Designer Spotlight : Bathsheba Grossman

Bathsheba Grossman is a community member of ours. She joined the 5th of August last year. I did not have to look that up. I know the date, because I was jumping up and down like crazy once she joined. You have absolutely no idea how awesome it is that Bathsheba not only became a Shapeways community member but also opened a Shapeways Shop and participates actively in the Shapeways community.

She is without a doubt the pioneer in bringing 3D printing products to consumers. She is also the pioneer in 3D printing/rapid manufacturing art. She is the first artist to experiment with 3D printing, exhibit her work, sell it extensively and have success with all these things. She also has a deep knowledge and understanding of 3D printing technologies and makes inspirational work.

Joris: So, Bathsheba tell us something about yourself?

Bathsheba: Well, that’s awfully general. :-)

I’m in my mid-40′s, currently spending winters in California and
summers in Boston, artistically also between projects. I plan to
continue working with CAD/CAM and geometrical sculpture, but I see
everything else changing: the physical media, the software, and not
least the business model.

What software do you use to design in 3D?

Many different tools: mathematical freeware such as Surface Evolver,
mesh conditioners including Magics, and a lot of Perl scripts which I
write myself. But everything tends to end up in Rhinoceros, and when
I model by hand that is what I use.

Would you recommend it?

Yes, though not exclusively: it’s more important to have many tools,
and to use tool that you enjoy, than to have any specific tool. Rhino
is not a revolutionary modeler, but it imports and exports a plethora
of file formats, and it has a broad toolkit which can work with both
NURBS and meshes. I especially like that it has a fully scriptable
command line, as well as its own programming language _and_ the
ability to write plug-ins — if you have some background in
programming, that’s very friendly.

 

 

You are the pioneer in making art with 3D printing: since when have you been doing this?

After many frustrating years of attempting to make my sculpture by
hand, I started working CAD and using Z Corporation’s cornstarch
printer in 1997. It is possible to cast bronzes from starch prints,
though with some difficulty, and for several years that is how I
worked. I couldn’t make a living at it, and the work did not achieve
great currency, but there was enough interest that I kept trying.

I should say that I am by no means the first sculptor, or the first
geometrical sculptor, to use CAD/CAM. I am one of the first people to
have even modest sales success with 3D prints considered as direct
products, rather than as one-offs or prototypes.

 

 

Are you able to do this full time?

Yes, by the grace of my beloved customers. My sculpture site, plus a
site for laser-etched molecular structures at crystalprotein.com,
support me and two part-time assistants.

 

What’s a laser-etched molecular structure? And what does one do with it?

In addition to 3D printing, I do subsurface laser etching in glass,
such as this model of the DNA molecule.

In this medium I draw all types of intractable 3D data, from
astronomy, biology, physics and mathematics. Protein and
small-molecule models are a particular specialty — many researchers
have favorite molecules which they study, and also many biotech
companies. It’s a good business because it is not dependent on the
art market, so it is still there when the economy deflates.

 

How did you first get involved in 3D printing/rapid manufacturing?

In several different ways. My early experiments in bronze began
straightforwardly, I simply sent a CAD model to Z Corporation, got a
free sample (which was customary at that time :-) ), then paid some money and got started.

In 2000 I bought a 3D printer, a high-resolution wax printer intended
for jewelry design, and operated it as a service bureau for several
years. This was not a good plan — the next time I buy a 3D printer
it will cost less than $1000 and fit on my desk.

I began to work with metal printing in 2003. Ex One (then Extrude
Hone) approached me when their Prometal process was in beta testing,
and after a few pilot pieces it soon became clear that there was some
market.

 

 

In reference to running a service bureau you say “This was not a good
plan.” Did you run into maintenance issues with the machine?

Yes, it wasn’t possible to keep it running more than about 70% of the
time; and jewelers are hard to satisfy. It just wasn’t a profitable
business to have only a single machine.

 

What is it that you make?

When things are going well, money! All the time, objects. Ideas are
also involved, but I prefer not to talk much about them: if they get
into the objects, you may find them there.

 

“but I prefer not to talk much about them”, why don’t you like to talk about ideas?

Selling art is a very public business — I put my thoughts online and
offer them for money. I am not an extroverted person and find the
entire marketing process rather distressing. The way I make this art
is very solitary, very nonverbal, and I prefer to keep it that way.
It’s one of the few private pleasures of this job.

 

 

What kind of customers do you have? Where are they from? How did you manage to find your first customers?

When I was starting out with handmade bronzes, I sold mostly to
mathematicians and scientists whom I knew personally. However, I
noticed even when in school that this type of design appeals to
surprisingly many people. I would always carry a few sculptures, and
show them to the bartender, bus driver, garbage man and so forth, and
I found that almost everyone at least likes them. Some more than
others of course, but almost no one reacts badly, and a surprising
number of people who are not involved with math at all enjoy them very
much. This broad appeal is why I decided to go into the business. I
knew that there would be a huge customer base for this work, if I
could make it cheap enough. Most of that base is still untapped.

Now, of course, I sell online and do not meet the vast majority of
customers. Many are tech people with whom I share some culture: math,
science, computer science, geeks in general. Many more are not.
There are, for instance, people who feel a spiritual connection with
geometry and experience my designs as sacred symbols. I try to remain
transparent to all possible approaches.

 

You seem to be primarily inspired by shapes and math, or am I wrong about that? How do you balance art and mathematics?

