Introduction: 3D Printed Blooming Flowers

About: Costume and experimental fashion designer and artist. Maker of clothing and accessories for time traveling cyborg superheroes, and lucid dreamers. Interested in fusing couture design and leatherwork with weara…

These creepily beautiful pod blossoms grew out of my desire to create a flower that would open and close with mechanical actuation. I was playing with a tentacle shape that two fellow Pier 9 Artists in Residence (Andreas Bastian and Anouk Wipprecht) had been experimenting with. I created many different iterations of it to see if it would give me the kind of form and motion I was looking for, and this was one of the shapes I happened upon along the way. Even though these particular forms didn't end up being the most practical from an actuation standpoint, I fell in love with the process of printing them as a closed bud and then watching them bloom as I cleaned them.

3D printing opens up the possibility to create many forms that couldn't be created by any other human process, and it was exciting to explore some of those possibilities with the advanced printing capabilities of the Objet 3D printers at Instructables. These flowers are printed in two materials simultaneously, a soft, Tango, material and a hard, Vero, material, allowing them to have both structure and flexibility.

The version I'm describing here works better as a static decoration, but it's structure does allow it to open and close manually, and I am working on a version that will be driven by a motor. My eventual goal is to attach the actuated form of these to a garment and make them interactive and illuminated. I'll be posting more Instructables as this adventure progresses.

*Headdress Photos by Alex Garris, Modeled by Farnaz Dadashi

Step 1: The Tools

This experiment in 3D printing is still very much in process, and I am by no means a 3D modeling expert, so in this Instructable I am not going to give you my file, or describe in depth how I 3D modeled this form, because I probably did it wrong… But I will tell you what type of features you need to include to create your own similar form and in steps 9 and 10 I will also tell you what you how I decided to use my flowers to make a headdress.

You will need:

-A 3D modeling program and the ability to use it:

I made these flowers by 3D modeling my forms in Autodesk Fusion 360, which is an Autodesk 3D modeling program still in beta testing and thus available for free online here. This program has a lot of potential because it incorporates both solid modeling and organic, sculptural modeling, but is still a bit buggy and takes some patience. You should use whatever program you are used to, but to create this flower you will need a program with some advanced capabilities not just a simple sculpting program.

-A 3D printer that can print in two materials simultaneously (specifically a hard and a soft material) like an Objet Connex 500 printer. If you don't have direct access to a printer like this (or to a time machine to take you 10 years into the future when everyone will probably have these in their office)... you can send your file to a printing service like Fathom.

-Thin flexible metal wire (about 24-28 gauge)

*In steps 9 and 10, I will also tell you what supplies you need to make the headdress pictured in the intro.

Step 2: The Structure

As I said, this flower developed while I was trying to create a bloom with actuated motion, and thus the form I ended up with here was a result of the function I was trying to achieve.

Each petal of the flower has two main components: the base, which is printed in a soft material, and the raised spines which run along the inside of each petal and are printed in a hard material. The combination of these two elements allows each petal to function like a little tentacle; when a wire is inserted through a hole that runs along the top of the spines, pulling or pushing on this wire causes the petal to unfurl or curl up.

The flowers I am describing in this Instructable consist of 5 of these petals combined into one flower bud. These forms can be actuated, but they are not ideally suited to it, they are a bit too delicate and tend to fall apart with too much manipulation. I liked them so much, however, that I decided to just fix them open with wires and use them as static decorations.

These became one branch of my 3D printed flower evolutionary tree… if you want to see how their close relatives, the Actuated 3D Printed Flowers, evolved, you will find out in my next Instructable.

Step 3: 3D Modeling the One Petaled Organism

I started experimenting with this form by modeling one petal only. I wanted to test how different materials and configurations responded to actuation, and modeling one flat petal is faster and easier than modeling the whole flower. Also printing anything that can lay flat on the 3D print bed is generally faster than printing something with more height.

To model my petals, I first created a sketch of the petal shape I wanted in Fusion 360, and then extruded it to create the petal base. I created the spines by sketching the base profile of each spine on top of this petal and then extruding them, giving them an angle that tapered in as it went up.

After that I made any cosmetic adjustments I wanted, like further angling the sides of the spines. I thought it looked nicer and more organic to have the spines only run up the center of the petal, leaving some free space around the outside. I also tapered the the height of the spines so they got shorter toward the tip, this not only looked more elegant, but allowed the petal to curl up more tightly when actuated.

When I liked the shape of the spines, I created a hole that ran through all the spines about 2mm from their tops. I created two holes in the spine at the tip of the petal so I could loop the wire around to secure it.

I generally modeled petals that were about 100mm long and 40mm wide at the widest, with spines that went from 20mm high at the base to 10mm high at the tip. I tried making the petal thickness uniform and also tapering it from thicker at the base to thinner at the tip.

