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HelpTutorialsRealizing Your Ideas: The Creative Process in 3D Printing

The Creative Process in 3D Printing

Integrating the creative iterative process into your 3D design practice.
Written by Laurie Berenhaus

Let’s be real, 3D printing is hard. It’s a new technology that can be intimidating and sounds like science fiction, but it is here to stay and with it we can transform our ideas into physical objects in a more accessible way.

Having worked at Shapeways in Customer Service, I communicated with all the departments making sure your voice was heard to help you realize your ideas. I’m also an artist. I sculpt, draw and 3D model for printing. In this entry, I would like to share my creative process. It varies from person to person of course, but I found that there are several steps that may help guide you along the way when realizing your concept.

Idea: What you want to communicate

We all create for different reasons–for self-expression, problem solving, re-inventing, experimentation, and more. Personally, I have design ideas routinely developing in my mind that I’d love to express, preferably in three-dimensions. There are also times where something breaks and I want an object to help repair my item. Sometimes I find a task involving a physical object can become more efficient by creating something new. Maybe I want a challenge and have an idea that needs exploring.

When developing an idea it’s key to research and understand the history of what it is you want to create. By researching your idea’s history, your final product will only be that much stronger. You can find tips and tricks from those who came before you and maybe even learn from their knowledge and even mistakes they may have made to help ease your process. Learn to talk about your idea. By communicating your idea to others you may get some insightful feedback on something you didn’t see before.

Design: How you represent your concept

You verbalized a design goal, now you need to start expressing it visually as well. In my process it helps to grab a sketchbook and pencil and just start doodling. I jot down key words in the corner of the page involving themes or topics related to my object to help keep me focused. For a little extra motivation I hang inspirational quotes from those who I admire on my studio wall to keep me motivated.

“If you hear a voice within you say ‘you cannot paint,’ then by all means paint and that voice will be silenced.” –Vincent Van Gogh

Now that I’m driven to conquer whatever obstacle may come my way, I draw my design from multiple angles and refer to my research for a better understanding of the form I am looking to create. Start with basic primitive shapes: boxes, spheres, cylinders, cones, etc. Try not to get caught in fine details too early. By blocking out the basic form, the rest can fall into place. Keep an open mind because as you move forward with your design process, things might change.

Product Design: How to realize your representation

Paper sketches in hand, it’s time to digitize those visual ideas and begin modeling in 3D software. The digital design space can be intimidating, starting in all that empty space and not knowing how it will all come together. Keep your goal, and your sketches, in mind, on hand, and dive in! As with the sketching stage, begin modeling with basic primitive shapes. Possibly the best tools to master in any 3D design program are the navigation tools and shortcuts. It’s important to routinely rotate and zoom in to view your model from all angles. If too much time is spent crafting your design from one side when you finally rotate your object it might not look like you expect.

Once your object is loosely created, begin refining in steps that gradually reach finer details. I call this macro to micro, big picture down to details. If you’re doing hard surface modeling there might be little nurnies and greebles you want to add but make sure that it’s the last thing you do. Detailing is time consuming and would probably have to be re-done if any core aspect of your design were to change. For example, in an organic modeling environment you may want to really define those eyelids and nostrils of your character, but wait until you have the shape of the head figured out.

Experimenting with new tools and keeping reference tutorials handy are excellent ways to keep progress moving on your design. After a defined amount of time, stop and export your file to upload because a great deal of refining will happen once you receive that first print. Most successful products on Shapeways go through at least 2-3 print versions before they are “finished.”

Prototype: The beginning stages of bringing your design to life

So your 3D file is ready to go to the factory for print. The production part is personally very exciting for me. I love watching the printers in action and learning more about the production process. This helps me understand the qualities of each material and how to design for them.

The Shapeways production part can be a little nerve-wracking for some. This is because in traditional production, you might sculpt this object and cast it later. To help remove the mystery, watch videos of the printers in action, the cleaning process, and any post-production. Understanding the printing process further can help you during the design process and improve future iterations. If you really want some feedback try talking to other 3D modelers on the forums or at meetups in your neighborhood to see what they do. Finally the package arrives and you remove your model from the box. It might be just what you wanted, but chances are it is not–and that’s okay.

Iteration: The process of refining your design

You have your print, but you want to make it even better. Look at what happened. Figure out how your design can best fit the 3D printing process. Your model might look cool on the screen , but maybe parts were vulnerable because they need more structure. Maybe there’s a mistake you didn’t catch before and some measurements need to be adjusted. Make a list of the changes you want to address and go back into your software to update your 3D file.

Export and upload your file and try again. You might want to send more than one version to the printers and compare the prints together. The iterative process is crucial to the whole design process and this is where a great deal can change about your design. There is much to be learned from this process and iterating will help you become a smarter designer. This new feedback information absorbed from the testing of prototypes can be applied to your next project.

After your iterations, you’ll eventually land on your finished print. You went from an idea to a finished product that you can now hold in your hand! Your last print is one that successfully fits your needs and can be easily produced consistently with the 3D printers. If you want to sell your design, you know that customers will receive your model without issues. When I reach this point, I am thrilled, proud, and can’t wait to share what I made.

Public: Sharing your work with the community

You have your finished model and you may want to share it. There might be others within your community who want to see it and maybe even have their own. Take a picture of your print that portrays your product in a positive way. There are free resources that help you crop and edit your photo. As an added touch, demonstrate how your product can be used. For example if you made a keychain ornament, take a picture with the ornament on a keychain ring with keys attached.

Shapeways offers an online marketplace for you to sell your models through. Create your own Shapeways Shop and add your model to the store. Once it’s online, share the link on other sites, like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Tumblr. If your object is relevant to a certain community, you can even post the link to outside forums too. Go to events, conferences, and meetups to show off your product and have business cards available so they know where to find it online. Sometimes your family and friends can be your best promoters too. By sharing what you made with others, those around you can learn from what you did, know who your are, and build relationships that may even be a resource or inspiration for your next idea.

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