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    Rob's Tinkercad Classroom: Let's Be Transparent

    Rob Morrill
    Published on - July 6, 2021 by Rob Morrill


    We usually think of 3D printing solid, opaque objects, but creating very thin prints can let students unlock some magic in their designs. 

    If we 3D print at thicknesses of about .4 mm or less, the thin portion of the print lets through light and creates a translucent contrast to thicker elements of the print. This technique can be used with great precision to create lithophanes, and we can also employ it in a more basic way to neat effect. Read on for various project ideas. To backlight the design, hang the prints in a window, make them part of a LED installation, or design around a night light fixture. 

    Dr. Mae Jemison lithophane A tree made with the Scribble tool A design coded in Codeblocks

    A lithophane of Dr. Mae Jemison, a Scribble tool tree, a Codeblocks design.

    To create connections to curricula, students can represent elements from literature or history, highlight ideas from a science unit, or otherwise represent course concepts they can talk about in a presentation, piece of writing, or video.

    Lithophanes in History, Art, and More

    Lithophanes are actually quite an old art form, traditionally hand-carved in great detail in porcelain, wood, or ivory. 3D printing allows us to create images from a single color of filament by printing in a very small range of layer heights to create gradations from light to dark. The lithophanes above celebrating astronaut Mae Jemison and below celebrating musician Nina Simone have Codeblocks designs added to them. (See my Codeblocks tutorial video playlist here.) A similar framing effect can be created in standard Tinkercad as well. See my web page for tips and resources on designing and printing lithophanes.

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    A lithophane honoring artist Nina Simone with a background coded in Codeblocks.

    There are many ways to connect lithophanes to curricula. Honor historical figures, depict an element of the environment, showcase how a building illustrates a mathematical principle, have students dress as literary figures, etc. Suction cups with hooks can then let the lithophanes be displayed in a school window before going home with the creators. Additionally, students can design small stands or other methods of displaying the projects in windows.

    Scribble It

    Have access to one or more iPads with the Tinkercad app or other touchscreen devices? The "Scribble" tool in Basic Shapes allows even very young students to create designs with a translucent background.

    The first step is for students to draw a square or rectangle with the Scribble tool. The workplane grid guidelines will help. (A circle will also work, but it may be trickier to draw well freehand.)

    Next, add a design to the interior of the square. Might these relate to something being studied in history, science, literature, or another subject?


    When finished, note the dimensions of the outer shape. In this example, the rectangle was about 63 by 50 mm.

    I added a Box shape, typed in slightly smaller dimensions (62x49), made the height .3 mm, then tapped both the blue design and the red background box to use the Align tool to align them. A little more nudging and resizing was also needed. 


    Below you can see that I added and sized a Tube shape to serve as a hanger. I also viewed from underneath to make sure the entire background was covered.

    I brought the blue portion down to 3.5 mm in height before printing.

    For some designs, it might be necessary to combine the tube shape with a box that's a hole to trim the bottom of the ring off so it doesn't intrude in the main design.

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    Winged Friends

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    This bat’s wings were drawn with the Scribble tool, and the body and wing background were made with standard Basic Shapes. This dragonfly was mostly coded in Codeblocks, then the wing material was added in standard Tinkercad. For two-color designs, most slicer programs can pause the print at a predetermined layer height to allow for a swap of filaments. 


    Circular Logic

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    These designs use different strategies to distribute circles. Students can have fun generating and iterating designs while seeing the power of variables in coding. Whether you end up 3D printing or not, there's lots of joy and learning in experimenting with this kind of code.


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    Here you can see a snippet of one method of generating random circles, which are distributed somewhat evenly. See the full design in Codeblocks here. Maybe change the X and Y coordinate values to distribute the circles in different ways? 

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    The circles in this project can be rotated in a more orderly way by playing with the values of several variables. You can look at this project's comment blocks to get ideas of how to experiment for different effects. Can you make the rings spiral as in the 3D print example above? 

    If you enjoyed this column or tried this with students, please share your feedback and creations! What would you like to see more of? What works well? Feel free to contact me on Twitter or my website with your questions, suggestions, or ideas for future content.


    Tags: Inspiration