An old time curio gets out of the trinket shops with the help of new technology.

If your family is anything like mine, a get together does not pass without someone cornering me by the ranch dip and veggie platter to ask about 3D printing. How does it work exactly? How will it impact my life? In which companies should I buy stock?

Most people have never touched something made from a 3D printer and that makes explaining the technology and the output somewhat challenging. The old stand-by for people like us of “what if the handle on your favorite kitchen utensil broke and you needed a new one?” does not always resonate when followed by a brief, sometimes exhausting, explanation of computer-aided design. Luckily design tools are becoming more accessible to folks without formal engineering training and they’ll be modeling up a new spatula handle in no time!

In the meantime, these get-togethers likely fall on times when family gives each other gifts. This past year, I decided to solve two problems at once: what to get a beloved aunt for her birthday and how to explain 3D printing for the hundredth time.

The answer came from an old tradition called lithophaning.  Lithophanes have been used since the 1820’s to bring an extra level of magic to an image by backlighting it. This happened initially by candlelight and the flickering illumination made the frozen image appear to move. Ah, the precursor to binge-watching Netflix….

In order to achieve this, the image was translated to a thick porcelain slab and aspects of the image were scooped out at varying levels of depth. Depending on the depth, certain shapes appear in shade or were brightly illuminated.

Lithophanes were initially made of porcelain so the work to translate them to 3D was done by carving negative space shapes in wax or plaster molds. I hope by now, you see where this is going.

This type of use case is exactly what 3D printing is made for. Injection molding plastic does not allow you to vary wall thickness, the time needed to CNC machine a lithophane would be cost prohibitive, and 3D printing is an excellent vehicle for mass customization and personalization.

Lucky for me, I am not the only person who had this A-ha moment. President Obama and Gary Busey attended 3D Print Week in NYC this past fall courtesy of LulzBot’s skills in 3D printed lithophaning. For those who want a more subtle lithophane that can be easily affixed to a nightlight casing or propped on a window sill, fear not, there are several lithophane applications like this you can use. Simply find a digital photograph and think about the size you would like your end product to be. The application will guide you through the steps needed to translate the shapes in the photo to darks and lights and deep and shallow areas accordingly. This Instructable does a good job of explaining the steps.

Brian Sather is a product marketing manager at Autodesk. An engineer by trade, he likes taking things apart and putting them back together. Half the things in his home work twice as well as they should, and the other half don’t work at all.

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