Words by Nikki Stefanoff
Video and photos supplied by Monash University
This content is produced in partnership with Monash University's Department of Materials Science and Engineering.
Little Miracles ornaments can be bought here.
For the last two years Monash University’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering has worked with Muscular Dystrophy Australia to 3D print Christmas ornaments designed by children suffering from the disease. This year’s selection has just launched, with all profits going straight to Muscular Dystrophy Australia.
Monash University and Muscular Dystrophy Australia may seem, at first glance, like an unusual partnership yet Nick Birbilis, head of Monash’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering, says that, really, his department had been waiting for the chance to use modern technology to help someone for a while.
“You know, very often beautiful things come simply from meeting the right person at the right time, which I feel is exactly what happened with this project,” he says. “It started a couple of years ago when Muscular Dystrophy Australia (MDA) got in touch with us because they were looking for ways to raise much-needed funds. But they wanted to do something a little different. We started off by meeting and having a chat and came up with this idea of turning the Christmas decorations children with Muscular Dystrophy had created, with paper and cardboard, into real ornaments via 3D printing. It’s been wonderful to get to work with MDA as I feel that sometimes people think of universities as being nothing but big boxes that are hard to interact with, yet the reality is that we have really talented students, who are hungry to learn, and want to change things in the community."
The Monash and MDA project is called Little Miracles and consists of 14 3D printed ornaments, all individually designed by a child and then handed over to a volunteer at Monash who turns that child’s artwork into reality.
The ornaments become not just something fun to hang on the Christmas tree, they also represent a moment in the young artist’s creative life. This is because Muscular Dystrophy is a degenerative disease, meaning that it’s common for those living with it to be fully dependent on a wheelchair by the age of 8. It gives only a small window of time where the child can physically create something before they lose their motor skills. The ornaments, therefore, come to mean something much bigger to the child and their family.
We approach Little Miracles as an engineering project. It’s a challenging project but we also use it as an opportunity to offer students the chance to be upskilled in the areas of design and 3D printing.
The project is run by 20 volunteers from Monash who say that it is as challenging as it is fun. “We approach Little Miracles as an engineering project,” says Birbilis. “But we also use it as an opportunity to upskill students in design and 3D printing. When you 3D print something, whether it’s art or has an engineering component, the vast majority of the work is in the design and thought process. That means that the team working on Little Miracles spend the first three weeks designing on Computer Aided Design, then there’s a week prototyping and a week making the ornaments - and that’s with the printer going around the clock 24 hours a day.”
Birbilis talks of the joy and freedom that comes with the Little Miracles project. “With the ornaments, once the drawings or sculptures are passed on to us from the child it’s up to the volunteer to work out how to interpret it so that it best resembles the original work. If you look at the ornaments some of them are quite complicated, take the disco ball for example. It was originally a foam ball dipped in glitter, which makes it hard to replicate as you can’t print a foam ball. A PhD student called Darren decided to use translucent polymer to print with, as it has glitter through it. The holes have to be printed into the ornament so, because you can’t draw a hole, Darren used a parametric design where he put in mathematical parameters to create a pattern and then automated the repetition of that pattern. It’s not easy stuff!”
The project has been a huge success with last year’s 300 ornaments selling out so quickly that this year Monash committed to printing 1,000. "We want MDA to make as much money as possible,” says Birbilis. “We love working on Little Miracles and think that it’s a great example to others about the power of volunteering. So many beautiful things happen in this world because of volunteers as, really, when you look at what makes a difference to the world is less about money and more about gestures and acts of kindness.”