This Instructable is going to show how to use digital sculpting software and a 3D printer to create a skin for an animatronic puppet. I am currently an art student studying entertainment/industrial design and have access quite a bit of high tech equipment, such as digital sculpting software, laser engravers and 3D printers. I was brainstorming ideas for my thesis project when I realized that there can be many advantages to using these tools to create animatronic characters. Digital sculptures are much easier to transport and use far less materials than traditional methods. Plus, it is very difficult to carry a sculpture and molds back and forth to school when riding a bicycle! They are also more accurate and (in my opinion) easier to change and refine. When paired with a 3D printer, one can be holding just about any model in a day or two. This process just one way to integrate digital and rapid prototyping tools into the design process and to eliminate some of the waste involved in bringing an animatronic creature to life, without limiting creative possibilities.
Step 1: The Traditional Method
I am using photos of an animatronic eel that I recently created to help illustrate how the traditional process works. The sculpture was first sculpted and detailed. It was then molded in Ultracal 30, which is a type of plaster that can withstand the heat necessary to bake the foam latex skin. A layer of clay that is the desired thickness of the final skin is placed inside along the inner wall of the mold and more plaster is then layered inside to fill the remaining space, creating the core. After the mold and core are finished, foam latex is mixed up and poured into the mold. The core is placed inside and the mold is closed. It is then baked and the foam skin is ready. I'm not going to go into too much detail as to how this process works since there is quite a bit of info on creating molds and foam latex pieces to be found in books and on the internet. But it is important to keep in mind these basic steps though, since the digital workflow differs in a few key ways.