Industry, Art and Education: 3D Printing


Entering Tom Burtonwood’s studio at the Art Institute of Chicago, where he is an artist in residence, I was greeted by a reverberating, mechanical hum. The source of the noise? A machine “printing” a complex object, layer by layer until a sculpture took form. Burtonwood discovered the lure of 3D printing,  and as an artist he has taken advantage of the opportunity to transition from working in more traditional mediums to a technological revolution in art and design. 

Invented over 30 years ago, 3D printing has recently taken the fields of design, art, science, and engineering by storm. From fabricating prosthetics and robots, to replicas of art objects and lamp fixtures, these machines benefit a variety of industries. Unlike the traditional “subtractive” method of sculpture and manufacturing, 3D printers perform an “additive” process. Requiring less raw material and producing less waste, whether plastic or metal, the process is more cost effective. Designs can also be fabricated via digital content creation using computer-aided software (CAD), or “scanned” through images or photographs of an object from various angles.

Jackson Levy, a digital fabrication specialist at The 3D Printer Experience located in Chicago’s River North neighborhood, defines 3D printing as, “a technology that has developed into an industry, which facilitates artists, designers, and people who are involved in prototyping and fabrication, as well as manufacturing…It introduces all these groups and individuals who have been working with old tools of fabrication to a new medium.”

3D printing is not done in a vacuum; the open-source movement is at the heart of the printing community, where designers’ and artists’ concepts are often available online for other users to download and utilize. Burtonwood even shared a recent design of his for Orihon, his 3D-printed accordion-fold volume containing scans of ancient sculptural objects from the Art Institute of Chicago’s collection. 

“Studying a 3D object in a 2D space is a challenge,” explains Burtonwood, as he pulls out a sample draft page from a new 3D-printed book he is working on, along with a jar of Play-Doh. He takes a glob and pushes it into the mold. The after effect is a 3D model of an ancient Greek sculpture. Burtonwood says he values 3D printing’s educational tools. For him as well as other artists, 3D printing opens up a new realm of art education, where students can have economical and easy access to art objects through 3D replicas of their actual forms in space. 

The 3D Printer Experience is one of the first places to offer 3D printing as an interactive, personal experience for the general public. Whether users want to submit a design for printing or learn how to use 3D printing equipment and software, their mission is “to make an immediate impact through open information and education,” says Levy. 

The printing technology for 3D continues to evolve. From the ChefJet, which enables users to print out edible objects, to Home Depot’s recent agreement with desktop 3D printer company MakerBot, the 3D printing industry is increasingly becoming more mainstream and user accessible. Like the computer once transformed society across all industries from design to medicine, 3D printing holds the boundless new potential to shape the future of art, design and more.  


Image shown at top of page: Tom Burtonwood, Orihon (3D Printed Accordion Book), © Tom Burtonwood