How can 3D printing turn data into art?

14 Sep 2018

Sputnik, a 3D-printed connector. Image: Fiona McDonald

Artist Fiona McDonald has worked with researchers to turn satellite data into a more tangible form, and 3D printing has been a key enabler. She and collaborator Dr Sarah Brady spoke to Dr Claire O’Connell.

Data is everywhere, but it feels invisible. How can we ‘see’ it? Graphs are all very well, but what about rendering data in a physical form that we can touch? And how can new technologies such as digital fabrication and 3D printing open up those opportunities? 

Artist Fiona McDonald has been exploring possibilities through collaborations with researchers in science and engineering, and the results are on display at her latest exhibition, Gateways, at King House in Boyle, Co Roscommon.

The ‘Gateways’ exhibit at King House in Boyle, Co Roscommon. Image: John McDonald

One piece, GRB-Locator-Array, takes real-time information from the Integral, Fermi and Swift satellites, which detect gamma-ray bursts travelling across space following violent events such as a star exploding or black holes merging.

By processing the data, the GRB-Locator-Array can point to the location of the latest signal, which may have taken billions of years to reach us. Another piece, [1111100], shows the level of gamma-ray radiation in the last five detected bursts versus time in an LED display.

Fruitful collaboration

The works arose through McDonald’s collaborations with various researchers at University College Dublin (UCD) School of Physics and at Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) research centres Connect and I-Form.

No stranger to science and technology, McDonald initially studied biological chemistry at the University of Ulster before studying fine art at the National College of Art and Design, where she now runs workshops on coding and technology, and doing a master’s in multimedia at Trinity College Dublin (TCD). 

Through a recent residency at UCD Parity Studios, and now as a visiting research assistant at OMG Connect, McDonald has been collaborating with researchers, particularly in the area of space science and connectivity.

“[The residency] was an exciting opportunity for me to immerse myself in new areas of research but also to expand on my previous knowledge of code hardware and interaction design, and explore the crossover with active researchers in astrophysics/engineering of our combined experience in the use of new technologies,” she said.

woman with long blonde hair wearing white and black striped tshirt and black cardigan standing in a studio and smiling.

Fiona McDonald at UCD Parity Studios. Image: John McDonald

The art of 3D printing

One of McDonald’s collaborators on the data-driven satellite work is Dr Sarah Brady from I-Form, whose knowledge and skill in the art of 3D printing opened up new possibilities for the sculptures. 

A postdoctoral researcher, Brady explained that I-Form, a collaboration across seven third-level institutes (UCD, TCD, Dublin City University, NUI Galway, IT Sligo, Waterford IT and Maynooth University) seeks to apply technologies such as 3D printing and data analytics to manufacturing in order to improve efficiency and complexity, and reduce waste. 

Her research uses 3D printing to develop ‘flow reactors’ or chambers where chemical reactions can take place. “Flow reactors are currently expensive,” she explained. “But with 3D printing, the costs come way down and we can incorporate internal mixers [because] 3D printing allows us to make complex geometries.”

It sounds easy, but getting 3D printing to work reliably takes skill. “Everything has to be tailored for the part you want to make,” said Brady. “You need a bit of experience in 3D printing to understand what is happening.” Brady’s skill in the art of 3D printing was invaluable for McDonald, who collaborated with her on creating spherical, multi-armed ‘connectors’ to hold rods in the installations.

“There are so many variables in 3D printing, but this is what Sarah’s research is about,” said McDonald. “And she was able to make it work for this unusual shape.”

Gravitating towards learning 

Brady’s abilities were also key for printing 3D gravitational waves as detected by LIGO on a project that saw McDonald work with the UCD School of Architecture. 

For Brady, working with McDonald brought new perspectives to her own research, and she would encourage other researchers to seek out such collaborations. “I would hope all scientists and engineers would be open to it,” she said.

“Everyone is looking to learn from one another; that is why, as scientists and engineers, we write papers about our work, so why would we not seek to work with artists, too? I learned a lot from working with Fiona, from seeing her views.”

Gateways runs until 27 September at King House. I-Form will be officially launched later this month.

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Dr Claire O’Connell is a scientist-turned-writer with a PhD in cell biology and a master’s in science communication