillion-dollar machine using titanium that has been used to create new bones.

The technology has been around since Chuck Hull invented the process in the early 1980s, but it has hit the news especially since President Barack Obama mentioned 3-D printing, or additive manufacturing, in his State of the Union address in February 2013. Van Ness has one of his 3-D printed pieces at the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute in Youngstown, Ohio, mentioned in Obama’s address.

“It’s sort of an American revolution,” Van Ness said.


Van Ness mentions several companies working on the 3-D printing technology in the United States.

“(The technology) is the stepping stone to Mars. You don’t have to store materials. You need a part, you print a part.”

Van Ness has been working with 3-D printing technology since 2005. In addition to Ohio, his 3-D printed artwork has been shown around the United States and in Paris and London. He jokes his artwork is more well-traveled than he is. He was one of five artists invited to London’s “3-D Print Show,” where he displayed his “Stacking Bulls.”

He also experiments with “glitch” art. One of the first pieces he made with the new 3-D printer was “Glitch Lion.” It looks nothing like a lion. Imagine a dagger-sharp unicorn horn emerging from a rough-shaped heart, of sorts. Glitch art is a result of “a short-lived malfunction in a system.” Van Ness likes part of a piece to be visible, not a “glitch.”

“We all see glitch art,” Van Ness said. “I want to grab poetics out of that. What’s the conversation beyond that? What happens if there is a mistake in the machine? What does that really mean?”

His current favorite piece of art is a self-portrait. The sculpture is about two feet high and composed of separate 3-D prints, printed at the Milwaukee School of Engineering.

He explained in an email that it was “manufactured by multiple processes but primarily SLS (selective laser sintering) and SLA (stereo lithography). SLA is what most people describe when talking about 3-D printing.”

The body looks like a standing child or baby. The head is where the self-portrait comes in. He scanned his head while it was moving. The exact image replicated in the 3-D print is in disturbing, yet interesting, detail. Antlers, another 3-D print, sit on top of the head.


That’s the point of 3-D printing — what you can imagine, you can print: coffee mugs, wrenches, bones.

“If you have a broken doorknob (some day) you’re going to be able to download a doorknob design from HomeDepot.com and print it,” Van Ness said.

Next spring, he wants to start a 3-D print art class at NAU. He hopes to develop a partnership with other departments including engineering, computer science and visual communication and local businesses. Through these partnerships, he hopes his students can see how to apply what they learn with 3-D printing beyond the class.

“Art can be a research field like any other” Van Ness said. “This is a bright new future … It’s intimidating, but exciting.”

Cecile LeBlanc can be reached at 556-2261 or cleblanc@azdailysun.com.

Copyright 2015 Arizona Daily Sun. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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