CNC routing is amazing if you’ve ever seen it in action. You can watch perfect circles and intricate shapes appear in plywood or other sheet goods, right before your eyes. Exact duplicates of precisely measured pieces can be made over and over again. But CNC machines are expensive. They take up a lot of room in already crowded prop shops. And they require a set of technical skills that may not be inherent in a typical prop shop staff.
That’s why 100K Garages is such an intriguing concept. Basically it is a loose network of shops around the world with CNC routers of various capabilities. You submit the guidelines of what you need built, and the shops bid on it. You pick a bid you like, the shop makes your pieces, and mails it to you. Prop done!
I have not had an opportunity to give this site a test run yet. If anyone out there has, let us know. We’d love to hear about it.
Objet is a company that specializes in rapid prototyping. They produce machines that use inkjet print-heads to spray layer after layer of a UV curable liquid that hardens into a solid. Using a software developed by Laica (not to be confused with camera-maker, Leica), animators were able to create scenes in 3D animation software like Maya and send the results directly to the printer.
Unfortunately, the cheapest printer at Objet will set you back $40,000. Probably out of the range of most props shops. And by “most”, I mean “all”.
That doesn’t mean you can’t use this new technology. Bucknell University, where I got my BA, had these kinds of machines for their Small Business Development Center. If you work at a university theatre, or are still in school yourself, you may find another department has one of these. You may even be able to gain access if you develop a good relationship with that department.
Every once in awhile, I thought I’d try to look ahead at the future of building props. Prop-making has come a long way in the last few decades, from papier-mache and chicken-wire, to sculpted Styrofoam and CNC-routed parts. Today, I’ll take a peek at desktop fabrication.
If you need a color copy of a printed page, you can scan it and print it within minutes on the computer which is already in your office. Paper props have become vastly simplified with today’s computer and printing technology, and if your shop has a large color plotter, you can print nearly anything up to four feet wide.
Imagine doing the same with a three-dimensional object. You scan it in, and then “print” an exact copy.
The technology to do that already exists, and has for years, but remains bulky and expensive. Products like the Desktop Factory bring the dream of a desktop factory in every school, business, and home closer to reality.
According to the blog at Ponoko, the Desktop Factory is similar in price to the first consumer laser printer which was released in 1985. If we look ahead, we can see how prices have changed. These days, it can sometimes be cheaper to buy a new printer then new ink! In ten or fifteen years, desktop fabricators can easily cost less than a hundred dollars.
For the truly adventurous, there is a wealth of resources dedicated to constructing your own “fabber”. Fab@Home has everything you need to build and program your own machine to make three-dimensional objects out of a whole range of materials, from plastics to sugar.
When you combine desktop fabrication with more sustainable materials, you get machines like the Matrix 3D Printer, which uses sheets of letter-sized paper to build up a three-dimensional object.
These machines make objects which can be molded and cast, or in some cases, used directly.
I can certainly see more commercial prop shops using these kinds of machines and technologies. For smaller prop shops or university shops, they can still come in handy. Obviously, a desktop model will not let you print out a giant prop. Likewise, if you need a piece of wooden furniture, you can’t use a fragile plastic fabrication, nor would it make sense to cast a piece of furniture in some kind of resin. Additionally, these fabricators would require at least some knowledge of 3D computer programs, such as CAD. While many prop shops have at least one person with a working knowledge of one of the CAD programs, generating a precise drawing of a complicated piece may be too specialized a skill for a five-person shop.
I see the more immediate benefits of a machine like this as a way to make all the “bits and bobbins” that a prop shop is always looking for. Think about the boxes of finials and rosettes we keep around, or the bucket labeled “brass things.” Now imagine building up a virtual library of all of these parts, and whenever you need one, you just print it out. There are many other times when you need some kind of custom shape for a prop where precision is key.
I’m interested to hear how everyone else feels about these possibilities.