Oct 30, 2015 | By Alec

If you’ve ever talked about your 3D printer with friends or family, responses are often positive but people are generally intimidated by the software portion of the hobby. Indeed, the steep learning curve of CAD design is the biggest reason why 3D printers aren’t invading homes throughout the world, and that is a problem that needs to be tackled if the making revolution is to expand. While several initiatives are working on this issue, a team of researchers from the universities of Berkeley and Stanford have come up with an ingenious solution. It’s called Makers' Marks, and it replaces CAD with 3D scanning and custom software. Users simply make objects in clay and other materials, using stickers to denote the locations of buttons, lights and so on. After 3D scanning, Makers' Marks turns the object into a hollow 3D printable rendering, creating room and connectors for the electronics.

This intriguing system is extensively reviewed in a recent paper called Makers’ Marks: Physical Markup for Designing and Fabricating Functional Objects. In it, researchers Valkyrie Savage, Sean Follmer, Jingyi Li, and Bjorn Hartmann reveal that they have noticed the same limitations that we often remark on: if you limit yourself to pre-made Thingiverse files, your 3D printing life will quickly become boring. ‘Novices, who are new to or uncomfortable with 3D CAD modeling, include hobbyists, who prefer hands-on tangible modeling to the abstract software task of CAD; students in programming courses, who feel more accomplished with custom electronics cases; and artists, who have strong bases in tangible modeling,’ they say. ‘A look at Thingiverse reveals that novices mostly create static and decorative objects, while experienced designers model functional objects, often as assemblies which include existing, non-printed parts such as hinges or electronics.’

The novices and experienced makers aren’t divided by inspiration, but simply by knowledge of CAD software. Makers' Marks can perhaps be seen as a good alternative that is definitely easier, though it requires a 3D scanner. ‘We aim to allow makers to design and 3D print functional mechanical and electronic assemblies. Makers’ Marks [is] a system based on physically authoring assemblies with sculpting materials and annotation stickers,’ they tell 3ders.org. ‘Makers physically sculpt the shape of an object and attach stickers to place existing parts or high-level features (such as parting lines). Our tool extracts the 3D pose of these annotations from a scan of the design, then synthesizes the geometry needed to support integrating desired parts using a library of clearance and mounting constraints.’

The most interesting part of this concept, the stickers, grew out of a formative design study with seven participants from the ages of 21 to 55, from a large tech company and a university. The group included two women and just three expert designers. Being asked to create some designs with clay, pen and paper, all began using words or shapes to denote where important parts were going. ‘We observed call-outs and labels to annotate design sketches, often indicating features which were challenging for the designer to draw, like an attachment feature labeled “plastic clips to hold phone in place In the sculpting condition we saw participants use multiple materials as annotations, for example paired green clay dots to indicate connectivity of parts,’ they explain.

Intrigued, they incorporated this into Makers’ Marks. So how does the process work? ‘Users first sculpt the overall shape they would like to print, using clay or other physical materials,’ they explain. Tests included anything from boxes with an alarm on them to video game controllers with a few buttons. These rough shapes are made clearer with stickers. ‘The scan’s result is a full-color 3D model with vertex and triangle information for the mesh, as well as links to texture files (i.e., photographs), and mappings of texture files to mesh triangles. M-Marks uses pre-authored component definitions and has a simple GUI that calls a Python script. Using MeshMixer, M-Marks first hollows the object keeping a 1.5mm shell,’ they explain.

Makers' Marks performs mark detection and localization, interference checking, geometry replacement, and assembly structure generation.

This generates an assembly structure that can be filled with electronics, which Makers’ Marks recognizes through the stickers. ‘In our prototype, supported parts include components for user interaction (e.g., joysticks) as well as mechanical parts (e.g., hinges),’ they add. Makers’ Marks itself has an extensive library for all these stickers, and effectively replaces a 2D sticker with 3D geometry, embedding it into the hollowed structure or making more room if necessary. ‘Generated geometry can assist in assembly, like parting lines (to cut objects in half) and fasteners (to re-attach the halves),’ the designers reveal.

It’s a very interesting process that does indeed seem to remove all the hands-on software steps from the process. The test results, that also include animated toys and a baby monitor, suggests that the Berkeley/Stanford collaboration is definitely onto something. While it does of course require a 3D scanner as well, but as those are also increasingly coming down in price Makers’ Marks is definitely looking plausible. For more information, you can find the full article here.

 

 

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