Designer maker to developing 3D modelling software.

I trained as a designer maker and jeweller. I am not usually inspired by things or by nature. My inspiration comes from understanding the properties of materials and the processes I can use on my materials, whether refractory metals (titanium and niobium), aluminium or steel. Titanium is hard to work and harder to sell! I explored different ways to scale up my business especially around cutting out titanium units. I went from contracting out the saw piercing work to students, to RT Blanking and finally to laser cutting.

I had a small grant from the Scottish Development Agency in 1989 to investigate laser cutting refractory metals and did part of the work at Herriot Watt University in the Engineering Department working with 2 PhD students (for laser cutting exotic materials and on the programming side) and designing on a huge engineers’ CAD programme of which I only grapple with a miniscule part for creating 2D lines for guiding the CO2 laser cutter.

The designs for the pieces illustrated were part of my on-going investigation into laser cutting and designing for this technology using CAD, exploring at the same time the opportunities that digital design programmes offered. Once I did get the hang of a particular feature such as creating and playing with arcs with 2 points anchored and the third controlled by the cursor, I was able to play around with the curve and its relationship to previous curves and my ideas for the work. I was able to work relatively freely and organically. For a commission for 60 titanium feather brooches laser these I had cut at Herriot Watt but I mainly used a commercial company in Lincoln who had YAG laser cutter facility for finely cutting niobium.

For the ‘Dragon’ collection I used RoboCAD and focused on ‘scaling’ as CAD certainly makes this pretty easy (image of the original working drawings and cut units). And the ‘dragons’ were unusually inspired by the kites with the trailing sections!

In one collection (‘Slotted brooches, wall panels, bowl) the design of the laser cuts very much aided the forming of the metal though I used the more maleable niobium and steel for the expanded metal range as titanium work hardened. This problem showed up in prototyping with the fine connecting points cracking.

Over this period in the mid ‘90’s I tried different CAD packages for working in 2D – RoboCAD, AutoCAD mainly. I found it very hard to be directly creative using CAD, and returned to designing through sketches on paper and bringing the nearly finished design to the CAD programme. The Dragon design is a case in point.

When I moved to designing in 3D for 3D printing (1997/8) this whole issue of designing directly on computer came strongly to the fore, but worse was that I founf it really difficult to learn 3D CAD. I struggled with a couple of packages (Truform and Trispectives) before moving on to Rhino. I became a Research Fellow at Edinburgh College of Art to search for CAD packages better suited to how applied artists and designer makers work. With funding from AHRB (later AHRC) I moved to researching whether 3D haptic (virtual touch) is a better interface for 3D designing and modelling.

It is interesting to look at the difference in style between my laser work and that completed using the haptic software programme that resulted from the research and from spinning out a company, Anarkik3D, to commercialise the findings. The laser cut work was designed using CAD and displays a CAD aesthetic as designing is constrained to the functions that engineers and product/industrial designers require for designing for industrial processes and what I term as ‘left brain’ thinking. All my 3D work, bar two designed using Trispectives and Rhino, are all done using our Anarkik3D haptic 3D modelling software. The development of the software and the selection of the functions to include in it come from a very different standpoint where I stand as a designer maker. Artists, designer makers and applied artists are right brain thinkers and we want our software to keep them there when working! For example, in our software, although a method of dimensioning is included and scaling can be done pretty precisely, entering dimensions via the keyboard is not included as this is a left brain activity. Left brain thinking disrupts cognitive flow and therefore creative thinking and doing. Free form working and serendipity are ther defaults in our software. The interface is non-complex. The real sensation of 3D touch – the haptic aspect – and movement in 3D, taps into how we naturally interact and work with objects, and  make interactions more intuitive and therefore less disruptive to ‘flow’.

You could say that my research on 3D software and spinning out a company to develop a more appropriate way of working is a result of my own sense of frustration with the 3D CAD. If you have tried haptics you will understand how potent it is for working in 3D and why we use this technology.

[Some of the above is from my book ‘Digital Crafts: Industrial Technologies for Applied Artists and Designer Makers’. (Click here and here for more information.)]