January 19, 2015

Building Bridges

Build, Design

by Andy Colborn

A couple months ago, as a favor to some friends and a way to make some new ones we decided to help Metro EDGE (the young, extra vibrant branch of the Sacramento Metro Chamber of Commerce) to design and build a totally new award to thank the people who had given so much of themselves to the organization.

The Challenge

I sat down with Emilie Cameron of Metro EDGE and we started at the most exciting place for an idea, a blank sheet of paper. The award needed to be different, weird, worth talking about if you had it sitting on your desk. Not so weird though that you wouldn’t put it on your desk in the first place.

Most importantly, the award needed to make people feel like they were valued. I wanted people to pick up their award to feel like it was made just for them. The best way to do that was to make it just for them.

The Design

I designed the award off the Sacramento Tower Bridge. It’s a New Deal bridge. It was constructed with that courageous, resilient pioneer spirit while our people were building the way out of the depression. The bridge is that restless California optimism, the idea that people can with their own hands, make something better for themselves. It’s both a symbol of where we’ve been and where we might be going. I can’t imagine anything more of Sacramento.

For Metro EDGE, a group of Sacramento’s young, bold creative class, the bridge seemed the perfect symbol. Like the bridge, it was created with the purpose of bringing people together and paving the way for new life to invigorate our city.

Because construction plans fall into the public domain, all I had to do was go dig up all of the old plans for construction on the bridge and pull the dimensions off.

After that, I integrated the Metro EDGE logo into the towers. I’d like to say that the logo reads from bottom to top because it “impresses an upward trajectory” or some designer-y nonsense but mostly it’s because when I tried to orient it the other way it looked like a little guy playing with himself. I named him Charlie.We became close friends over the course of the projectNext I added each of the names into the trusses along the side of the bridge to. I wanted the people receiving the bridge awards to feel symbolically part of the framework of the city. It took more work doing it this way than I meant it to but if you are going to do something you should do it as well as you can.


The plan then was to have all the bridges sent off to Shapeways to be 3D printed in ceramic so I could sit back and enjoy the feeling of having created something cool after only a few hours of work.

3D printing, though trendy, is more often than not the wrong tool to build what you’re trying to build. It’s time consuming and can be costly. It does allows you though to create elaborate and completely unique parts that would be incredibly difficult to fabricate other ways. Instead of requiring new tooling and setup for each different part, they are only a keystroke in CAD away.

For building 25 awards, all of them different, there was nothing better.

Detailed print by Belgian Studio Unfold using an open-source RepRap Rapman

Why ceramic?

On the practical side, ceramic is one of the cheapest materials to 3D print at roughly 1/3rd the cost of plastic and about 1/20th the cost of steel. Even so to stay within budget the bridges had to be designed to use as little material as possible to keep down costs down while still being a viable print.

While usually solidness and heft play a tremendous role in someone’s impression of quality, ceramics have the unique strength of feeling more intricate and expensive when less material is used. With ceramic instead of feeling flimsy and sheet-metal-like when you cut down on material, you’re product just feels more and more like Fabergé egg.

Bad Luck

This is where the project was supposed to be over after just a few hours messing around in CAD. But of course things never go according to plan. After pushing back their lead time again and again, Shapeways canceled ceramic printing altogether in preparation for a transition to porcelain.

Let’s Fix a Printer!

While we looked for alternatives, I tried to fix the old ZCorp ceramic printer that was sitting around in the makerspace at HackerLab. While once a top of the line $30k machine back in 2003, the printer had seen better days. At first it refused to turn on at all. I opened up it’s little built in computer and replaced the power supply. Success!..sort of. The lights came on and it made noises. Then it turned out it needed it’s BIOS battery replaced. Easy, done. After that it still wouldn’t connect to the software. I switched computers (it doesn’t work with anything newer than XP), replaced cables, nothing.

So after a few calls to the 3D Systems people, we determined the problem was likely the 16mb flash drive that the printer used instead of a hard drive to run it’s firmware/OS. A replacement would cost ~$200, come too late and have no guarantee of working. So, I kept looking elsewhere.

Other Options

I checked with i.materialise but they also had too long of a lead time. I searched for local 3D printers via 3D Hubs and makexyz. We looked everywhere for a ceramic printer. Meritt contacted a professor he knew at California College of the Arts about borrowing their’s. We called up our friend DJ who works in a maker playground at Instructables to see if he could print for us.

Finally, I found someone local who said they could do it. I sent them the files and breathed a sigh of relief. Then the Thursday before the event they told me it wasn’t going to happen, vacation time.

Oh well, success isn’t about avoiding failure, it’s about finding solutions.

Solving Problems

At this point I had spent way more energy than I meant to on this little favor, but when you say you’re going to do something, you make it happen. It’s a matter of honor. I was almost ready to whittle the bridges. In desperation, I came up with a solution. I tore the bridge apart in my head and pieced it back together all in 2D parts. Then at 1am full of excitement I ran to the laser cutter at HackerLab and cut a prototype out of cardboard.

Cardboard Prototype

It took a few days to realized just what I had gotten myself into. I tried to make the cuts as efficient as possible by making every line I could count twice. Even so, by the end of it we had laser cut over a half mile of wood going at the speed of 10 mm/s.


I got the team together and pressed them into sweat shop labor assembling bridges. Each bridge had 31 pieces that all needed to be fit and glued together.

Assembly line work can drive you a little crazy. I’m just glad I had Charlie to talk to to keep me sane. After days and nights of gluing and staining and making everything fit together we were done and ready to see them enjoyed.

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