A 3D-printed scene

A 3D-printed scene

Image: Stewart Leith

Do you ever feel like you’re living in an episode of The Jetsons? We have robot vacuums that scoot themselves around the floor, and on more than one occasion I’ve found myself arguing with our Google Assistant. But perhaps what awes me the most is the 3D printer my sweetheart Stewart Leith brought home last year. Beyond the feeling of living in the future, being able to print limitless objects from home opens a world of creative and practical opportunities.

As an instructor at the Ringling College of Art and Design Leith teaches illustration classes and ZBrush, digital sculpting software that lets you create characters and creatures for all kinds of entertainment design needs. "Most all of the characters you see in modern video games and animated movies were built in Zbrush or similar software,” Leith explains. Years of creating models that existed solely in the digital realm left him itching to give his creations physical form.

After his brother, who designs Star Wars cosplay, had success printing tailored parts at home, Leith purchased an identical machine. The Ender 3, which is priced at under $200, uses PLA plastic melted and fed through a moving nozzle, guided by digital instructions. Building up, layer by layer, it carefully constructs a three-dimensional model. While the Ender 3 does require some assembly, Leith says “I highly recommend assembling it yourself.  It’s definitely something you’ll have to tinker with, and if you can’t put it together you may have a hard time operating it."

Leith’s primary motivation for his new toy was to experiment with giving tangibility to his ZBrush creations.

"Steve," a custom character bust, on the 3D printer.

"Steve," a custom character bust, on the 3D printer.

Image: Stewart Leith

Since the arrival of the Ender 3, our home has slowly filled with curious models, character busts—like "Steve," pictured above, a cyber-punk version of Leith's uncle Steve—and silly surprises. There’s a robot with long spindly legs that doubles as a planter, decorative head mounts of fantastical deer and a creature nicknamed the “Noodler” who hangs out in my ivy. One elaborate build took 18 individually printed parts that were then assembled into a complete miniature narrative. I never know if I’m going to find a little lost alien on our bookshelf or a Demogorgon-inspired rabbit in the kitchen.

Each piece of the writer's custom, 3D-printed mermaid top would have cost less than 20 cents to make.

Each piece of the writer's custom, 3D-printed mermaid top would have cost less than 20 cents to make.

You don’t necessarily have to have mastered ZBrush to use a 3D printer. Websites such as Thingiverse offer digital designs for physical objects that are created and shared by others. This came in super handy when I was constructing a mermaid-inspired costume and ran out of baubles to cover the top. We were able to jump into the hive mind to find pirate coins, a miniature ship helm and even a replica of a genuine parrot skull. After scaling, slicing and printing the models out, I painted them gold and, voila, had a one-of-a-kind siren look.

Though great fun, the printer has offered plenty of practical uses too. Leith designed a custom hook for my hula-hoops  and ergonomic covers for the pedals on our stationary bike, allowing for barefoot rides. After purchasing Ikea’s decorative LÖVA, a giant canopy leaf, he fashioned a custom bracket so that it could project from the corner and not the wall. For his mother, who sculpts, Leith made a signature stamp for her to mark each piece of pottery.

Running a 3D printer takes some skill and technical know-how, but for animators studying ZBrush, engineers, cosplayers, dedicated hobbyists and more, it has limitless potential. If interested in beginners modeling, Leith recommends trying out software such as SketchUp or Fusion 360. “3D printing is great if you like to tinker and build stuff," he says. "It lets you cheaply and easily concept whatever parts or toys you want."

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