Works and Play

At London Metropolitan University’s Met Works centre, designers can grow their own 3D images, print in metal and create works that are as much about touching as looking. Sean Ashcroft reports from a unique creative playground

Imagination and inspiration can produce great work independent of technology, yet the digital age undoubtedly opens fresh avenues for exploration, as well as providing the means by which to transform ambitious ideas into an end product. While ideas cost nothing other than the time it takes to hatch them, advanced digital technology is beyond the reach of a sizable majority of designers and agencies. Enter Metropolitan Works, a pioneering institution whose mission statement is “Providing creative minds with the tools to innovate”.

Opened last September, Metropolitan Works Digital Manufacturing and Workspace Centre – more commonly known as Met Works – exists for designers who would otherwise be disenfranchised by the prohibitive cost of technologies such as rapid prototyping. It provides the UK’s most comprehensive collection of digital technology for the creative industries.

“A lot of this equipment is extremely expensive,” confirms Met Works business development manager Matthew Lewis. “You’ll find it tends to operate inside organisations that can afford it, such as aerospace companies. Designers might be able to book it, but the machinery time in that environment wouldn’t allow them to do what they actually wanted to do.”

The centre is part of the Sir John Cass Department of Art, Media and Design at London Metropolitan University, and sits in the heart of East London’s design community. Among the £1 million worth of technologies it offers are five-axis routing, SLS (Selective Laser Sintering) rapid prototyping, 3D printing, 3D laser scanning, laser cutting and digital printing.

A second phase of development is due for completion in December 2007, and will see the acquisition of a further £500,000 of equipment, including FDM (Fused Deposition Modelling) rapid prototyping, Metal SLS rapid prototyping, five-axis water cutting and colour 3D printing.

Matthew Lewis revealed that Phase II will include workspaces – allowing designers to visit on a project basis – as well as offices and reception rooms, so they can meet clients.

Met Works is developing a programme of training, so designers and craftspeople can explore the technology, and revisit for training if they see the potential for making an idea a reality. It is also currently building up training in CAD, but this will develop into a wider range of courses, about software, the interface between the software and the machines, and what they can and can’t do. The centre is part-funded by the London Development Agency, and backed by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, whose remit is to create sustainable communities.

“It’s about setting up an area of excellence for the use of new technology,” says Lewis, “to help the creative disciplines in a production capacity. The government sees production as an area the UK needs to concentrate on, because most of the production industries have left our shores. We’ll never get into large-scale production, but what we offer is a production launch pad, by allowing creative people to explore technologies and do more interesting things.”

Although much of the centre’s custom is drawn from the furniture, jewellery and architecture industries, it is increasingly attracting designers keen to take digital technologies in fresh creative directions. One is the feted furniture and exhibition designer Tomoko Azumi (www.tnadesignstudio.co.uk), who is a research fellow at Met Works, and has used 3D scanning and rapid prototyping to explore the area between human senses and digital technologies.

Azumi attempts to transform the senses into visual and tactile objects, and her work formed part of a recent exhibition at the centre called Gravity and Glow. Her pieces began life as a single twig, which was scanned in an £8,000 Roland 3D Rotary Scanner.

Azumi was able to take the scanned twig data, manipulate it, make sculptural pieces from it, and output these on a £12,000 monochrome plaster-based rapid prototyping machine. Her exhibition pieces are underlit, and visually arresting.

She explained: “If you look up at a tree, the branches exist in three dimensions, but we flatten it and see it in two dimensions. My idea is to give these flattened images depth, and to recreate the space in between the twigs. You can’t merge twigs by tying them together. They cannot be integrated. These shapes can’t exist until the rapid prototype machine has created them, and they are purely a visual pleasure. My main business is consultancy, and I always work to a very strict brief. My task is to find answers to questions such as ‘Which fabrication, at what price for which market?’ What I am doing here is very liberating.” She adds: “Rapid prototyping is more often used for creating Formula 1 parts or components for artificial hearts, but working with them in this way opens doors to new areas.”

This, says Matthew Lewis, is something that’s attracting attention from the manufacturers of digital technologies. “They are very interested in this exploration of their technology, because it has the potential to open out the applications, and increase the market for their use.”

Like the ground-breaking design work of Turkish-born Isil Onol, who curated a recent exhibition in Huddersfield called Tactual Explorations (www.tactual.org.uk) – a tactile exhibition based on a bust of Sophocles from the British Museum. The ten artists involved, including Onol, created pieces specifically designed to be touched. Onol used the centre’s £60,000 Faro Laser ScanArm to scan a bust of Sophocles into a CAD program. Exhibition visitors were able to “feel” the virtual sculpture via an electronic stylus normally used with virtual clay-modelling CAD programs.

Onol is a PhD researcher at Huddersfield University, working on haptic interactions in museums. “Haptic is from the Greek verb ‘to touch’,” she explained, “and the fact is, this most accessible and powerful sense has been largely neglected. I approached many design shops about 3D scanning, but I wanted to learn about the process, not just pay for a service, and Metropolitan Works was the only place where this was possible.”

Other digital technologies that designers are taking in interesting directions include laser cutting. The Metropolitan Centre’s own business cards, for example, feature laser-cut lettering done on the centre’s £70,000 large-format laser cutter. The effect adds impact and depth. Metropolitan Works technician Ed Alves says: “The laser cutter has more obvious applications for graphic design, as it cuts two dimensional profiles and shapes, so is ideal for lettering. It can cut paper, acrylic and timber. Also, in the laser cutter software you can raster images, so it can turn a photograph into greyscale and create a photo-realistic engraving on any number of surfaces.”

Lewis adds: “Quite a few bureaus offer laser scanning but what’s different here is you are putting technology in the hands of people who are not used to it. It’s getting a fresh angle of thinking, offering engineering-type technologies to the creative industries, from graphic designers through to jewellers. They come to us and say ‘I have this idea. How will I go about doing it?’ We’ll sit down and work through it with them.”

The centre has just bought a hugely expensive metal-based rapid prototyping machine. A laser melts fine metal powder and builds this up in 1.5mm layers. It allows designers to “grow” complex geometric structures that could never be tooled. Although its prime application is industrial design, Alves foresees other uses.

“You’re basically printing in metal, which means that, for example, typographers can create metal type,” he explains. “The difference between this and old type technology is that CAD gives them control over fine detail.”

Without Met Works there would certainly be less experimentation, and fewer designers would have a grasp of how digital technology can be harnessed to stunning effect. It is unique in what it does, but as Matthew Lewis points out, it is set to become an even more invaluable resource for the design community. “When Phase II is complete, Met Works will be a really creative environment,” he believes, “and, hopefully, a hot house of cultures and ideas from different disciplines.”

 

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