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Inside3DP exclusive: This professor turns mathematics into 3D printed artwork

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on Oct 15 2014 , 07:18:43
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When your day job involves using mathematics to solve everyday problems, you’re bound to create the impossible once you get your hands on a 3D printer. Or at least try. Professor Craig Kaplan doesn’t disappoint. He turned his fascination with Islamic geometric patterns and background in computer science into a collection of 3D printed artwork that’s as mathematically fascinating as it is functional.

Almost all the items in his collection can be purchased through his Shapeways store and include rings, ceramic coffee mugs and other mathematical artwork. All 3D printed, of course. But it’s the things you’d never think to 3D print that really stood out to me. This includes a 3D printed Kippah, a skullcap worn by Orthodox Jewish men, and Little Dipper, a cup designed specifically for biscuit dipping.

LITTLE DIPPER

Little Dipper: a 3D printed cup for biscuit dipping

I asked Kaplan about his collection and how he is using 3D printing to go beyond what is already possible with the technology. Unlike most makers, he started experimenting with 3D printing while at graduate school. The technology was an easy way for him to turn his ideas and research on mathematical art into real-world objects. He still uses the technology and most of his work as a professor deals with developing algorithms and software to automatically generate 3D objects. He is preoccupied with finding ways to make 3D printing more accessible.

Using 3D printing for artistic expression

For Kaplan, the most appealing thing about 3D printing is how it lets him use programming to create art. “I love the way that 3D printing makes code into an artistic medium as accessible as clay. Every artist needs to discover the medium that, for them, builds the shortest possible conduit from inspiration to artefact. And while I have some experience with traditional artistic media like drawing, clay, casting, and so on, I will always be more skilled at programming. 3D printing lets me exploit that skill in an artistic way,” he explained.

ISLAMIC STAR BALL

Islamic Star Ball

And it’s this artistic expression which shines through when browsing the items in his online store. Several of the items are ornaments highlighting the connection between mathematics and art. These include the Islamic star ball with a spherical Islamic star pattern. This is based on a truncated dodecahedron. Other spherical ornaments he has created include the Starball with kites and the Islamic star ball with 8- and 9-pointed stars. However, his collection is anything but limited to mathematical ornaments.

ROCKET ESPRESSO CUP

Rocket Espresso Cup

His best seller was the Rocket Espresso Cup, a 3D printed porcelain cup perfect for sipping espresso, which quickly became a viral success after being released on Shapeways. In fact, the cups did so well that they can no longer be purchased on Shapeways. They’re now being sold commercially by Fred and Friends as the Blast Off! Espresso Cups. Other notable items in his collection include Little Dipper cookie dipping cup. Kaplan explained that he got the idea for these cups while watching his kids pour giant mugs of milk to dip their cookies and envisioning a specially designed cup that would allow dipping without too much milk. “These ideas allow me to combine my love of good design with some amount of visual humour,” he said.

3D printing the unorthodox

3D PRINTED KIPPAH

Kippahs may seem like an unusual thing to 3D print especially for someone preoccupied with practical objects and geometric shapes. For Kaplan, kippahs represented an interesting challenge. He had always wanted to 3D print a full-size fedora hat, and a kippah seemed like a good place to start. “I had never heard of a 3D printed kippah before, so it seemed like a fun design space in which to experiment,” he explained. Interestingly, not only are they comfortable and durable, but two rabbis have already given their blessing, explaining that there’s nothing in the religion which forbids a 3D printed kippah.

3D PRINTED KIPPAH

3D printed kippah

There’s no denying that there’s something mesmerizing about watching an idea, no matter how unconventional, take shape before your very eyes. Kaplan’s work is a reminder of this. It’s also a call for other makers to follow suit. “Start playing! Find some (ideally free) software for 3D modelling and see what you’re able to produce. With the right tools, the path to your first 3D printed model doesn’t have to be very long,” he said.



A fast-talking, slow-typing writer at the intersection of tech and daily life. When not on the lookout for 3D-printed food, Nicole spends her time running Nicola Writes, a boutique writing company which brings cheeky, punch-packing content to tech start-ups. Her work has appeared in leading publications including Forbes and The Next Web.

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