Aug 6, 2015 | By Alec

There are just a few companies in the world that need no introduction, and Disney is one of them. But did you know that Disney does more than shoot box office hits and sell toys to your kids? They also have a very active Research Department that specializes in a variety of applications that can be used throughout the Disney empire. They are also very active with 3D printing technology – 3D printing this robot with unique movement options a few months ago. And now another interesting innovation has come out of the Research Department, as they have developed a method for 3D printing objects in a single material that feature different levels of elasticity throughout the object. Almost like 3D printing a bunny in a single material, but featuring bendable ears and a solid body.

This interesting ability has been developed by Christian Schumacher, a Ph.D. student in Computer Graphics student at ETH Zurich who also works for Disney’s Research Department, and a team of his colleagues. As he explains in a research paper, this concept grew out of a desire to embed 3D printed replicas of objects with the characteristics associated with the original.

By using the printer to alter the small-scale structure of the material, the Disney researchers showed they could vary its elasticity dramatically within the same object. They developed families of compatible microstructures with varying elastic properties, enabling designers to select the properties desired for each region of an object. ‘Many functional objects in our everyday life consist of elastic, deformable material, and the material properties are often inextricably linked to function. Unfortunately, elastic properties are not as easy to control as geometry, since additive manufacturing technologies can usually use only a single material, or a very small set of materials, which often do not match the desired elastic deformation behavior,’ he writes.

While 3D printing is thus limited in the way of materials, it also offers methods for avoiding them, the researchers argue. ‘3D printing easily creates complex, high-resolution 3D structures, enabling the creation of metamaterials with properties that are otherwise unachievable with available printer materials,’ they write. These metamaterials are essentially assemblies of very small-scale structures that don’t gain their properties from the composition of the material, but from the shape and arrangement of the many structures. In a nutshell, these materials are arranged in specific ways to ensure one part of a 3D printed object is more flexible or more durable than another part.

To do so, they have taken a data-driven approach, developing an algorithm that takes into account all the basic elastic properties of these tiled structures. ‘We want these structures to cover a large and ideally continuous region in the space of possible elastic behaviors. To achieve this goal, we introduce an optimization method for sampling structures that exhibit a range of desired behaviors, but are also sufficiently similar to allow interpolation,’ the Disney team says. ‘We initialize this optimization method either with a known structure or desired elastic property values, and then compute a family of similar structures that covers a subspace of possible elastic behaviors. We repeat this process, each time adding a new family of structures, to increase the coverage of the material space.’ This is obviously a very complex method, and is explained in detail in the research paper here.

This process opens the way for a large variety of options, because elastic behavior can be reproduced by structures that are significantly different. While having some serious 2D implications as well, its 3D printed results were interesting. ‘For the three-dimensional case, we tested our pipeline on two models (Bunny, 13 cm high; Teddy,15 cm) created with an interactive material design tool. The models were subdivided into cells with 8 mm side length. The metamaterial space used to populate these cells contained a single family of 21 microstructures,’ they say. ‘To keep the shape of the models, the individual voxels of each structure were set to void if they lay outside of the model. While this might lead to disconnected components in the reconstruction, these can easily be removed.’ Both models features varying degrees of elasticity.

A third model (of an Armadillo of 32 cm in height) was also made which clearly emphasizes those differences. ‘We chose the parameter distribution such that the joints and the belly of the Armadillo are soft, while all other parts of the model are stiff. The structure of the cells were computed and tiled using our synthesis algorithm,’ the Disney team says. The Armadillo can be easily actuated, even though the base material is still stiff. In all 3D printing cases, however, the results were best with SLS 3D printing technology, as the support structures of, say, FDM 3D printing somewhat limit the functionality.

Nonetheless, this interesting innovation is definitely capable of greatly expanding the material possibilities offered by 3D printing technology. The obvious downside is that it relies on a great data-heavy enterprise that can be very difficult to realize. Fortunately ,the Disney team are already looking at ways to publicly release the structures database, while follow up research for this interesting innovation is also planned. If you happen to be in the area, you can also catch the Schumacher team presenting their findings at the International Conference on Computer Graphics and Interactive Techniques, in Los Angeles next week.



Posted in 3D Printing Applications



Maybe you also like:


Leave a comment:

Your Name:


Subscribe us to Feeds twitter facebook   

About provides the latest news about 3D printing technology and 3D printers. We are now seven years old and have around 1.5 million unique visitors per month.

News Archive