From Art to Part

3 min read

Metropolitan Works is a not-for-profit Creative Industries Centre that helps turn conceptual artwork and designs into reality through access to a range of services that include digital manufacturing, workshop facilities, knowledge transfer, advice, courses and exhibitions.

“The idea behind Metropolitan Works is to reach out to a new market of people by offering affordable means of tapping into advanced digital technology that was previously cost prohibitive and therefore inaccessible,” says Ed Alves, the organisation’s technical manager. “We differ from most rapid manufacturing bureaus in that our employees come from creative rather than industrial backgrounds.”

At the heart of Metropolitan Works’ impressive new facility on Commercial Road, Whitechapel is the Digital Manufacturing Centre, which houses a range of new technology for prototyping, manufacture, research and

experimentation, including two Z Corporation 3D printers – a ZPrinter 310 monochrome 3D printer and the most recent acquisition, a Spectrum Z510.

The Spectrum Z510 can print parts in full colour and offers a quick and economical way to visualise CAD models and prototypes within a build volume of 254 x 356 x 203mm.

“We looked at a number of 3D printers before opting for the Z Corporation machines,” says Alves. “Ease-of-use and rapid realisation of parts were two of the primary reasons for our selection, however, the cost of ownership was the factor that really impressed – for the money, the specification is unbelievable and far better than we could find among competitor products.”

The Spectrum Z510 produces high definition (600 dpi), 24-bit colour prototypes affordably and quickly – two layers per minute using all four print heads. Deploying advanced inkjet technology, the machine allows users to print and evaluate physical models of designed concepts in their nearly finished state.

A recent case in point saw Metropolitan Works help produce the artwork for the latest album released by leading British hip hop artist, Roots Manuva. Designed by graphic design duo Oscar & Ewan, the album – Slime and Reason – was released in August 2008 and features a head and shoulders image of the artist showing the top of his head missing and the contents filled with green ‘slime’.

Roots Manuva (aka Rodney Smith) visited Metropolitan Works in person, where his head and shoulders and were scanned in 3D. The different scans were stitched together and printed using the Z-Corp Spectrum Z510 to create a master that was cast by a sculptor to create a ceramic vessel filled with slime.

By definition 3D printing is an extremely versatile and rapid process accommodating geometry of varying complexity in hundreds of different applications, and supporting many types of materials. Z Corporation’s 3D printing technology leverages 3D source data, which often takes the form of CAD models. The software that drives Z Corporation’s 3D printers accepts all major 3D file formats, including STL, WRL, PLY and SFX files.

“For example, say a sculptor comes in with a rough clay model,” explains Alves. “We first perform a 3D scan to produce an STL file, which is followed by a certain amount of CAD work to stitch together any missing data before exporting a solid file to the 3D printer.”

From here, Metropolitan Works open the file in ZPrint, the desktop interface for Z Corporation’s 3D printers. The primary function of ZPrint is to cut the solid object into digital cross sections, or layers, creating a 2D image for each 0.1016mm slice along the Z-axis. In addition to sectioning the model, users can utilise ZPrint to address other production options, such as viewing, orienting, scaling, colouring, and labelling multiple parts.

“Set-up for each job is really fast and takes no more than 10 minutes,” says Alves. “I know that ‘plug and play’ is overused terminology but it couldn’t be more apt for these 3D printers.”

Z Corporation 3D printers use standard inkjet printing technology to create parts layer-by-layer by depositing a liquid binder on to thin layers of powder. Instead of feeding paper under the print heads like a 2D printer, a 3D printer moves the print heads over a bed of powder upon which it prints the cross-sectional data sent from the ZPrint software.

“Printing is really quick,” continues Alves. “A modest size model can be produced in 3-4 hours; a larger model will take 4-6 hours; while a full build can be just 12-13 hours. Naturally most of the artists who come here are pretty impressed as the process is extremely fast and low cost in comparison to traditional model making or other rapid prototyping processes.”

Z Corporation machines produce finished models for less than 1/3 the cost of an SLA/FDM model.

“While the 3D printers use a plaster-based material bonded with glue to produce a model for chiefly aesthetic rather than functional purposes, they can be easily infiltrated to increase their strength – on several occasions we have produced models that were used as the final part. We are also finding that clients are increasingly looking to 3D printing as a tool for downstream processes such as casting and mould making.

“In summary there is no doubt that the Z Corporation 3D printers offer our customers new and creative ways to visualise 3D data in real space,” he concludes.

Part of London Metropolitan University, Metropolitan Works is commited to “providing the tools for creative minds to innovate”, and a significant portion of this pledge is ratified by the organisation’s investment prowess, which has seen it spend around £2 million on the latest rapid prototyping and digital manufacturing equipment. As a not-for-profit company, Metropolitan Works is supported by numerous sources of funding, including the London Development Agency, the European Regional Development Fund, Communities and Local Government, and the City Fringe Partnership.

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