Hiya, I’m Britton, the Lab Technician that’s been bumming around AS220 Industries for the past 18 months. Back in March I was invited to a state-sponsored Maker Convention in the Jewelry District aimed at revitalizing Rhode Island’s once prolific industries with the help of the growing Maker Movement around the country. While there I was introduced to Erminio Pinque–the mad genius behind Big Nazo. He was interested in this foam that we had donated, and–as luck would have it– I had been working with the week prior. The foam, a closed-cell polyethelene (PE) foam with a variety of uses, became the material we used to construct collossal robotic animals for the Electric Zoo festival in Brazil. Apart from cutting patterns and assembling them in the traditional Big Nazo fashion, the PE foam took to heat surprisingly well. This gave me an opportunity to explore our newly up-and-running Formech 300XQ Vacuum Former.
Vacuum Forming is a rapid-fabrication process in which a thinner material is heated up, and then pulled over a mold or form. A vacuum then sucks the air out, pulling the material tightly against the mold or form. This process is how things like halloween masks, bubble packaging, helmet skins, and even hot tubs are manufactured. The goal with Big Nazo’s project was to quickly create a variety of shapes that felt both organic and mechanical. This was achieved by cutting a by cutting out squares and triangles of different sizes on the ShopBot, and arranging them in a loosely organic shape while still adhering to their own orthogonal vertices. Details were then added using any random objects found around the shop; tape rolls, loupes, odd medical equipment, nuts, bolts. The only downside to this method was if I wanted to make the same shape again I would have to do my best to recreate it, as the foam would grab the forms upon removal.
My latest experimentations, on the outside, look like the tackiest assemblages of Hobby Lobby bargain bin Tchotchkes made by something without eyes from a scrapped Dr. Seuss book. The goal with these is similar, but instead to have a few standard forms that Big Nazo can use–both organic and inorganic (or monstrous and robotic). This finally gave me a chance to clear out my junk drawer of random bits I’ve been collecting over the years–bullet casings/shells, weird lamp parts, interesting hardware. I had no use for them until now! We took a trip to the Recycling For RI Education (RIEE) center in Cranston and grabbed a box of shapes I thought would be useful–old spools, chunky beads, buttons, soda lid things, heavy duty cardboard tubes. On top of that were given a box of acrylic parts from a local jewelry artist Imyourpresent that were perfect for adding detail to unintelligible lumps of organic mass and clean, organized robotic elements.
The process isn’t perfect. Industrial vac-forming applications use a negative mold (material gets sucked down into it) that prevents the formation of webbing (where the material sticks to itself and joins units together, see above) and lessens the chance of the material ripping–however it requires more material to create the mold and can’t be made freehand like these. Positive molds (material is draped over the mold) are easier to make, but can lead to more problems if you don’t pay attention to things like spacing, overhangs, and clearance angles. The foam is very forgiving and flexible when it comes to these molds, but they wouldn’t last one pull with a rigid material like styrene.
If you’d like to check out what our vac-former can do keep an eye out for the AS220 Industries booth at FooFest 2017. We will be making masks out of 3D Printed facial features. We may offer a workshop on vac-form mold making and operation in the future. Got questions on the process and materials? Shoot me an email email@example.com, I’d be happy to answer them!