Step 4: Printing the One Petaled Organism

Once I had modeled my petals, I printed them on the Objet printers.

The printers we use at Pier 9 are Objet Connex 500s. They print in two materials simultaneously, as well as a support material. You can load a variety of different materials into the machines, but the main two types are Vero (hard), and Tango (soft), and the soft materials are further divided into Tango Plus (which is very flexible and gummy) and Tango (which is a little more structural and springy). You can also combine the Vero and Tango materials to make a digital material that is somewhere on a spectrum between hard and soft.

I tried quite a few material combinations on my petals, but found that what worked best was a base of Tango Plus, with Vero spines.

Before printing my files I had to make sure that the spines and the petal base were separate objects, but still touching. Then I exported them as two STL files, one for the petal base object, and one containing all the spine objects.

I then imported my files into the Objet print software by shift+clicking on both files and importing them as an assembly. This should bring them into the print software properly aligned. Once the files were imported, I clicked on the spines and the base separately and assigned them different materials (Tango Plus for the base and Vero for the spines). These flat petals usually took around an hour or an hour and a half to print.

On the Objets you have a option to print “glossy” or “matte” which just means that if you print in glossy, the printer will avoid putting down support material whenever possible to keep the surface of your print glossy. This does not mean that your whole print will be glossy by any means though. Depending on the shape of your object, there will still be a lot of areas covered with support material, which sometimes makes your object look uneven and weird once it's cleaned. With these flat petals however, printing in glossy worked pretty well, and I think it also gave them more strength and durability.

Step 5: Troubleshooting

I modeled and printed a lot of different versions of these petals trying to solve various problems and achieve a certain kind of motion. These are some of the things I discovered in the process:

The tapered thickness of the petal base generally made the shape more elegant and the curling motion of the petal more organic, but it also decreased the strength of the petal base at the tip and often caused it to break after repeated actuation. Making the whole petal a bit thicker (say, tapering it from 4mm thick at the base to 2mm thick at the tip) did help this issue a bit, but I’m still not sure how well the Tango Plus material is actually going to stand up to repeated motion.

Where the spines met the base, the hard, Vero, material of the spines wanted to separate from the soft, Tango, material of the base. I tried a few different methods to remedy this problem.

One of the first things I tried was embedding the hard spines in the soft base, so the hard material went all the way through to the back of the petal. This looked cool, especially when I used Vero Clear and Tango Black Plus, but it actually made the problem worse. While the spines couldn’t actually peel off the base, they ended up just causing the whole petal to crack in half after too much motion.

Then I tried the opposite: embedding the soft material of the base into the hard material of the spines. This worked pretty well. I made the junction between the two look a bit like a zipper or a dovetail joint so that is was much harder for them to separate. I also put a fillet on the corners where the spines met the base so there were no hard edges. All this was a little more complicated from a modeling standpoint, but it payed off and mostly stopped the the spines from separating.

Step 6: 3D Modeling the 5 Petaled Flower Bud

After some experimentation with the single petal, I decided I really wanted to try printing a whole flower to see how that looked. I wanted to see if it would work to model it as a closed bud that would open when the support material was removed.

I started by drawing a sketch of the bud shape I wanted In Fusion, trying to keep the curve of the sides smooth. I knew I wanted the flower to have 5 petals, and that each petal should be flat on the outside, so I sketched a series of pentagons on different planes, each a few mm above the last, following the bud profile I had sketched. Then I lofted between these pentagons in the Fusion sculpt environment to create the basic shape of the whole bud.

After that I moved into the modeling environment, divided my form into five petals and discarded all but one. I then added the spines and other features to this one petal and arrayed it around 5 times. I made sure that all the petals connected in a solid base (which would be printed in a hard material), but that there was a tiny bit of room between the top portions of the petals so they could be peeled open after they were printed.

Step 7: Printing the 5 Petaled Flower Bud

To print this model, I used the same method as I used for the single petal. I saved all the components that were to be printed in a hard Vero material (the spines, and the core of the base) as one STL, and the soft Tango petals as another STL.

I then imported these two files into the Objet software as an assembly and assigned the two materials, Vero and Tango. I tried different color combinations of materials too, like clear and white or black and white. I printed these in glossy as well, though it does make some of the petals shinier than others.

I ended up scaling these forms down once I had them in the print software. I had modeled the buds about 100mm long from base to tip, but that ended up seeming way too big. I tried scaling them down to several different sizes, the smallest of which was 30mm long, the largest 70mm. I found that the more I scaled them down, the more delicate and beautiful they looked, but the smaller ones didn’t have a lot of structural integrity. It is one of the amazing things about designing on a computer, you can achieve a level of detail and precision l that you could never get by hand, which is a big part of why computer generated designs can start to feel more like something created in nature.

