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Digital Tinkering in Three Dimensions

By Rob Mitchum // December 23, 2013

[Photos by Gordon Lew, except where noted. Above: Clock gears created by Christopher Dewing and Zi Chong Kao​.]

In high school, the computer lab and the machine shop may have attracted very different crowds. But the rise of the modern makerspace has combined those two worlds, offering programmers new opportunities for hands-on work while workbench tinkerers experiment with coding software.

The Hack Arts Lab (HAL) — a new open makerspace located in the Computation Institute’s UChicago offices — is home to 3D printers, laser etchers and other new tools for exploring the intersection of computer science and art. This fall, twenty UChicago undergraduates tested the limits of those machines in the University of Chicago’s first-ever Digital Fabrication course, taught by CI Director Ian Foster and CI Senior Fellow Rick Stevens.

Over ten weeks, students worked on projects spanning from computer history to fashion. Many weren’t content just to use the machinery available at HAL, they sought to improve upon that technology, constructing their own devices, tweaking software and expanding the capabilities of the tools beyond their out-of-the-box default.

But first, to fully understand the inner workings of these machines, the students had to build one themselves: the Printrbot, a home-assembly-required 3D printer kit. While these simple devices don’t have the sophisticated abilities of premium printers, it got students thinking about creative hacks to give them some of the functionality of more expensive printers.


[A Printrbot in action.]

Shin Kim and Victor Ma used a $5 photomicrosensor, a spool and construction paper to detect broken filaments or jams during the printing process. Manuel Castro and Lee Kuhn worked on improving the motion of the printer in the z-axis, writing their own code and experimenting with different speeds of extrusion to make thin, delicate cone and spiral shapes that the default settings couldn’t match.


[Cones and spirals printed by Manuel Castro and Lee Kuhn. Photo by Rob Mitchum.]

Other students looked to the history of computer science for inspiration. Simon Jacobs used 3D printing to create a tiny version of an analog computer designed by engineering pioneer Vannevar Bush in the early 1940s. While Bush’s wheel-and-disc mechanism was large enough for three people to work on simultaneously, Jacobs’ model was housed inside a checkbook box which happened to be the right size, he said.

James Porter used the 3D printers to bring to life another computer science concept, a fluidic full adder. Full adders are circuits that perform binary addition using logical gates, commonly found built from resistors inside computer microprocessors. Porter’s full adders were considerably larger, and built to run on water instead of electricity — a small experiment relevant to the future of cheap, self-replicating computers.


[James Porter presents his working full adder system.]

But 3D printed projects don’t have to be esoteric computer parts. Christopher Dewing and Zi Chong Kao printed gears for a clock that could translate natural periodic events into human-readable time — their final product was accurate enough to only lose 1 second every hour. Katalina Kimball used the HAL laser etcher to print up paper prototypes for clothing with finely detailed patterns, including a 50s-style skirt with lyrics from the oldie, “What A Difference A Day Makes.”


[The “What A Difference A Day Makes” dress by Katalina Kimball. Photo by Rob Mitchum.]

Expanding the horizons of 3D printing motivated Craig Sexauer and Jake Whitaker to work on software that can automatically translate 2D images to 3D schematics. Sexauer and Whitaker tried to exploit the color and brightness to give flat pictures three dimensions, where dark colors signaled low areas (such as the bottom of a groove) and light colors represented high peaks. Their experiments with complex shapes such as egg cartons and stairsteps were noisy but recognizable, suggesting that higher image quality and careful lighting could produce more refined results.

Some projects led students to construct new devices of their own design. Starting with the original idea to create a working, 3D-printed airplane, Sam Nickolay and Alex Kolchinski ended up designing “The Crusher,” an Arduino-controlled contraption that tests the strength of printed objects with as much as 100 pounds of force. Sasha Ayvazov and Rina Shkrabova built their own 3D printer that uses cylindrical coordinates instead of the cartesian system favored by most current models, a switch that can help produce objects with smoother, rounded edges and more precision at different scales.


[Cylindrical 3D printer designed and built by Sasha Ayvazov and Rina Shkrabova.]

Though the ten-week schedule was extremely tight for conceptualizing and completing a project, the students largely came to appreciate the accelerated pace of the course. Citing the Facebook slogan of “move fast and break things,” Porter said he made the most progress when he rapidly prototyped adders with the crude but fast Printrbot, learning what worked and what didn’t work in surprising ways. By lowering the barriers to create these kinds of happy accidents, digital fabrication technology and open access makerspaces such as HAL hope to enable the creativity and curiosity of today’s tinkerers to create tomorrow’s breakthroughs.