Sep 8, 2017 | By David

What if we told you that there’s an object that can transform itself from a flat two-dimensional shape into a useful 3D object, and back again, with a bare minimum of human input?  This isn’t some groundbreaking new innovation, but in fact a pretty common item - the humble inflatable. A group of researchers at MIT recently saw the potential of this basic yet effective technology behind the airbed, the bounce house, and the thing with arms outside car dealerships, and used 3D printing techniques to develop it into something more advanced - a project they entitled ‘’Printflatables’’.

Inspired by 3D printing technology, the team at MIT, led by Harpreet Sareen and Udayan Umapathi, sought to pioneer a novel approach to manufacturing large-scale functional 3D objects. The benefits of using inflatable objects soon became apparent. Inflatables are lightweight, regardless of size, both in their two-dimensional and 3D forms, and the materials they are made from tend to be relatively cheap. Also, as methods of transforming an object from one shape into another go, adjusting the amount of air inside is pretty much as simple and as fast as it gets.

The main reason that inflatable technology is not more commonly used for functional objects is the relative difficulty of the production process. This is why most inflatables tend to be quite basic shapes, without much practical purpose. The MIT researchers were able to develop a new 3D printing system, consisting of a specialized printer and a software program, which enables designers to more easily create complex inflatables.

The software takes the plan for the final 3D object, and breaks down this model into its required composite 2D shapes. This two-dimensional fabrication geometry is then used as the input for a digitally controlled manufacturing process, very similar to how 3D models are sliced into layers ready for 3D printing. The 3D printing system in this case is a thermal contact iron, which seals layers of a special inextensible thermoplastic fabric, the raw material for these Printflatables.

The sealing process effectively encodes information about the final 3D shape into the two-dimensional inflatable, ensuring that it will inflate correctly. The folding mechanism that enables the transformation is referred to as ‘’the mountain’’, and it involves a range of complex geometrical calculations that are pre-programmed into the 3D printing software. This mechanism also allows the inflated object to bear loads and apply forces in particular places.

The team worked with designers to demonstrate the wide range of different potential applications of this new printing technique, and some of the results of their tests were outlined in the paper, ‘Printflatables: Printing Human-Scale, Functional and Dynamic Inflatable Objects’. The technology could soon be implemented by architects, fashion designers, medical personnel and people in many other fields.

One impressive example was an inflatable blind designed for windows in offices and other environments. Using a solenoid, a sensor that responds to light levels, the blind was set up to inflate or deflate depending on how much of the window needed to be blocked. This is a relatively cheap, lightweight and ingenious way for the light levels in a room to be automatically controlled. As well as objects used to control specific elements of an environment in this way, entire pop-up buildings could also be designed with the Printflatables method.

Another Printflatables application tested out in the paper was a wearable exo-skeleton. This was worn on the user’s arm as the sleeve of a regular piece of fabric clothing might be, but it was capable of being inflated or deflated using a ring worn on the finger. This enabled the wearer to lift heavy loads more easily. Inflatables could thus be used for a number of applications in the field of orthotics. Safety applications, such as a airbag worn around the neck by cyclists, could be incredibly useful, and experiments have also been carried out with a variety of garments that can be transformed on inflation into functional items like tents or mattresses.



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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Marek wrote at 9/8/2017 8:08:20 PM:

cool, but not really 3D printing related at all...

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