Designer Spotlight: Brian Chan

This weeks Designer Spotlight focuses on Brian Chan, maker of extraordinary things, from beautiful, complex 3D printed insects to hilariously understated origami videos to award winning handmade instruments. Read on!

Tell us a little bit about yourself, who are you?

I’m Brian Chan, I grew up in the SF bay area but now reside in Cambridge. I work part-time at the Hobby Shop at MIT.

What’s the story behind your designs? What inspires you? 

Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been fascinated by arthropods (insects, crustaceans, etc). Preserved insect collections were neat, but preferred seeing live bugs. These were hard to find, and I couldn’t always take them home. Out of curiosity and desire to handle these creatures, I learned to reproduce them using origami, but the fragility of the paper made it hard to share, except through pictures and behind glass. Shapeways lets me sculpt artworks that can be shared with anyone and handled. I like making these movable figures or anything with a certain “action figure” potential, and my goal is to create works that feel almost alive. 

What brought you to 3D printing with Shapeways?

About a year ago, I created a laser-cut folding ukulele and realized that 3D printing and laser cutting were great ways to share designs which otherwise would be impossible to make. I was introduced to Shapeways by one of my mentors in origami, Robert Lang, who mentioned the wide number of materials that Shapeways has to offer. 

How did you learn how to design in 3D?

I’ve been drawing all my life, and have been sculpting with the traditional 3D stuff since my parents gave me clay and origami books when I was about seven. I still do traditional sculpting now as well as metalworking and carving. I think these skills inform my computer-based designs in a useful way. As for CAD, I was a high school junior when Rhino3D was releasing free betas. This was when computer graphics in movies was just starting to get big. I got hooked, designing cars, robots, and armor suits, just to make pretty renderings. At that point, 3D printing was mainly a fantasy to us, but now that technology has evolved, I’ve been thinking almost constantly how to design things to be actually made!

How do you promote your work?

I post to Flickr mostly and I have my own website. Last year I was lucky and my folding ukulele won a Core77 Design award, so that got a bit of publicity but I’m always open to suggestions!

Who are your favorite designers or artists? Who in the Shapeways community has served as an inspiration to you?

It’s great to see other insect designers and their interpretations of nature. To name a few: Joaquin Baldwin’s death head hawk moth, Michael Mueller’s stag beetle, and Erics Studio’s incredibly detailed and lifelike creations are really great sculptures that show how we can do with 3D printing what would be nearly impossible with any other method. My own work is heavily inspired by Japanese artwork, especially the metalworkers like Kano Natsuo, who made sword fittings, and Takase Kozan, who made articulated animals from a multitude of metals. 

If you weren’t limited by current technologies, what would you want to make using 3D printing?

As the technicians at Shapeways know, I’m always trying to make thinner walls and thinner wires, and more detail, because I am obsessed with detail! I’d really like to create articulated creatures and mechanical devices, perhaps some sweet automata, out of 3D printed metal. I know that 3D printed bronze, aluminum, brass, and titanium have recently become a reality, and I hope Shapeways is considering expanding their metals repertoire. If (or, optimistically, when) the price of printing goes down, I will use printers to make bigger objects like wearable armor suits and more fold-up musical instruments.

Check out Brian’s amazing creepy crawlies on his Shapeways Shop, read more on his website, and if you want to be the next featured designer, email


  1. WuLongTi

    As an “action figure” designer myself I’m blown away by these. Even more so when I consider that they print assembled. What kind of tolerances does one allow for between parts to insure that not only parts are able to move but that they aren’t all floppy and loose?

    1. Brian Chan

      Hi WuLongTi, it’s me, Brian. Thanks! I too struggle with the “floppy and loose” aspect of designing “ready-print”models. The recommended minimum distance between parts (for nylon) is 0.6mm (sometimes I push it to 0.5mm) so the joints do come out loose, so I decided to design with that in mind.

      For example, I put end-stops on all the joints so that they can’t bend too far in either direction, and legs don’t lie completely flat. As for the insects, I created a joint that is loose at one angle, but at other angles it tightens up, so there is some degree of rigid pose-ability.

      The looseness of the joints sometimes helps – in the case of the centipede, it’ll conform smoothly to whatever you set it on, which gives it a lifelike and creepy effect. The crab and crayfish is quite fun to wiggle around, but when you set it down it’s not too hard to put it in a lifelike pose.

      I’m still experimenting with all of this. I am considering designing a series of “snap-fit” arthropod kits so as to avoid having to put in those loose clearances, allowing for a better friction fit of the joints. These would be a different class of sculpture; for now, I kind of like the idea of printing the entire bug in one go.

    2. WuLongTi

      that is brilliant sir. I’d love to see what all you could if if you had a mind to try designing some transforming robots :D

      I’m very curious about trying to print out assembled kits but the major deterrent for me and my customer base is the fact that all the parts would need to be painted before they could be considered complete. Painting something fully assembled and with joints is much more difficult than painting something disassembled, of course.

      Still you’ve given me much to think about and I look forward to seeing what new things you’ll be coming up with ^__^

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