I must admit that, while I have been covering the 3D printing space for nearly two years now, and have had an interest in the technology long before that, when it comes to modeling designs that I can print at home on my 3D printer, I’m just an amateur. CAD software, although it lends itself to helping create some amazing 3D printable products, is not typically a software that just anyone can open up and begin using. 3D modeling, especially when it comes to creating models for printing, can be extremely tricky, and even the most advanced CAD users have problems from time to time.
There has been a lot of conversation over the past couple of years about when 3D printing as a technology will go mainstream. The answer here lies in the simplicity of both the modeling process and the printing process, and only time will tell how long it takes before both of these processes become simple enough for amateurs to begin.
Researchers at MIT, in conjunction with the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya in Israel, may have just solved part of the problem, with a system that they call “Fab Forms.” Fab Forms is a software solution that has the ability of turning CAD files into web-based visual models that can be manipulated and modified using simple virtual sliders.
“We envision a world where everything you buy can potentially be customized, and technologies such as 3-D printing promise that that might be cost-effective,” explained Masha Shugrina, an MIT graduate student and one of the new system’s designers. “So the question we set out to answer was, ‘How do you actually allow people to modify digital designs in a way that keeps them functional?’”
Traditionally CAD software uses many variables which are input into the software in order to modify how a design looks. Upon this modification, tremendous amounts of processing must be done on the computer’s end in order to adjust a design and ultimately determine if it is feasible from a physics standpoint as well as determine if it will be 3D printable.
In order to use Fab Forms, a design which has been created by an experienced CAD designer can be loaded into the software, where an amateur user can simply move virtual sliders around on the screen in order to change its physical appearance, rather than having to input numbers to represent individual changes. All of the computing and mathematics are done via a cloud server, consisting of millions of values, parameters and calculations. This is a process that would take hundreds of hours to complete on a single computer, but the power of the cloud allows it to be done much quicker.
To test the feasibility of this system, the researchers loaded in eight different designs which included a chess set, a coffee mug, a toy car and high-heeled shoes. The cloud servers then generated all of the possible variations that each object could have made to it if individual parameters were to be changed, and it stores all of these outcomes in a large database which is utilized by the Fab Form software, where a user can access them via the virtual sliders.
The system automatically removes any parameter values that will create objects that are not 3D printable, or are unstable. The user interface is displayed via a web page where users can modify the object however they would like simply using the aforementioned sliders, which correlate to different parameters.
“Autodesk has simplified versions of this project,” explained Ryan Schmidt, senior principal research scientist and head of the Design and Fabrication Group at Autodesk Research. “We have a thing called Project Shapeshifter that is very similar to what a lot of other people are doing right now, which is making these geometry generators that have a parametric model you can explore. But they all have this common problem: that you can very easily make something that won’t work on your printer. What I thought was super-exciting about this work is that it can prevent you from designing something that isn’t going to print or that isn’t going to be strong enough once you’ve printed it. As soon as I saw the talk [on Fab Form], I sent it to the people who work on Shapeshifter and said, ‘You guys should have this,’” he adds. “The sliders are an interface to what they did, but the underlying technology actually has a much broader application, I think, than just this consumer product for CAD novices.”
Could this be what the future holds in terms of 3D modeling? Is this what the 3D printing space needs in order to help the technology go mainstream? It very well may. Imagine websites such as Shapeways, Amazon and Sculpteo using this software with their ever-increasing inventories of 3D printable products, allowing shoppers to completely customize products which could be 3D printed and then shipped directly to their homes.
What do you think about the potential that Fab Forms will provide to the 3D printing space? Discuss in the Fab Forms forum thread on 3DPB.com.