Cool Tools

How KC’s Love Affair with High-Tech is Revolutionizing Arts, Culture and Education

As the current sex symbol of cool tools, 3D printers easily attract ogling eyes by producing a virtually endless variety of objects seemingly out of thin air.

It almost makes you feel sorry for the robots and other gadgets operating at the heady confluence of art and science — many of them accessible to the public, others well out of the spotlight — that also serve Kansas City’s cutting-edge tool scene for visionary artists and makers, as well as ordinary folks whose lives can benefit from such modern machines.

“I love 3D printers, don’t get me wrong,” says Dave Dalton, founder of Hammerspace Community Workshop. “But I am so tired of 3D printers. While they’re darn near magic and they definitely do things that no other tool before them has done, they’re not a ‘solve everything’ hammer.”

Still, whatever might motivate someone to become interested in KC’s growing universe of cool tools and the people who use them, is a good thing, Dalton says. And there are plenty of advanced technologies — including 3D printers — at Hammerspace to help with any hands-on job, whether the goal is to make a stepstool or a skyrocket.

“For someone who likes making mythical Harry Potter coins or building go-carts that look like nuclear bombs, who do you find that’s going to share your interest?” Dalton says. “Eventually, your spouse gets tired of listening to your nonsense. But other creatives drink it up and love it and want to see what you have to make.”

That’s why Dalton describes Hammerspace as “a gymnasium for people who like to build things.”

“Instead of doing a spin on the Nautilus machine and taking a Zumba class,” he says, “you can come down and use our CNC (computer numerical control) machine and take a metalworking class.”

Hammerspace recently expanded from its original location in the Brookside neighborhood to a nearly 17,000-square-foot former engineering building in east Kansas City. Some of the cooler tools there include two large CNC routers, six laser cutters and an array of automated vinyl cutters, plasma cutters and other robotic tools that expedite precision tasks involving metal, wood and acrylic materials. And then there’s the super-cool support system.

“I’ve always felt that, without the community, it’s just a building with tools in it — and that’s not cool,” Dalton says. “What’s cool is you walk in and you think you have a way of making a thing. And someone says, ‘Hey, did you know if we go and use this tool and that tool, we can save you a lot of time and it’s going to look better?’ And you go, ‘Wow, I didn’t even know these tools existed. That’s going to completely change my project.’ And the only place to get that commodity is at the maker space.”

Art & Technology & Fearlessness

At the Kansas City Art Institute’s new David T. Beals III Studios for Art & Technology, studios coordinator Nathan Neufeld offers his enthusiastic expertise to KCAI students, faculty members and a steady stream of off-campus visitors, including classes for ages 8 and up.

Not surprisingly, first-time guests are most excited to see the studios’ collection of eight 3D printers in action, including one that stands more than 6 feet tall. What can they make based on their digital instructions? Everything from plastic trinkets and abstract sculptures to a model of a specific human heart based on a patient’s combined MRI/CT scans for use as a surgical prep tool at a local hospital.

“There is endless variation in 3D printing,” Neufeld says. “Does it make art? Yes, but that’s not the only thing it does. It can do anything you need it to. But when you get in here and work on one, you realize it’s not magic. It’s trial and error, just like everything else.”

“We modify our tools to suit an idea, so it’s not subservient to the machine. The machine is subservient to the idea.”
—James Coleman, Zahner research and development engineer

A KCAI graduate with a degree in ceramics, Neufeld most appreciates 3D printing for how dramatically efficient it makes the prototyping process.

“Using traditional methods, I’d be spending a week making a prototype and then a few days making a mold,” he says. “That’s a week and a half invested in seeing a form for the first time. But it might take only half a day here with a 3D printed piece. So I can be completely fearless in my exploration of form, because I don’t have to worry about investing so much time. And that frees my creativity absolutely 100 percent.”

But Neufeld doesn’t encourage 3D printers to be used willy-nilly.

“If a student comes in here with a project, one of the first things we talk about is, ‘What is the best tool to realize your vision?’ And I might say, ‘It’s the band saw.’ Because a 3D printer isn’t the be-all and end-all. It’s just one more tool in the set of many tools.”

Other cool tools at the Beals Studios include a digital loom, a CNC router and a laser cutting system that resembles a small tanning bed, with a translucent lid that must be closed before any cutting or engraving can begin.

“It focuses light created by CO2 gas to a very fine point,” Neufeld says. “And, again, it’s not meant to do one thing or the other thing. It’s meant to do anything you can imagine.”

Imaginative objects recently produced by Neufeld on the laser cutter include abstract plastic butterflies destined to adorn a giant, rectangular flock chandelier at a bar on the Country Club Plaza.

And sculptor and KCAI teacher Jarrett Mellenbruch has used the laser cutter to create a delicately constructed bee-hunting box/food station that will be part of a KCAI faculty exhibition this fall at the H&R Block Space, corresponding with the International Sculpture Conference in Kansas City.

“The laser cutter helps me make something that can be more refined than what is possible with conventional hand tools,” Mellenbruch says. “As somebody who makes objects that are both functional and art, I’m always looking for ways to improve things.”

