Each December we face a design challenge of decorating a 15-foot noble fir tree in the Central Library’s rotunda. This year, with the opening of the Octavia Lab, we gave ourselves an even greater challenge; we would incorporate the Octavia Lab’s tagline, “creativity within reach” into our process.
As the library's first DIY audiovisual studio and makerspace, we wanted our creation to showcase our equipment and its capabilities. If you haven’t heard about us yet, the Octavia Lab is a creative learning and making lab located in the Central Library. We offer open hours for creation, space for collaborative group work, and friendly, supportive staff to get you started with your projects. As a creative community that lives the ethos of Octavia E. Butler, we believe in the importance of learning, research, and persistence towards creating and making to benefit our communities.
Our grand plan was to build ornaments for the tree using lab equipment, employing a collaborative creative process. As we describe the process to you, realize that this was a half-year process of gathering ideas, experimenting, learning about the equipment and repeating until we reached a workable solution.
In June and July, lab staff started gathering images for ideas of what we could do. In August, we started sketching out ornament ideas. In September, we searched Thingiverse, a portal for 3D print and laser cut plans, for ideas and tried our hand at designing ornaments in TinkerCad, an entry-level online CAD software. TinkerCad allows web users, with only a mouse, to create 3D objects by dragging and combining basic shapes as either a solid or a hole.
After a lot of flailing, we realized that we needed additional technical help. We asked Francis Fayard, an Octavia Lab volunteer, to aid the staff with the design and prototyping work for the ornaments. Who is Francis Fayard? In an interview, Francis talks about himself:
“I’m a French mechanical designer. I moved to Los Angeles to follow my wife. When we arrived, I wasn’t allowed to work in the US. In order to improve my English and to do something useful during my day, I started to search for a makerspace. I found the Octavia Lab at the Central Library, where there are also English classes. It was perfect for me. I was very interested in this makerspace, so I asked if they wanted a volunteer. A few weeks later, I became a volunteer for the Octavia Lab.”
Immediately, Francis gave us guidance on our project. The lab had to focus on only using two types of machines to make our ornaments: the laser cutter and the 3D printer.
A laser cutter is a machine that uses a laser to cut or etch into materials. The lab has a Universal Laser Systems VLS2.3. Our laser cutter limits us to 12” in height, 16” in width and 1/4" an inch in depth while cutting. Our facility limits us in using materials that do not give off fumes that are harmful to people.
A 3D printer builds a 3-dimensional object through the melting filament and letting it reform in a specific computer-directed method using individually applied layers onto the printer bed. After a 3D object has been first created on separate CAD software, and next sliced into layers with instructions by the 3D Printer’s slicing software, it's then loaded onto the 3D printer and built up layer by layer. We describe this informally in the lab as a hot glue gun mounted from above gluing down each layer. With the lab 3D printer, we only print or, more accurately, melt PLA filament to create an object. The lab has two MakerBot Replicator+ 3D printers. Its maximum print size is roughly the size of a big shoebox.
Francis explains, “The industry uses both the laser cutter and the 3D printer to produce machine parts. Now, through spaces like the Octavia Lab, they become more accessible to everyone. This equipment can produce various designs and don’t need too much time to operate. The two equipment processes cannot produce the same design. A laser cutter is only able to produce 2D designs. Like what you can do with a sheet of paper and scissors but a laser cutter will do it better and faster. If you want to create 3D shapes using a laser cutter, you will need to assemble a few parts. On the other hand, a 3D printer can produce a complex 3D design with only one print. There is more freedom in the design aspect for 3D prints but more freedom in the materials available with the laser cutter.”
With this advice in mind, we approached our ornament creation process for the two machines differently. We began collecting 2D drawings for the laser cutter. We began studying shapes we wanted to print with the 3D printer. We drew our inspiration from the shapes, objects, and motifs from the rotunda.
Before we got too far ahead of ourselves, Francis gave us this timely guidance: “The two technologies don’t have the same speed. For a more complex ornament, it will take less than 20 minutes to produce with a laser cutter. But for the 3D printer, it will take more than 3 hours to build the simplest ornament, because the 3D printer will create by printing many individual layers.” We now had real-time constraints in figuring out how to design, prototype and produce in time for the tree’s arrival the first week of December.
