3D Printing: Where Engineering Meets Art.

Dr Michaella Janse van Vuuren is a leader in the field of 3D printing. She tells us why education is key to unlocking the future of technology.

Published: September 2016
Video/Photos: Yoram Reshef/Supplied

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Michaella Janse van Vuuren’s 3D printed Horse Marionette, a fine art piece, was on exhibition for two years in the London Science Museum and is now part of the Museum’s permanent collection.
For the past decade, Michaella has worked at the cutting edge of 3D printing. She originally qualified with a PhD in electrical engineering and pursued post-doctoral studies in custom medical implant design so that she could learn about 3D printing.

 

Since then, she has become an internationally renowned designer in 3D printing. She explored the technology by creating artworks, jewellery, fashion and décor using innovative multidisciplinary research, consulting and her 3D printed product development studio.

 

Her success has been phenomenal. Michaella’s Chrysanthemum centrepiece was voted the Most Beautiful Object in South Africa at Design Indaba 2009, just a year after she founded her company, Nomili. Her ground-breaking 3D-printed Garden of Eden fashion collection debuted on the 3D Print Show catwalk in New York in 2014. Her Horse Marionette, a fine art piece, was on exhibition for two years in the London Science Museum and is now part of the Museum’s permanent collection. And that’s just scratching the surface.

 

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Michaella Janse van Vuuren’s 3D printed Horse Marionette, a fine art piece, was on exhibition for two years in the London Science Museum and is now part of the Museum’s permanent collection.

 

Her more recent work focuses on using her wealth of knowledge in the fields of the arts, design and engineering to educate future generations. She’s done this through consulting at various schools and universities. But her most recent endeavour is a makerspace at the German School in Pretoria that teaches a combination of 3D printing, craft materials and simple circuits with the inter-connectivity of the internet. The space will also be accessible to their partner schools in Mamelodi and Eersterus, which is one of Michaella’s primary reasons for working with the German School.

We met up with Michaella and she explained why one of the most important steps in unlocking the potential of technology is to combine the largely separate fields of science, math, engineering and the arts.

 

What led to your latest project in education at the German School?
After working on my 3D Print Show fashion collection, I stopped designing for a while. I started thinking about why it is so difficult to do work in a field combining art and engineering. People always have to choose – the arts or engineering or maths. And I find it such a sad, strange thing. When does it all start? My children are eight and five and they are so creative and inventive. They don’t care if they are going to make a car today, be an artist tomorrow and sing the day after that. So the distinction doesn’t come in when we are small. It is created later.

 

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People always have to choose – the arts or engineering or maths. And I find it such a sad, strange thing.

So in the space I’m setting up, the kids will have hands-on learning about how to 3D design and print. But the part I also want to combine with that is creativity through the arts, because that’s where the exciting shapes and forms and the new ideas come from. At the moment I am busy developing the curriculum and the projects that they’re going to do. In the next couple of months or so, we’ll be testing them out.

 

So the programme will combine the two?
I believe that it’s about removing that fear of building electronics. If I could teach kids not to be afraid to make electronic things, it would be interesting. It’s not just about technology. It’s about getting busy with your hands again… making things. What we really need to teach children is how to create original thought. But the way schools are at the moment, creativity is a thing that you can’t grade. That’s why the makerspace idea is interesting.

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People always have to choose – the arts or engineering or maths. And I find it such a sad, strange thing.
Michaella’s Chrysanthemum centrepiece was voted the Most Beautiful Object in South Africa at Design Indaba 2009.
Michaella’s Seadog pendant has an intricate movable interlinked body.
The Stained Glass Corset is part of the Garden of Eden collection, the first multi-material multi-colour 3D printed fashion ensemble in the world. The Fish in Lilies and Fish in Coral bracelets are also part of the Garden of Eden collection. Photos: Merwelene van der Merwe studio
The Horse Marionette pays homage to Michaella’s days of puppet making. The image of the horse itself was inspired by a drawing that she made during this time. The Horse Marionette has fully functional joints and movable wings. All the horse’s parts have been placed in the same digital file so no assembly is required afterwards. When strung up the horse comes to life.

Have you found combining the two difficult in your own career?
Yes, it has been very difficult. I found myself thinking: if I can’t find a way, then how hard is it for someone else in this country that is born with these two sides to get somewhere? Currently, the focus is on the 3D printing. But what people forget is that without creativity, 3D printing is dead. It’s the designer and the design that is much more important than the hardware. At the end of the day, we still need people to create the designs.

 

Why did you first start with the idea of 3D printing jewellery?
Two challenges I face are that 3D printing is a new technology that hasn’t been proven in the market yet and it is quite expensive. To work with it, you have to find a way to get it to make commercial sense or be sustainable. So the reason for doing jewellery was literally because it is small and therefore less costly. All these things are actually driven by how I can try to make it sustainable.

 
All of these things are actually driven by how can I try to make it sustainable.

 

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If we can have a process that brings art back into buildings, and patterns, imagine how interesting that would be.
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And education is the most important way to do that…
I’m working on making real changes to people’s minds instead of just in the social media space. The experiment this time around is: if we can make a space where people see those ideas, would their interest in learning spread? Will they start making things? Will they start influencing one another? If you plant the seed in children’s minds, what will happen?

 

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What else are you working on at the moment?
At the moment, I’m exploring 3D printing in concrete. It is a massively growing field. The technology is not quite there yet, but it’s getting close. In the future, we’ll be able to print buildings.

 

How do you think that will change architecture?
When you look at modern concrete buildings, they’re not sculpted. They strike me as flat, blank. Why isn’t anybody sculpting on that? Think about Gaudí’s buildings. Those are the sorts of shapes you could print. In the old days, buildings were carved. It’s only because of mass manufacturing that those handmade details have been put aside because they have become too costly. But imagine how interesting it would be if we could have a process that brings art and patterns back into buildings.