Big Jobs, Big Tools

The combination of the practical and the inspirational is the trademark approach of the 120-year-old Zahner engineering and fabrication company, whose inventive use of metal in art and architecture graces the soaring exteriors of such Kansas City icons as Kauffman Stadium and the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts.

One of the coolest tools at the Zahner sheet metal shop is “Ruby the Robot,” a multi-tasking robot arm formerly used by American automaker Tesla that can reach 9 feet high, hold up to 500 pounds and operate at a speed of 1.5 meters a second.

“It’s a very, very versatile robot,” says James Coleman, Zahner research and development engineer. “Ruby can mill things, pick up things and place things really precisely. So we can give it a lot of different tasks and creative applications, as well. We can apply patina with this, we can do custom finishes with this, we can score the material and we can bend the material in ways that, if people tried to do it alone, would be unachievable.”

Ruby is often used on the same projects as Zahner’s extraordinary waterjet cutter, a 25-foot by 12-foot “bathtub” with a high-pressure pump that sends water mixed with an abrasive substance shooting 900 miles an hour through metal.

“The water doesn’t do the cutting,” Coleman says. “The water acts as a vehicle to carry the cutting material, which puts in precise angles and holes.”

In addition to its in-house staff of engineers, artists and architects, Zahner works closely with outside creatives to help them determine how to best use the company’s tools in unique ways for their metal-infused undertakings.

“We have artists in here all the time who are talking through strategies and their projects,” Coleman says. “And we’re helping them understand what the parts and pieces might look like, so they can better bid and design projects. They’ll have a more true result of their vision than if they just handed it off to a normal fabricator. We’ll work with them at every step, so all these tools are accessible to them.

“You can say that a tool has this capability and it’s going to make me this specified thing. Or you can look at tools as flexible. We modify our tools to suit an idea, so it’s not subservient to the machine. The machine is subservient to the idea.”

To be sure, the idea behind the robotic book delivery system at the Miller Nichols Library at the University of Missouri-Kansas City is an extremely big one.

The student-dubbed “Roobot” (UMKC’s mascot is a kangaroo) stores 800,000 books, not counting special collections, in 12,000 bins contained in three four-story-tall aisles emerging from a deep pit. Each aisle is equipped with a giant crane that rapidly retrieves and delivers any desired bin, and book within, as summoned by a few clicks of a library worker’s computer mouse.

The sheer enormity of the Roobot is a bit mind-boggling, and can only be viewed in detail on guided tours or perhaps glimpsed by passersby on campus through an exterior picture window that faces the towering device.

“It’s awesome,” says Mary Anderson, head of circulation services at the library. “People hear about it, but they don’t realize how grandiose it is until they’re right here.”

“The whole point of this is maximum, high-density storage of books,” says Bonnie Postlethwaite, dean of libraries at UMKC. “The storage space required for the materials in the robot system takes up only one-seventh of the space it would have taken up in the normal, traditional stacks.”

Although 140,000 books remain available to casual browsers on the library’s shelves, the use of the Roobot, whose materials can be reserved online by library users, has also opened up space at the library for other important educational opportunities.

“We’ve brought the writing studio into our library,” Anderson says. “We’ve brought the math and science tutoring over here. And that space was full of stacks before.”

“The first floor is packed with students during the school year,” Postlethwaite says. “It is buzzing. People are doing collaborative learning.”

The Virtual Frontier

Elsewhere in the Kansas City area, cool tools dedicated to crafting and showcasing amazing visuals are available to both animation students and the fancies of the general public.

At the Collaboration Center — a.k.a. the Co-Lab — at Johnson County Community College, the new motion-capture room uses 12 infrared cameras that enable computer-animation students to collect motion data from actors. The intricate knowledge gained by these students can lead to professional careers in leading-edge animation and video games.

And for something completely different, there are the two virtual reality theaters that opened earlier this year at the Museum at Prairiefire in Overland Park, where visitors can immerse themselves in brave new worlds by donning a headset and headphones and operating an interactive video-game-style controller.

Whether exploring the 360-degree panorama of Stonehenge in England or undersea pods of whales and dolphins, “this is an avenue for people to explore pretty much any possibility that’s imaginable,” says Carson Curry, marketing and media coordinator at the Museum at Prairiefire.

“It’s kind of a hybrid medium between video games and film,” Curry says. “The only senses we haven’t built in are smell and taste — but that’s probably for the best. Buzz words get thrown around, like ‘4D.’ But you’re part of it. You’re not just a spectator.”

Keep a virtual eye out for possible future VR experiences at the museum involving dinosaurs, outer space and even abstract concepts that show how emotions work, Carson says. “VR is opening doors that could have never been opened before.”

Take that, 3D printers!

About The Author: Brian McTavish

Brian McTavish

Brian McTavish is a freelance writer specializing in the arts and pop culture. He was an arts and entertainment writer for more than 20 years at The Kansas City Star. He regularly shares his “Weekend To-Do List” at KCUR-FM (89.3)/kcur.org.

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