Nov 9, 2015 | By Alec

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, and have been working on a number of projects to convert Disney-esque digital renderings to robotic reality with the help of 3D printing and clever software solutions. And now another interesting innovation has come out of the Research Department, as they have developed a method for generating those 3D printable robots without the need for time and energy-consuming CAD work at all.

That fascinating premise is reported on in an article entitled ‘Interactive Design of 3D-Printable Robotic Creatures’, by researchers Vittorio Megaro (ETH Zurich), Bernhard Thomaszewski, Maurizio Nitti (both Disney Research Zurich), Otmar Hilliges (ETH Zurich), Markus Gross (Disney Research Zurich) and Stelian Coros (Carnegie Mellon University). The concept alone is brilliant; for despite all the advantages offered by 3D printing technology, manufacturing robotics is still terribly difficult. ‘creating compelling robotic creatures is currently a formidable task that only experienced engineers can successfully undertake,’ they say.

And their solution is in software. They have developed a design tool (currently unnamed) that has automated the tedious parts of the design process, without affecting options for customization of morphology, proportions, gait and even motion options. Understandably, this is not without its problems. Forgetting the difficult algorithms for a second, robotic motion is often settled through trail and error – either your robot falls over, or it walks. ‘This physical feasibility requires a high degree of coordination between the motions of different body parts,’ they say, something which is difficult to achieve with traditional animation approaches, let alone with digital ones. But their tool seems to be able to do just that, while providing the user with immediate feedback on how to program expects the robot to move in real time.

So how does this Disney solution work? Well, users simply upload a description file that specifies the important element: an initial skeletal structure of the robot, as defined through a typical hierarchy of bones connected by joints. ‘Initial geometry is created from this information and a virtual, uni-axial motor is placed at each joint position,’ the Disney designers say. ‘The user can freely edit the robot’s structure at all times by adding or removing motors, thus altering the morphology of the design, or by adjusting the position or orientation of the motors.’

Any chosen options that affect movement (such as the number of legs) are immediately translated into graphs on movement results, that can be inspected and used to alter the model if necessary. ‘In particular, the user can change the duration of the stance and swing phases for any leg and change the relative ordering of the footfalls. The immediate feedback provided by our framework allows the user to interactively adjust the footfall pattern in order to find satisfying solutions,’ they write. With this data, the system computes the rest. This optimization model (simplified dynamics model) used in this process comes from the field of robotics, where it is often used for model predictive control (MPC).

Once the iterations have been finalized, the tool subsequently generates 3D geometry for the complete body, including connectors for the electronics, which can be 3D printed at your convenience. ‘Our system starts with a CAD model of available servomotors, as visualized in the inset figure. In a pre-processing step we generate two tight- fitting 3D models that directly attach to the servomotors with screws or rivets, enclose them, and become part of the geometry generated by our system,’ they explain. Before printing, users can augment the generated model to suit their needs or (aesthetic) wishes. ‘In that case, we assume that the mass and inertia properties for the new parts do not significantly deviate from the old geometry such that the robot can walk as expected with the original animation,’ the engineers add.

It’s a fantastic system that could dramatically decrease the barriers between ordinary hobbyists and seasoned engineers, and to illustrate it the Disney creators have designed six robotic creatures (visible above). All have different morphological features (two, four or five legs, point or area feet, actuated spines and different proportions), and all were easily generated through the tool despite their differences. ‘Our method efficiently generates stable, user-controllable walking motions for robots with a vast array of morphological features,’ they conclude.

While it’s still far too early to think about marketable versions of this tool, the Disney team is already thinking about its limitations and possibilities. While not all robots can suddenly be automatically generated and 3D printed, they argue that this tool does enable interactive exploration of robotic design on a far larger scale than before. That suggests that they are considering a user-oriented version, and we here at would be immensely happy to add it to our making arsenal.



Posted in 3D Printing Applications



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