Translating Bits into Bronze at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago

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When a group of Chicago artists convened in 1866 to discuss founding an art school with its own gallery, they may not have foreseen it becoming one of the largest and most well-respected independent schools of art and design in the country. And it’s quite unlikely that the founders of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) could have predicted that 150 years later, students would be using digital files and computer numerically controlled machines in a cutting-edge lab to push the boundaries of modern art. But with its extensive history of innovation and notable alumni on the forefront of burgeoning art movements, it comes as no surprise.

On their world-renowned campus in the heart of downtown Chicago, SAIC houses an extensive Materials Lab, complete with a full array of tools, from low tech traditional to high tech, including hammers, stakes, and anvils as well as 3D printers, plasma cutters, and CNC mills. In September of 2015, they added three Othermills to their tool arsenal. Brad Johns, SAIC’s executive director of fabrication and instructional resources, explains:

“The SAIC has quite a wide range of digital fabrication tools, including two 4'x8' CNC routers as well as some smaller-format mills for wood, metal, and PCBs. That notwithstanding, we decided that we really loved the idea of the Othermill’s highly portable format and were exited to try it out in our process ecosystem. Another significant impetus for onlining the Othermills has been a research cell formed in the summer of 2015 within an interdisciplinary group of faculty and staff, to develop hybrid working methodologies amongst our many digital fabrication assets and our wonderfully outfitted sculpture, metal casting, and fabrication schemes. This research cell has been a way to stimulate knowledge base confluence and test out new production systems that we hope will allow us to expose many more SAIC students to CAM, CNC, and metal-casting processes.”

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As to why they decided to acquire three Othermills, Johns notes, “We have found, in many cases, that the unfettered uptake of process is a numbers game. When you want everyone to try it, which is a core interdisciplinary assumption at the SAIC, you need to be prepared to back that up with commensurate levels of access. In this case, we presently have 30–40 students pointed at the Othermills with goals for more.” He adds, “The biggest win for us has been wider adoption and accessibility rendered possible by the portability and user-friendly experience.”

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Assistant professor Tom Burtonwood, known for his innovative work with 3D printers and scanners over the past four years, has been employing the Othermills with students in his Digital Projects course, milling blue machining wax for centrifugal casting. Students use RhinoCAM to generate toolpaths from a combination of scanned and modeled geometries, then mill a roughing pass followed by a finishing pass. Burtonwood said the Othermill had helped close the gap between digital and analog methods and materials, stating, “I think the students were thrilled to be able to translate something from Rhino into wax and then see it become bronze,” or in other words, “translate bits into bronze.”

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Some students opted to mill sculptures using files of objects scanned in Autodesk ReCap or 123D Catch, while others created designs of their own in Rhino or Blender. As well, some students were fairly experienced in 3D printing and that knowledge transferred over, while for others everything about the digital fabrication process was new. Burtonwood notes that the biggest hurdles have been mastering the RhinoCAM workflow and supervising student milling, the latter of which he hopes to remedy by deputizing students who’ve mastered the machine.

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Johns adds, “The Othermills are proving to be a very effective gateway tool — exactly what we need in this case. We’ve been running CAM and CNC tooling for 15+ years, so the Othermills are also being fit within and augmenting our already well-established workflow. We’ve found that the Othermills have been backwards compatible in this respect, and that our current CAM workflow has not been rendered obsolete or forked.”

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Burtonwood foresees a number of sculpture classes utilizing the Othermills in the future, milling wax, wood, and foam, as well printmakers using it for engraving copper plates. Knowing the experimental nature of the SAIC environment, it’s exciting to see what these creative minds will make.

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For the time being, Johns shares, “Because we are using the Othermills to serve a new segment of our student population — in this case Sculpture/Foundry students — they have opened an access pathway to subtractive machining that simply did not exist before and which possesses a very high learning value for those process areas. For us, providing new levels of process awareness to creatives is always a radical act, and doing so requires smart tools.”

Works shown (from top to bottom) are by Cody Norman, Grace Chung, and Tom Burtonwood.