Blending the Traditional and Digital at TCU’s New Media Art Program

Interdisciplinary artist and assistant professor Nick Bontrager works hard to blend traditional and experimental techniques as he develops the New Media Art program at Texas Christian University (TCU) in Fort Worth. Four years ago, Bontrager was tasked with building the program from scratch and continues to constantly shape it further, with new course materials and collaborative relationships being forged both within and outside of the university. The courses that Bontrager teaches, whether they be “Robotic Art & Kinetic Sculpture” or “3D Printing & Modeling,” require his students to spend quality time in TCU’s New Media Fab Lab.

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Less than six months ago, the lab added their first CNC mill, an Othermill, to its tool arsenal, in order to complement the 3D printers and laser engraver. Bontrager shares, “Our students are really pushing the limits of fabrication with 3D prints and laser-cut parts, so adding a subtractive fabrication process to our lab seemed like the natural next step.” Even though the Othermill has been in-house a relatively short period of time, it’s already seen several hundred hours of use and has become so much a lab favorite that Otherplan is installed in their computer lab so students can set up and save files while waiting for active projects to finish milling.

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Bontrager says, “They love the noises it makes, and how cute and small it is. And then when they see what it’s able to produce, they can’t stop thinking about different ways to use it!” He adds, “The ability to carve and shape a wide variety of materials has really opened up possibilities for our classes. For example, the ability to shape light metals without having to go through a traditional lost-wax casting process is huge. As well, our previous circuit board fabrication process was done on the laser engraver but required ferric chloride etchant to actually finish the board. The Othermill allows us to fabricate our PCBs in a matter of minutes, rather than hours.”

Students have predominantly been using Illustrator or Inkscape to create 2D and 2.5D designs, and though 3D-milling processes proved a bit challenging, they’ve started using Fusion 360 to generate their G-code and are happy with the workflow.

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Projects the students have used the Othermill to create include brass and copper jewelry, parts for kinetic sculptures, and even topographical studies in the form of outputting NASA digital terrain models (DTM) to various hardwoods and metals.

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Up next, they’re dialing in the settings to make intaglio plates for traditional printing. This involves engraving a design into a metal plate and using that to print, with the channels of the engraving functioning to hold the ink.

Aside from the art Bontrager and his students have been making, they’ve even put the Othermill to utilitarian use. Bontrager explains, “We cracked the lens and housing on our Phantom 3 Professional drone during a test flight last summer. The Othermill was used to cut a new part, and it’s actually a little more robust now to prevent future damage in case of a crash.“

Just for fun, Bontrager has been engraving plastic to make plaques for his studio visits. And this is just the beginning. He adds, “We plan to put the Othermill through its paces next semester in my 3D Printing & Modeling course, as those students are more experienced in 3D fabrication. I’m excited to see the Othermill used for more mold-making applications. It would be pretty cool to make a mini injection mold with my students!”

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