World’s Largest 3D-Printed Lens Debuts at Times Square
The installation, titled Window to the Heart, was a collaboration between design studio Aranda/Lasch and 3D printer manufacturer Formlabs.
The project was a collaboration between design studio Aranda/Lasch and 3D printer designer and manufacturer Formlabs. Ben Aranda, co-founder of the design studio, had known Marcelo Coelho, Formlabs’ head of design for many years. The duo had recently collaborated on a light design for a Museum of the City of New York exhibition. After deciding to enter the Times Square Valentine Heart Design competition together, Aranda and Coelho “went to Times Square and sat there for about an hour, observing how people behaved and how they acted when they were in Times Square,” says Coelho. That’s when they hit upon the idea: a massive lens that revisits the fundamental optical technologies that make Times Square’s photographic extravaganza possible.
The decision to design a lens was also rooted in Formlabs’ 3D printing experiments: the manufacturer had already experimented with printing lenses using clear resin, though never at this scale. The Aranda/Lasch and Formlabs team began researching lenses and came across a unique type of lens, one best known for its use in lighthouses: the Fresnel lens. “[It] seemed like the perfect choice for a couple of reasons,” says Coelho. Chiefly, Fresnel lenses aren’t a single large, smooth lens (such as you’d find on a camera) but rather a series of concentric ridges that each independently captures and direct light toward a single point. Consequently, “if you have this giant lens, you can sort of flatten it into a Fresnel lens and still get the same optical properties” without worrying about the complex geometries and potential imperfections of a smooth lens.
This didn’t mean producing the Fresnel lens wasn’t without its challenges.“This is a completely unprecedented scale for 3D printing, [especially] something that has this kind of optical clarity to it,” says to Coelho. The team knew the basic material properties of the clear resin, but “we were also designing and testing it [from] two weeks up to the last minute, basically.” Fifty 3D printers churned out hundreds of mock-ups. They initially considered using a massive belt to hold the hundreds of tiles together, but instead landed on another approach: the lens’s 910 3D-printed resin pieces would be adhered to two massive, clear acrylic slabs using silicone. The entire installation weighs 4,000 pounds and is anchored by a steel shoe and tripod.
The visual results are striking, but does Window to the Heart have broader implications for designers, especially when it comes to manufacturing?“Even though people talk about automation and labor, we arrived at an awesome solution where you’re putting the geometry and the iteration of the design onto the 3D printer itself,” says Coelho. Due to improvements in 3D printing materials and technologies, “it’s the kind of thing that simply wouldn’t have been possible a couple of years ago.” J
Bonifaz, a designer at Aranda\Lasch, sees a blending of human and machine in this project that will become more common. “We’re excited about this very high-tech process of developing the tiles and testing the optics, but there’s also still a manual kind of craft in fabricating the steel and laying the tiles.”
Coelho adds, “In many ways, that’s what craft is going to be moving forward into the future: This combination of humans and machines working collaboratively, harnessing the skills of each for what they’re good at.”
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