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3D-milled ice cubes get brief, beautiful life

A Japanese creative agency applies "cutting-edge" technology to chunks of ice to create multidimensional mini sculptures best enjoyed over -- or in -- a cocktail.

A miniature Zen Buddhist temple. One of 15 supersmall ice sculptures made for Japanese whiskey company Suntory. TBWA/Hakuhodo

3D printing is certainly all the rage these days, creating everything from bike charms to a house. But there's another technology that can create useful and beautiful shapes that's not getting quite as much attention: CNC routers. These "computer numerical control" carving machines take a design fed in by a computer and then use sharp tools to whittle a block of material such as wood or metal into the designated form.

Japanese creative agency TBWA\Hakuhodo recently applied CNC router technology in a unique way to create a series of stunning ice cubes for Japanese whiskey company Suntory as part of a novel advertising campaign. While the agency created its own cubes featuring such designs as a shark, the Statue of Liberty, and a high-heeled shoe, it also ran a contest and asked customers to submit their favorite design ideas. Ten entrants were then selected, shuttled to a secret location in Tokyo (they still won't tell me where it was!), and given a drink featuring their own miniature ice sculpture.

Miwako Fujiwara from TBWA\Hakuhodo told Crave that the CNC router was kept chilled to a temperature of -7 degrees Celsius (about 19 Fahrenheit) to keep the cubes from melting.

They fed the carving machine its data from Autodesk 123D, an awesome desktop and iOS app that lets you use your iPhone or iPad to capture a 3D image of anything you'd like, manipulate it, and then print it out using a 3D printer, CNC router, laser cutter, or even a holographic printing process.

Fujiwara says that the first step in the creation process is for the machine to carve the ice with a thick bit. The intricate detail is then added with a finer tip. After the cubes are made, she says, "a touch of chilled whiskey polishes the surface of the ice and gives a beautiful shine to the sculpture."

If you're thinking of having 3D-carved ice cubes at your next party, however, think again. According to Fujiwara, each cube took between 1 and 6 hours to make depending on the complexity of the design. "We are considering some improvements to shorten the process," she added.

But you don't need to wait that long to see the mini ice marvels get created. Watch a chunk of formless ice get turned into a striking mini version of the Kinkaku-ji Zen Buddhist temple in Kyoto in this video that's just a minute long. Then check out the gallery to see what other designs the agency created, and let me know what kind of ice sculpture you'd float in your drink. I think I'd go with an ice palm tree.