Well, to start with I draw a distinction between purely algorithmic
pieces, where I have very little design input and the model is
entirely computed, and art pieces where there may be computation in
the process, but the main design is my invention.

The math models are a simple case: there is as much art in them as in
a scientific illustration. No less, no more. As to the art, all I
can say that my creative engine appears to be deeply symmetrical.
It’s impossible to say whether this is because of my studies in
mathematics, or simply a personal inclination.

There have been many excellent geometrical sculptors with no formal
training in math — my mentor Robert Engman was one, Brent Collins is
another — so it is not a singular type of creativity. I’m part of an
artistic lineage which has never been large, and is not always
fashionable, but is very vital and goes back to Neolithic times.

 

 

When you switched from sculpting by hand to sculpting using software did your work change? your process?

The process changed in two steps: first I sculpted by hand and cast in
bronze; then I sculpted by 3D printing and cast in bronze; now I 3D
print directly in metal.

My style changed very little, except that I was able to do more
complex things. There is a secret page on my site with some photos
from before 3DP and you can see it’s not too different.

 

 

You have a MFA Sculpture and were also Laboratory Assistant at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory. Is that kind of combination, that kind of divergence as rare as I think it is?

I think most artists have a day job at some time in their lives. Mine
lasted a long time, for me it was more than 10 years between art
school and making money as an artist, so my day job turned into a
little career in scientific programming.

Rodin worked as a stonemason half his life…in an age where software
is a fully developed art medium, working as a programmer is not so
different!

 

 

What do you think the future will bring for 3D printing?

I hope for more materials, better resolution, and freer geometry. I
expect slow, incremental advances punctuated by occasional jumps as
new patents develop. The hardware business is slow-moving, especially
compared to software. We think, oh, it’s been six months, there
should be a new release that fixes these bugs! But that’s not how
manufacturing works: tooling up a new process, or even a slightly
different process, takes years of time and huge investments.

 

 

Will everyone use 3D printing to make everything? Or will it still be a niche?

I think it will remain specialized for many years, for the foreseeable
future. It’s very difficult to compete with mature mass-production
technologies in quality, materials, and especially price. And it
turns out that customization is not immediately an economically
compelling motive. Useful individuation requires a lot of human
attention (which is expensive), and for a mature product it is often
not necessary or does not add much value. With existing technology we
can now custom-form the handle of everyone’s toothbrush, but is it
worthwhile? Not for some time, I think.

 

 

 

 

Why have you been so helpful to us and the Shapeways community? Shapeways enabling people to make and sell their rapid prototyped items could pose a threat to your livelyhood?

That’s true in the short run, but one must take a long view. I had
good luck in getting into metal printing early and forming a strong
relationship with Ex One, and that’s been helpful to my business in
the last several years. But it’s always been obvious that eventually
production will become more available and more streamlined, and then
many more designers will enter this market.

Shapeways’ advent marks the beginning of a shift from a
production/sales business model, to a royalty-based business model in
which customers demand and pay for production in the material, size
and location of their choice, and I contribute only the design. I
have seen this coming for many years, and although the transition will
be complicated, at the end I become a pure designer and do not have to
be involved with manufacturing issues, and that’s all good.

 

 

What do you think of Shapeways? What are some things we need to change? What needs to stay the same?

The main change I’d like to see is more targeting on customers who are
not themselves designers. The site is now made to appeal almost
entirely to makers, people who both upload and buy models. This is
good for building a base of designers, but the far greater customer
base is appreciators: people who may be interested in the technology,
but mainly want to own near-custom models, be in touch with the
cutting edge of object making, and get work from artists and designers
that they like.

I’m not sure that a single site can appeal to both sets of people.
Maybe there should be a completely separate storefront for
non-designer buyers, with almost independent publicity and a more
selective gallery.

Where you’re strong now is in getting manufacturers on board:
producing good prices and growing material choice. That’s fantastic,
but it won’t mean much — and the great prices won’t be sustainable –
if you can’t also produce a lot of customers. If there are just have
a few hundred to a few thousand designers on board, we’ll soon exhaust
what we want to buy from each other: we need hordes of civilians. My
own marketing experience shows that they’re out there, but they need a
well curated selection, and a straightforward site aimed at them.

3 comments

  1. T. Shawn Johnson

    Let me just quote something Bathsheba said above, so that people can read it a second time.

    “The main change I’d like to see is more targeting on customers who are
    not themselves designers. The site is now made to appeal almost
    entirely to makers, people who both upload and buy models. This is
    good for building a base of designers, but the far greater customer
    base is appreciators: people who may be interested in the technology,
    but mainly want to own near-custom models, be in touch with the
    cutting edge of object making, and get work from artists and designers
    that they like.”

    Here here! I can’t agree with her more.

    -Whystler

  2. wong hua

    I was also happy for Shapeways when Bathsheba joined the community, because she indeed do great things (because of my work, I do like the crystal molecules she makes, check her site…).

    The amusing thing is that I contacted her once to know the cost of making the incredible 3D metal sculpture she did (for a project involving precisely crafted metal pieces IIRC…)

    At the time (2008) she kindly explained that the process of metal infusion was difficult and costly.

    And now (2009) Shapeways is taking a big leap to put the power where it belong, in the hand of the designers :)

    You just have to love what the future holds for 3D printing…

  3. Shapeways Blog

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