After spending days staring at the rotunda, we decided to focus on the main circular motif at its center. We collected spirograph and mandala-like shapes that mimicked the patterns.
After some searching, we began to work with a mix of drawings, photographs, and copyright-free images that reminded us of the rotunda motif. From some of those images, and with Francis’ help, we learned to convert them from a raster graphic—made up of dots—into a vector graphic—made up of points, lines, and curves—using graphic design software. Because of the time constraints of being able to produce before the first week of December, we had vector graphics that would take somewhere between 4 to 10 minutes to cut on a laser cutter.
We decided to laser cut on unpainted 12” x 12” x 1/8" birch sheets to match with the golden tone of the rotunda. The maximum size for our circular ornaments needed to be less than 12” in diameter. We calculated that we needed somewhere between 100-120 ornaments to fill the tree and made a spreadsheet to figure out the amount of time to cut the ornaments. We also calculated that there would be 10% failure with our cuts and planned accordingly.
Ten laser cut designs represent our research. One of the laser cut ornaments that we made for the tree is based on center ceiling window to the Philharmonic Auditorium.
The software used for the laser cutter ornaments is a mix of free and industry level software—Inkscape, CorelDraw, and Adobe Illustrator. With the laser cutter ornament concept in our grasp, we now focused on 3D printing and realized we had other design limitations to ponder. Because the tree is somewhere between 15-20 feet tall, we wanted to print as big as possible; we also needed them to print as quickly as possible. Another aesthetic decision we made was to keep material costs down and decided only to do 3D prints that didn’t need supports, which use up more materials.
As a team, we decided that we wanted to play off the motifs of the rotunda and also maintain the matte metallic spherical balls of previous tree designs. Because the 3D filament that we had were primary colors, gray, black, and white, we decided to print in neutral colors: white and light gray. Francis helped us prototype three different ornaments for the 3D printers. The fastest and biggest prints he could make our ornaments were between 2.5 hours to 4 hours to 3D print and about 6” in diameter.
Francis designed and prototyped the ornaments using Fusion 360 CAD software and Makerbot Print slicing software. He explains his digital-only prototyping process: “I tried a technique called “bridging,” where, say you have two walls, you can print across the two walls without support in the middle. However, the distance between these walls impacts print success, and it may fail if they are too far apart.”
By experimenting with the maximum print distance possible for our specific 3D printers and employing a circular shape, Francis was able to create ornaments that printed quickly without supports. These ornaments are printed out the way they look like on the tree without additional removal work and wasted material.
In addition to the spherical ornaments, we also wanted a 3D printed tree topper; the tree is big, and our printer could only print about the size of a shoebox. We had to think out of the box on how to print an even larger shape than our 6” ornaments. We wanted a shape that repeated, similar to the laser cut ornaments, and 3D printed spherical ornaments but needed the tree topper to be bigger than a shoebox. Our only solution was to have an ornament made from modular parts.
The tree topper is based on a regular dodecahedron, a 12-sided pentagon solid, with 5-sided pyramids that come out of each pentagonal side of the dodecahedron.
The tree topper was printed as 12 separate jobs. For 11 of the sides, we printed the five sides of the pyramid, and for the 12th time, we printed the base that would attach to the tree. Each of the 12 print jobs was made to print in as little time as possible. The “lace” pattern for the pyramid was a decision to minimize printing time and still have a pattern.
With all the design work completed, we went into production. For the laser cutter, we reached out to lab staff and also to Central Library staff for help with learning and running the laser cutter. For the 3D printer, we started a daily log sheet that measured out the weight of each ornament, the time it took to print each out and the amount of filament we had in the lab and maximized the number of print jobs that could be done in a day.
Are you excited to make your ornaments in the Octavia Lab? As a DIY space, staff can give you some guidance on the design files you will need and the materials to bring along. When you’re ready to get to work, we’ll sign you up for a time slot with the equipment you need to make your decorating dreams a reality.
We look forward to you checking out the tree and the Octavia Lab as part of your visit to Central Library. Even more exciting for us is seeing what you will make while in the Octavia Lab!
—Special thanks to Amanda Mellor (Administrative Clerk) & Richard Acero (Administrative Clerk).