Wolfram Computation Meets Knowledge

3D Printing with Mathematica

An email went out on a mailing list here at Wolfram looking for someone interested in learning about doing 3D printing. I’d heard about these so-called “Santa Claus machines,” but had never seen one in action. They’re really quite interesting. You tell Santa what you want, and out it comes—a shiny new toy!

Now it’s not quite that simple, but you get the idea. The models that these printers create can’t be too delicate, or they’ll break. The kind of printer that I’m now most familiar with builds the model from the bottom up, constructing the object one layer at a time from plaster and water. A thin layer of plaster is deposited, then a binding agent sprays from basically an oversized ink-jet printer to harden the areas that form the object. Once the printer is done, you have to dust off the object and infuse it with a hardener so it’s less fragile.

But back to the story. Ed Pegg Jr—associate editor for MathWorld—was writing an article about 3D printing and wanted to know more about the process. The idea was to print a physical 3D model of the Spikey, our company logo, at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, which is just a few blocks from our offices. (You can read about the development of the Spikey here.)

This was the version we were working with:

Mathematica model of Spikey

But how would we turn that image into something we could actually hold in our hands?

As a developer working on Mathematica’s Import/Export features, I had become quite familiar with the 3D formats that Version 6 would support.

We contacted the university and quickly discovered we already had the file formats needed to communicate with their Z-Corp Z406 printer. The model for our first object was created with some outside help. With a file from Luc Barthelet, senior vice president at Electronic Arts, we exported the graphics object using a single line of Mathematica code, then printed it. This was all very exciting, and I proudly displayed the “real-life” Spikey on my desk.

3D Spikey on my desk

But it soon left for the hit TV show NUMB3RS. The Spikey was shipped to the set to be a prop for Charlie Eppes’s office and can be seen in many episodes.

Why would Mathematica users care about 3D printing? Because visualization is probably the most powerful tool we possess for understanding the things around us. That’s why Mathematica has so many tools for creating and working with visualizations.

Many times there just aren’t enough dimensions to see all you want to see. Instead of looking at a 2D screen to see your 3D models, why not pick them up in your hands and get a good look? The technology is getting quite inexpensive, and besides the results look great on your desk!