Jun 22, 2016 | By Alec

While 3D printing is often hailed as a revolutionary prototyping technology, it has also received a fair amount of criticism. In particular, 3D printing is said to have a far too steep learning curve, which slows down adoption rates and limits the technology’s usefulness. Of course design software is often seen as the culprit in that regard. A team of researchers from the Brigham Young University in Utah were all too aware of that limitation, and under the guidance of Computer Science Professors Michael Jones and Kevin Seppi have developed a new production technique that completely removes time-consuming digital design from the equation.

Of course digital design is at the core of all 3D printing activities at the moment, but the BYU team’s technique completely replaces that with what they call ‘what you sculpt is what you get’. Bringing design back to the basics of clay modeling, they are advocating the use of your hands to shape an object from clay and 3D scanning the results. It greatly reduces, they say, the amount of skill required to design an object for 3D printing. This remarkable technique has already been showcased at the Proceedings of the 2016 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, in a paper entitled ‘What you Sculpt is What you Get: Modeling Physical Interactive Devices with Clay and 3D Printed Widgets’.

Of course industrial designers have been sculpting in clay for decades already, but that technique went out of fashion because it makes it almost impossible to embed electronics into objects. As the BYU researchers reveal, they have found a way around that limitation by modeling the clay around 3D printed ‘blanks’, or representations of physical interaction widgets such as buttons, sliders, knobs and other electronics.

These ‘blanks’ widgets are crucial in design process, as they are picked up by the 3D scanner – which in turn uses an algorithm to incorporate them into the design. “Each blank includes 4 fiducial markers uniquely arranged on a visible surface. After scanning the sculpture, these fiducial marks allow our software to identify widget types and locations in the scanned model,” they explain. The 3D scanner itself creates a digital model, while the blanks are all identified and the model is adjusted to ensure that all widgets and their electronics will reliably fit in the interactive prototype.

The result is a model that is completely ready to be 3D printed and assembled with actual buttons, electronics and so on. Even exact openings for each and every piece are included, making assembly possible in a matter of minutes with little post-print processing being necessary. The software even calculates the optimal way to cut the object in two to ensure all the circuitry fits inside.

This, they say, is the real groundbreaking result of their new production technique. “Working in clay is awesome until you have to add all the circuitry in it,” Jones said. “With this method, you can get the shape right by working with the clay. Even for people who are skilled in 3D modeling or even if you have years of experience designing models on a computer screen, making a shape that matches an opening in a specific context is pretty tough.”

If the technique sounds familiar, it’s because the BYU researchers are actually building upon another study by Berkeley researchers called ‘Makers’ Marks: Physical Markup for Designing and Fabricating Functional Objects’. That study similarly relied on markers to make it easier to incorporate functional parts into 3D prints, but used stickers instead of embedded 3D printed shapes. While promising, the stickers caused difficulties in reaching the appropriate depth for the widgets. In contrast, the BYU team’s technique is far more reliable.

What’s more, it’s quick. Creating the interactive prototype takes just about 30 minutes of sculpting by hand. After scanning, the 3D printer jumps into action at the click of a single button; no other work is required.

The BYU team is further hoping that their custom algorithm can also be used in other research applications. In particular, they believe it could be used to design functional motion sensors “We want to develop a circuit that not only senses acceleration and rotation, but also can make sense of that motion,” Jones said. “Whether it’s a sensor in a shoe or a cane, we hope to be able to write programs that interactively learn how to recognize a step or a cane drop accurately.” But obviously the technique’s ability to make 3D printing more accessible is especially promising. Who wouldn’t want to build intricate and functional models from clay?



Posted in 3D Printing Technology



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