Carson School now has 3-D printer for designers

Assistant Professor of Theatre J.D. Madsen adjusts a 3-D design to prepare for printing on the new Formlabs 3-D printer (left). Photo by Michael Reinmiller.
Assistant Professor of Theatre J.D. Madsen adjusts a 3-D design to prepare for printing on the new Formlabs 3-D printer (left). Photo by Michael Reinmiller.

With support from the Hixson-Lied College of Fine and Performing Arts, the Johnny Carson School of Theatre and Film has purchased a Formlabs Form 2 desktop 3-D printer for theatre design.

Assistant Professor of Theatre J.D. Madsen said it’s a stereolithographic, resin-based printer, which creates a higher degree of detail than an extrusion-based or PLC printer.

“It goes down as fine as 0.01 microns, which is basically a human hair thick,” he said.

It currently resides in Madsen’s office while he learns the technology, but it will eventually be part of the School’s planned model-making studio, in the basement of the Temple Building where a lasercutter and other post processing machines will reside.

Right now, Madsen is looking at applications for properties and accents on sets, as well as augmenting model-making with it. But the printer has other possibilities in lighting, mechanical and other areas of theatre.

This spring he will teach his virtual rendering class, where they will involve project pipelines to help students learn the technology.

“They will go from sketch to 2D drafting to 3-D drafting to 3-D printing to full-scale application of it,” Madsen said. “So they can feel and walk through the whole pipeline and understand when and where the technology is useful and applicable and when it might be cool, but it doesn’t save you any time.”

Madsen said 3-D printing is a tool that designers can use, but they also have to know when to use it.

“No matter whether it is a 3-D printer or a computer or anything like that, they’re just paintbrushes in our arsenal,” he said. “You want to use the right brush for the right effect. You don’t use a big, fat brush when you’re trying to get a small detail, and vice versa. You make it harder that way. It’s just another tool. For people who don’t know how to design, it’s not going to make them better designers. But for those who are understanding design principles and having to generate multiple models and multiple pieces for models and for shows and for custom pieces or repairing pieces, it can be helpful.”

One useful way to use 3-D printing technology is to augment model making by printing some furniture pieces.

“We have a class on how to build these things by hand,” Madsen said. “But they are laborious. It can take students a really long time to carve foam or other objects in order to create these objects. That would put us beyond our window of what we have available for us to generate, so being able to augment that learning with technology can help us attain a professional tier of finished product without taking away the opportunities for students to learn and develop those skills. It’s about finding that balance to augment where they are lacking with the technology.”

Lisa Haldeman, a 2nd year Master of Fine Arts student in stage design from Council Bluffs, Iowa, used the technology recently to create footlight shells for the production of “Fuddy Meers” in October.

“I wanted a fairly specific style of footlight, but budgetarily, we wanted to focus on other larger components of the design,” she said. “So we decided to see if we could fabricate them rather than spending the money on buying them.”

They needed a mold that could withstand heat and suction to make them in the vacu-form machine in the props area.

“We decided that a 3-D print of one of the footlights would achieve this criteria, as well as provide the cleanest replication of the footlight,” she said.

She worked with Madsen to create the 3-D rendering and print the 3-D mold.

“Once we had our mold, we were able to make 10 plastic molds over it, using the vacu-form machine, which we then used to create the complete footlights,” she said.

Madsen said there a lot of possible uses for the technology for the Carson School.

“Costumes are looking at printing accent pieces like custom jewelry and craft things,” he said. “Props is using it a lot. Even on set, we can do custom architectural molding drops or pieces that we had one of, but we need a matching pair. Replacing props and repairing pieces are huge things. There are even mechanical applications to replace parts. There are high temperature resins that can be used in lighting pieces to do a quick fix while we are ordering a piece. That happens in theatre. We have to make sure the show goes on, so having something that can get that going is exciting.”

Kaitlyn Peterson, a senior studio art and theatre design/technical production double major from Omaha, Nebraska, recently used the 3-D printer to create some elements for her design model for “Hamlet,” which opens in November.

“I used the 3-D printer to put four statues and eight chairs in my ‘Hamlet’ model,” she said. “Being able to 3-D print eight chairs not only helped them all stay in the same proportion and style, but it also was a huge time saver. Printing the statues was a fun way to be more accurate to the figures and create detail that would have been difficult to achieve by hand. The more accurate scene designers can be with the model, the more it helps the director and the whole team understand the visual idea of the design.”

Haldeman said saving time in one area frees up more time in other aspects of her designs.

“Although a print can take several hours, it relieves the burden of having to make certain objects, opening up time for a designer to focus more of their attention on other portions of the model,” Haldeman said. “It is also helpful for obtaining very specific items for properties or scenic that would either have to be ordered (which can be very expensive) or hand-made (which is very time consuming). It offers a nice alternative.”

Having a tool to help with a designer’s limited time is helpful.

“We are constantly in a crunch to meet deadlines,” Peterson said. “I love building models, but one of the most frustrating things is getting down to such small scale that the objects are too fragile or don’t look how I originally intended. Being able to print in that small scale allows objects to be less breakable and can get to the really finite details. I think the 3-D printer will really help the Carson School in the future because it will assist the school in more complicated projects and designs. I’m excited to use the 3-D printer in the future because it will be a rewarding process building a 3-D file from scratch, send it to the printer and then be able to actually hold that object in my hands.”

Madsen said it’s important for students to learn the democratic use of technology.

“When they go out into the real world, they can’t afford to spend four days making chairs,” he said. “You’re not getting paid at a rate that’s worth that, so you need to find what are some of the other ways to do this. For the longest time, it was just omitting that or having placeholders or little blocks that you wrote ‘chair,’ but it didn’t help evoke your idea at all. Now, you can have the chairs.”

Haldeman agreed that the technology helps to enhance her design.

“The reason why I’m interested in learning new technology is because it all helps to communicate the design more clearly and with more ease,” she said. “Unfortunately with a 3-D printer, you can’t just say, ‘I want a toy dinosaur,’ and suddenly it prints exactly what was in your head. You have to know the technology that communicates to the machine exactly what it is that you want.”

Madsen said some other universities are experimenting with 3-D printing, but he thinks the Carson School has a leg up on them.

“I think we’re the only ones who have a planned pipeline,” he said. “That makes it more than just an option or a toy, but we are looking at how we intend to see this apply into the various areas and the processes we are identifying to say this is an acceptable use or this is an unnecessary one.”

He said they are looking at where does hand skill versus technology lie.

“That will put us at the forefront of training students who can feel as comfortable with a saw or a hammer in their hand as they do sitting behind a computer,” he said. “We’re not training one-trick ponies, which is great.”

Peterson said learning this technology now only helps her later.

“Learning this technology in school now is very beneficial because it allows me to see what’s possible once I leave the university,” she said. “Here, I can receive guidance on how to use this technology to its full potential, and then once I leave I can take that information with me and apply it to future projects. The more students like myself can learn at the university, the more we have to bring to the table to impress future employers.”