The author, inventor and futurist Arthur C. Clarke once observed that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
Clarke would have loved Towson’s Object Lab, where students are mastering the 21st century art—and science— of digital prototyping and rapid manufacturing.
Established in 2011 with university funds, the state-of-the-art lab is housed in a sunny, high-ceilinged studio in the university’s Center for the Arts. Once used for figure-drawing classes, the space now sports the desktop computers, 3D scanners, 3D printers, milling machine and laser cutter needed to craft a jaw-dropping array of three-dimensional objects.
Under the direction of art professor Jan Baum, art and design majors employ computer modeling software to conceptualize an object. They then send the data to a 3D printer that creates a physical prototype, building the object layer by layer using four different 3D printing technologies. Samples of student work are much in evidence, from mask-like portraits and wind-up toys to a functioning plastic wrench.
“The applications are endless,” says Baum. She points out that rapid prototyping technology is being used worldwide to produce tools and made-to-order machine parts as well as art. Health care advances range from airway stents and dental appliances to prosthetics, implants and organs (blood vessels and ears).
“Towson is at the forefront of the 3D revolution in Maryland,” she adds. “Our Object Lab is the only one of its kind on a University System of Maryland campus, and Towson students are honing marketable skills.” The lab has tremendous potential, she says, both for the university and the Greater Baltimore area.
Baum’s students learn their way around the rapid-technology ecosystem, applying their creativity to a variety of challenges. For real-world jobs, she recruits off-campus clients. When a local manufacturer wanted to improve its car spring-making process, Towson’s Object Lab delivered a more efficient design. Students consult with entrepreneurs on new-product development and business startups. They collaborated with TU’s occupational therapy program and Johns Hopkins biomedical engineering majors to create the housing for a device that enabled a girl with muscular dystrophy to use a sewing machine.
The kudos weren’t long in coming. Last year the Object Lab was a finalist in the Volt Awards Technology Implementer category, which recognizes organizations that “use existing technology to enhance service offerings.”
This year Baum helped launch an object lab at Baltimore’s Digital Harbor Tech Center, where K-12 students are now learning digital fabrication in addition to website and mobile app development. “They’re amazing,” Baum says of her high-school protégés, who have already designed and fabricated a prize-winning project. “They’ll graduate with solid skills in an emerging technology—that’s huge.”
Although Towson’s Object Lab operates under the auspices of the College of Fine Arts and Communication, Baum champions it as both a campus and community resource. “This is the crossroads of all disciplines,” she emphasizes. “We are accessible and open. I’d like to see everybody in here, both on and off campus.
“Everyone in higher education acknowledges the importance of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) disciplines,” she continues. “Towson is getting art into the picture, which turns the acronym into STEAM.”
By Jan Lucas. Photos by DeCarlo Brown.
Video by Ron Santana.