New Lab Merges Art With Engineering

Art goes high tech with new tools

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John Phillips, left, and Christian Giroux stand next to the water jet cutter.

Art and engineering may seem worlds apart. But the best of both worlds are coming together in the new digital haptic lab at U of G, the first of its kind in Ontario. Shared by the College of Arts and the College of Physical and Engineering Science, the lab includes a 3D printer and a water jet cutter that can slice through almost any material, including steel.

Art and engineering have a lot in common, says Prof. Christian Giroux, School of Fine Arts and Music. When designing public art installations, for example, artists often consult with engineers to ensure that their artwork is structurally sound and can withstand the elements.

“Your work has to stand up to real-world conditions, so that invariably involves a lot of engineering,” he says. Upon his arrival at U of G in 2004, he began collaborating with John Phillips, then a PhD candidate in engineering and now the lab’s research associate.

Where do art and engineering intersect? Phillips brings Giroux’s geometric art to life by calculating the structure’s load-bearing capacity and other engineering requirements. Their first sculpture referenced satellites from the early days of the space race, and they have since co-taught sculpture classes through the University’s Learning Enhancement Fund.

Industrial manufacturing has been a source of inspiration for artists since the beginning of the 20th century, says Giroux. “I’m really interested in the real world of objects that surround people in their everyday lives, and that’s overwhelmingly a world of computer-aided design and manufacture and mass industrial production,” he says.

“I’ve always approached sculpture like a prototype or as someone who’s making individual objects that are designed in a way that lend themselves to mass manufacture. You look at the object as a prototype that could be reproduced by industrial means.” One of those prototypes is a universal joint that he designed with Phillips. Once the 3D printer has printed the prototype, it will be shipped to a factory, where it will be produced for use in Giroux’s artwork.

Together with artist and collaborator Chris Young, Giroux also works with machinists and woodworkers, depending on their art project’s medium. “We change the materials that we work with frequently and kind of have to relearn how to make things with every project,” says Giroux. Their combined creativity earned Giroux and Young the 2011 Sobey Award, which honours Canadian artists aged 40 and under.

Based in Alexander Hall, the newly renovated 3D design lab allows designers to map out data using the laser scanner, while the software generates three-dimensional images on the screen. The image then goes to a 3D printer, which prints the prototype layer by layer. Another lab in the Thornbrough Building is equipped with a water jet cutter. Travelling at a speed of Mach 2, the water jet can cut through cardboard without getting it wet. The equipment will be calibrated over the summer in preparation for the fall term.

Giroux says the lab “incredibly extends what students and researchers are capable of physically producing.” In less than a day, the 3D printer can produce an object that would have taken hundreds of hours to make by hand.

The lab received funding from the Canada Foundation for Innovation. Both colleges will share the facility, along with faculty, staff and graduate students. “We wanted to ensure there was as broad a range of researchers as possible,” says Giroux. “We’re getting an amazing response from people who are eager to use the lab.”