Nov 24, 2015 | By Benedict

Computer scientists from Lancaster University have developed a hybrid design process which allows creators to make clay objects using both 3D printing and manual sculpting techniques. The “ReForm” process was the subject of an academic paper presented earlier this month.

Although plastics and metals remain the dominant materials associated with 3D printing, clay has also been used in various additive manufacturing projects for some time now. Companies like VormVrij and DeltaBots have demonstrated that 3D printers can be used to produce incredible ceramic designs, and the technology can only get better and better. Of course, 3D printing remains a relatively uncommon method for making clay products. For thousands of years, humans have used devices such as the potter’s wheel to sculpt drinking vessels and other objects, and many purists still champion the superior manual control and potential for spontaneity afforded by these traditional methods. Clearly, there are advantages to both manual sculpting and 3D printing. Having one’s hands on the wet clay allows for an unparalleled immersion in the design process, allowing the creator to alter the design freely and immediately. On the other hand, clay 3D printing allows for laser-like precision and a range of complex architectures which even the most skilled of hands would be unable to replicate.

Thanks to a team of computer scientists from Lancaster University, England, ceramics fanatics may no longer have to choose between traditional and computerized production methods. The researchers have developed ReForm, an innovative design process which fuses 3D modeling and printing with manual sculpting to enable ‘bidirectional fabrication’. ReForm uses a 3D scanner to scan physical objects—either existing objects to be “copied” in clay, or the clay model itself. The process also uses a custom-built 3D printer for adding clay, as well a milling tool for removing clay and a projected augmented reality display for overlaying information such as colors and textures.

Because of the 3D scanning capabilities of the process, creators are given two starting options. The first is to begin with a manually sculpted clay design, which can then be 3D scanned, moved to the printing bed of a 3D printer and physically altered via digital alterations made using 3D design software. The other is to start with an entirely digitally rendered object, either designed from scratch or taken from a 3D scan of a physical object. The digital design can then be 3D printed before being manually altered by the designer. The most invaluable feature of the process is that designers can repeat these steps over and over again. A 3D printed clay object can be manually warped, re-scanned, digitally altered, physically altered, re-scanned and so on and so forth, allowing a design to evolve over a period of time using both digital and manual methods. ReForm even allows user to amend mistakes, boasting a kind of physical “Undo” function for reverting to previous stages of the design. The continuous bidirectional fabrication is made possible through the use of polymer clay, which will remain soft and malleable until it is hardened in an oven.

ReForm boasts many intuitive features, such as the ability to physically draw commands onto the surface of the clay. Marks such as a cross or circle will instruct the hardware to drill holes, 3D print clay or create patterns. “Before you had to be an expert in computer aided design,” said Dr Jason Alexander, lecturer in Human-Computer Interaction and project lead. “ReForm means you no longer have to be a technical expert to design objects for 3D printing. People can get hands-on and iteratively and inexpensively design objects in a much more efficient way. We will find that people will be able to create artifacts for 3D printing that are a lot more creative and fit for purpose.”

The ReForm process eliminates the restrictions typically associated with both 3D printing and manual sculpting. Now, digital designs needn’t be complete before they are printed, users can physically engage with their design, and extremely precise computerized alterations can be made to physically crafted objects. “ReForm blurs the lines between the physical and digital worlds allowing users to design objects in the most suitable environment,” said Christian Weichel, now at Bosch.

The technology is described in the paper “ReForm: Integrating Physical and Digital Design through Bidirectional Fabrication”, which was first presented at UIST in North Carolina on November 9th.

 

 

Posted in 3D Printing Technology

 

 

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