Pamela Liou is a multidisciplinary computational designer (and a former member of the initial production team at the Shapeways factory in Queens). In her Device Art course at Parsons School of Design, students learn the basics of electronic circuitry design and physical computing so they can create interactive art projects. As students iterate on their projects, many create custom enclosures for microcontrollers on 3D printers.

We spoke to Pamela about the Device Art class and how students are using 3D printing for their projects.

Arduino case available on Shapeways by Charms, Jewelry, and Knick-knacks

What fields of study do the students in Device Art come from?  What do they make?
Device Art is a class in Parsons’ Design and Technology department, and it’s open to all Parsons undergrads. I have Design and Technology kids for sure, but I also have students from communications, fashion, photography, and product design. It’s amazing to have such a wide range of skill sets and broad interest in technology.

And what is device art?
Device art is a movement started by Hiroo Iwata that focuses on deploying the language of device design to playfully critique commercialism, technology, and human industry. Students design their own circuits, mill PCBs, and house them in enclosures which are prototyped on 3D printers.

What software or hardware tools do the students use?
My students use mostly Arduino microcontrollers, but I might shift over to teaching them AVR programming on an ATtiny85 and ATmega328. Both are Arduino IDE-compatible and way cheaper. Price has to be a major consideration as an educator because you have to be cognizant that prohibitively expensive materials turn students off from making. I find that students’ hearts break when they have to rip out their only Arduino from one project to use it in another.

What makes 3D printing an attractive option for making enclosures for Device Art projects?
Every year, it gets cheaper and faster to prototype hardware enclosures. That translates to more iteration.

Making mistakes is part of learning, but that can be difficult if those mistakes have too high of a cost. When learning, it’s easy to overlook a small detail that prevents a successful assembly. Some common mistakes when 3D printing include not taking the time to model the entire assembly, errors in converting units of measurement, and not accounting for the tolerance of the machine.

3D printing makes it simple to dial in your dimensions in order to achieve press fit, nail down the exact form factor, or attain proper ergonomics. It also frees students from the many constraints of other processes like injection molding or die cutting. For example, you can easily print double curvatures and ignore the issue of ejector pin placement. I encourage my students to embrace weird, idiosyncratic enclosures.

How intuitive is 3D printing to your students?
Most students are comfortable with sending files to an FDM printer. Creating those files, however, is much more of a process. 3D modeling still takes deliberate practice, but I find that, the steeper the learning curve, the bigger the payoff.

Software has to strike a balance between ease of use and expressiveness. Something like Rhino or Solidworks requires training, but they allow for students to articulate their ideas completely. On the other side of the spectrum are apps that allow the user to tweak parameters. These are extremely straightforward and fast, but are constrained by a single design sensibility—like crafting weapons in Skyrim.

The temptation is to lower the barrier of entry for 3D modeling, but the spatialization of an idea will always require some problem-solving. Blindly noodling in software without understanding what you’re doing may produce some fun results once in a while, but it provides no sense of efficacy.