Students 3D Print Fractal Growth in a Bounded Shape to Create Bespoke Designs


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GraphOfBarnsleyFernBigThe ability provided by computer software to quickly ‘grow’ fractals and other complex structures without the need for engaging in endless complex mathematics has made them very popular grounds for the creation of patterns, surfaces, and now, a line of bespoke objects for interiors. The shapes created by fractals are very appealing and one of the reasons is their similarity to the shapes we see around us every day. A fern in the garden is directly relatable to the Barnsley Fern and trees, if they aren’t sickly, clearly share the same fractal growth characteristics.

Generating these shapes in two dimensions, with pen and paper, is time consuming but manageable. Creating three-dimensional fractal forms is a great deal more complex. A group of four students in the Product Design program at the University of Lincoln’s School of Architecture & Design in the UK decided to investigate the possibilities for producing some of those forms through computer modeling and 3D printing.

In an interview with, one member of the group, Joshua Thorpe, explained the group’s efforts:8e1708096586648d57ca7da19bda1b8e

“Myself along with three fellow students decided that we wanted to push the boundaries of what could actually be printed and focus on creating unique furniture and lighting. Through researching natural structures such as chaotic patterns and fractals, we found a piece of software that allowed us to grow fractal roots in a virtual environment. These roots can be manipulated by uploading STL files into the program and growing the fractals inside or around them, with the STL shape acting as a boundary.”

The software that they use is a Diffusion Limited Aggregation (DLA) program that allows them to ‘seed’ a fractal within or around a particular environment. The principle behind it is that a particle moves randomly about the space provided until it connects with a piece of the imported structure and begins its growth. That growth follows a particular rule set and is contained by or excluded from some particular form that provides the limits for its generation.11143696_873798039355059_3131124606098803730_o

The piece created by Thorpe was entitled the Neuro Pendant Light and is clearly a reference to the neural networks that inhabit the human brain. After creating a bounding form and importing it into the DLA software, Thorpe grew a fractal pattern in 3D and sent it to be printed.

“The Neuro Pendant Light showcases the immensely intricate detail that 3D printing and digital fabrication as a whole can achieve,” Thorpe explains in his portfolio. “The design is influenced by the advanced network of microscopic patterns found in the humrodan brain and nervous system, creating a series of fantastic fractals. Three high-finish ABS prints are suspended beneath an energy saving Edison-style bulb, finished with a braided white fabric cord.”

11402794_868743573193839_8224700329393035340_nTogether with Byron Colman, Matt Oakley and Jon Hutchinson, the design group White Matter was formed in 2014. Having since won the inaugural Designing the Future competition, hosted by leading US-based design hub Cubify, they have been awarded their own 3D printer and have plans to offer their products for sale. So far, the collection consists of a pendant luminaire, a chair, and a table. Going into business doesn’t mean that they give up their creative explorations. On the contrary, Thorpe described his hopes for future endeavors:

“I would like to experiment more with artistic and sculptural applications of the software. ‘The Collection’ museum in Lincoln recently released 3D scanned sculptures from their collection in the form of STL files. This would allow me to take the sculpture and import it into the DLA software, and grow the fractal roots inside the shape, thus creating a beautiful and completely unique piece of art. The idea is currently very much at the concept stage, however I am hoping to be able to 3D print these creations and continue to share them with the creative community.”

11012586_868409203227276_5920073075869477481_nContinuing to refine the fractal forms and their components could lead to an increased elegance in their design. To move beyond a novelty, the group will need to seriously consider how they determine which fractal rule set is appropriate for particular forms and to attend to not simply ‘dragging and dropping’ the same mechanism inside of a different envelope each time. Thorpe has plans to continue to study for an MA and it will be interesting to see how further guided exploration helps his work develop and where these four bright young designers take their work at White Matter.

Do you like these things? Do you know of similar student projects that have continued to grow? Join the discussion in the White Matter forum thread over at




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