Ask most folks about the applications of 3D foam carving and you’re likely to get blank stares – but the products of this growing technology and the related CNC equipment are everywhere. You’ll find the results of CNC foam carving and foam cutting in amusement parks, museums, storefronts and any kind of themed environment or building project imaginable. From architectural features and signage to props, sculptures and exhibits, 3D foam carving is behind all sorts of artistic creations. In most cases, you wouldn’t even know that the product is made of foam – which might explain some of the confusion. With so little awareness of the applications of 3D CNC foam carving, it’s no wonder that the related production processes are also little known.
Building larger scale sculptural projects was once a labor of love requiring countless hours of tedious and backbreaking manual labor for results that were not always guaranteed. Now, thanks to advances in 3D foam carving technology, CNC equipment, software and the related processes, production has been automated to the point where much of the tedious work is history, leaving more time to focus on the creative and artistic work that goes into these projects. The resulting work can be jaw-dropping in terms of both detail and scale. How do technology and imagination interact to get these results? Here’s a simplified view of the main steps of the process.
Design and Digital File Creation
When it comes to concept development, the creative process behind coming up with an idea remains untouched, but the process for bringing these ideas to reality is where things have changed substantially. The fundamental difference between the past and present is that today’s design processes bridge the gap between the physical and digital worlds. In the past, processes were dominated by manual sculpting methods, but now the process revolves around translating ideas into digital files.
There are a number of ways to get to this digital file. For those that still like to get their hands dirty and have the requisite sculpting skills, scale models can be sculpted by hand as a starting point. These models are then scanned by a 3D laser scanner that captures a perfect digital replica of the object. For those without the sculpting skills (or perhaps the inclination), existing objects can also be scanned. Once scanned, design software can be used to alter or add to the piece as required. The physical world can be pushed aside completely thanks to digital design software that can be used to create 3D digital sculptures. This software is becoming an increasingly popular – and capable – means of sculpting. Whatever the creative medium, the end result is a digital file that forms the foundation for the rest of the process.
When it comes to process improvements to accuracy, speed and efficiency, this part of the process is really where the rubber hits the road. It’s where the manual work that once slowed the whole production process down is replaced with automation, and where related mistakes and oversights are minimized. With the design complete, the digital file is passed along to a CNC machine that translates the data and uses it to create a perfect foam replica of the object in any size. Various types of foam can be used and the type of CNC machine used depends on the nature of the project. For basic and linear shapes, hotwire foam cutting machines (also known as CNC foam cutters) that use heated wire to cut through the foam are used. For organic and more intricate shapes, 3D CNC routers are used, which are capable of replicating virtually any kind of object. The end result of this part of the process is a perfect replication of the design file in foam – a replication that did not require the backbreaking and time-consuming labor that once characterized the production process.
Assembly and Detailing
In this part of the process, the raw foam piece is taken from the CNC machines and prepared for coating and finishing. For larger projects, this may involve assembly and armatures. With foam being relatively cheap and lightweight, and with the capabilities of 3D CNC foam carving technology, creating monumental sized projects is now much more cost effective. To create these large projects, part of the production process involves breaking large projects down into sizes that the CNC machines can handle and then assembling the pieces afterwards. Advanced software actually has the ability to determine how to cut larger pieces into sizes that make the most sense for efficient CNC machining. Once machined, the individual pieces are put back together, and if required, armatures are used internally to give the final pieces the stability they need. Once assembled, seams are filled, and hand finishing and more detailed carving is completed to prepare the piece for coating.
For those that can’t get their heads wrapped around how foam could possibly be a suitable material in cases where strength and durability are required, here’s the explanation. At this stage of the process, raw foam is sprayed with a plastic-like coating (often polyurethane or polyurea) that protects it from wear and tear. The type of coating used depends largely on where and how the piece will be used, but for most commercial applications, a plural component spray system is used to apply industrial grade hard coating. In addition to providing strength and protection, these coatings can also be textured in different ways to give the final piece the desired look. Once hard coated, the piece can be primed to prepare it for the finishing stage.
This is the stage where the artistry of conventional processes can really shine through. In the finishing stage, skilled artists use a variety of techniques, including painting, air brushing, faux finishing and dry brushing to bring the final piece to life. These finishes are applied over the primer and hardcoating applied in the previous step. Once finished, a clear coat is often applied to the final piece as a protective coating, bringing the production process to a close. Thanks to the process improvements made during the machining and other automated stages, artists tend to have more time to focus on this part of the job, instead of processes like enlargement and hand sculpting. With this shifting focus, end products have grown increasingly imaginative and realistic. Other finishing techniques can duplicate the look of bronze or stone.
While this is a simplified view of the process, it shows that while technology has replaced the more tedious and manual parts of the process, artistry and creativity are still given free reign. Equipment like hot wire foam cutters and 3D CNC equipment are critical pieces of the puzzle, but skilled artists continue to play an important role. It’s this combination of automation and artistry that have lead to such impressive improvements and unbelievable projects. It’s the same combination that has also opened doors for businesses looking to add these kinds of products to their offering. Automated 3D foam carving with CNC machines is now within reach for a growing range of businesses, whether they’re looking to upgrade their current production processes or starting up something new. Businesses can expand their footprint and their bottom lines while creating products that push the limits of creativity.