Once the buds had printed, they needed to be cleaned in order to “bloom”. Even though cleaning them is a bit tedious, I really loved this step because it felt almost like a natural process.

When the buds first came off the printer, I removed the thick coating of support material which had formed around one side, and dropped them into a tub of warm water.

Then I took each one and carefully began to scrape away the support material between the petals with a metal tool until the petals started to peel apart.

I let them soak in water for a while after that to help dissolve the support material.

Then I took them into the water blaster and removed more of the support material by spraying them with a high pressure spray nozzle. I alternated between the water blaster and the water bath until all the support material was gone.

I loved the way they looked like a reef of undersea creatures living in the water bath.

Step 8: Details

After I printed my flowers I put wires in the petals to hold them open. I had the best luck with a 24-28 gauge galvanized steel wire you can buy at a hardware store that will bend and hold it’s shape. I threaded the wire down through the holes in the spines of each petal and looped in around the two holes in the spine at the tip to secure it. When I modeled the flowers I also put holes at the base of each petal that I glued the ends of each wire into to hold them open. One of the nice things about this form is that you can choose how far you want the petals to open, and use the wires to give them variation in shape.

I also put a few holes all the way through the base of the flower which I used at points of attachment, but in retrospect, a much better way to do this would have been to model a threaded hole in the bottom of the flower so it could be attached with some kind of a screw post.

Step 9: Options

I decided to use my flowers to create a headpiece. I printed out three different sizes of flowers and attached them to a leather band with a set of laser cut acrylic antler/branches (I'm attaching my laser cutting files here). To be honest, the flowers didn't hold up as well as I hoped, and some of the petals have started to split where they are bent, but I love the way they look on the headpiece and I'm going to keep refining the form so they are more durable.

I got my acrylic for the antlers at TAP Plastic in San Francisco, but you can order it online from places like Inventables, or Acrylite. I used one 12x24" piece of UV green and one 12x24" piece of semi-opaque white, both 18" thick

I found my leather at S.H. Frank in San Francisco, but you can order leather online from places like Tandy. It is a relatively thick cow hide stamped and treated to look like reptile skin.

You will also need some adhesive that works on acrylic, like E6000 or Acrylic Weld cement. E6000 works well, but is also a very nasty chemical (it is not even allowed at Pier 9) so use it with caution in a properly ventilated area.

*Headdress Photo by Alex Garris, modeled by Farnaz Dadashi

Step 10: Making the Headdress

To create the antlers on this headdress I used Illustrator to draw one central branch and two forking branches that attach perpendicular to the main branch.

Each fork in the branches is three layers: one central wider layer of UV green acrylic, sandwiched between two narrower layers of white acrylic.

I also etched a leaf vein texture into the leaf portions of the white layers. To do this I simply found a leaf pattern online, live traced it in Illustrator and sized and cropped it to fit each leaf. I cut notches both layers of the main branch, to create slot joints with the green layers of the two forking branches. I also put 4 holes in the bottom of each main branch to attach it to the headpiece.

I cut my acrylic out on a 120 watt epilog laser cutter. I used these settings:


Speed: 90

Power: 35


Speed: 40

Power: 70

Hz: 5000

Once they were cut, I glued the three layers together with E6000, and after these had dried I glued the smaller branches into the notches on the larger ones, thus creating the two antler/branches.

I attached the branches to my leather band by both sewing and gluing them on for extra support. I then arranged my 3D printed flowers around the base of the antlers and attached them with wire. I glued a second layer of leather to the back of the band to hide these attachment wires, and riveted snaps to close the band in the back.

Step 11: Conclusions

In the end, this version of my flowers was not an entirely successful experiment, but it taught me a lot about 3D modeling, the material capabilities of the Objet 3D printers, and the artistic potential of collaborating with machines.

I had never 3D printed anything before, and I feel very lucky that I had the opportunity to work with such amazing technology. One of the things I found most interesting about this process was that by following function instead of just superficial form, I ended up with an object that I found very beautiful and organic, more natural looking, I think, than if I had been trying to create something that looked natural.

The visual appeal of nature seems to depend very much on the right subtle balance of symmetry and asymmetry, repetition and variation, self-similarity and divergence, chaos and order. And it seems to me that 3D modeling and printing, by combining the aesthetic capabilities of humans with the processing capabilities of computers, is already allowing us to more easily integrate these binaries, creating a new kind of beauty.

I'm very excited to see these flower forms evolve, and I'd love to know what new versions other people come up with.

*Headdress Photos by Alex Garris, modeled by Farnaz Dadashi