CSAIL team puts design in your hands (w/ Video)

August 12, 2014 by Adam Conner-Simons
One of the designs that can be fabricated through the CSAIL team's Fab By Example system.

Even as 3-D printing is poised to help democratize manufacturing, it's often overlooked that many 3-D-printed items are far too complicated for users to digitally design.

Sure, people can now order 3-D-printed items online, or even make wedding-cake figurines using 3-D-printing services at certain stores. But these are simple, largely standardized products. What if you want a chair or car built to your exact specifications?

Now, a team led by researchers from MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL) has developed "Fab By Example," the first data-driven method to help people products, with a growing database of templates that allow users to customize thousands of complex items, such as cabinets, jungle gyms, and go-carts.

"When we design things on a computer, the question arises of how to manufacture them in the real world with the necessary physical parts—wood, glass, screws, hinges, bolts and all," said project lead Adriana Schulz, a PhD student in CSAIL. "For casual users, creating such a detailed model is not just time-consuming, but it's actually more or less impossible unless you know something about mechanical engineering."

Watch a demo of Fab By Example. Credit: Video courtesy of the researchers

Fab By Example's intuitive drag-and-drop interface lets you mix and match materials—and position, align, and connect the different parts—without worrying if the design is actually feasible.

"The technology allows you to design and fabricate practically any off-the-wall idea that's bouncing around your head," Schulz said, citing a mega-shelf (pictured above) that takes up nearly an entire room.

The system, which is not yet available to the public, currently has dozens of distinct template models, each composed of hundreds of parts, down to the individual screws of a go-cart. The models are all "parametric," meaning that they can be manipulated to take on a nearly infinite number of different shapes. Schulz says that the team's database of templates is currently meant to be illustrative, and could evolve to include models of cars, houses, or practically any fabricable object.

For a given project, Fab By Example allows you to see what specific parts are needed and how much they cost; you could then order the materials right from the database, with the option to optimize for price or speed-of-delivery. (Currently, you'd still need to assemble the product, but Schulz envisions a future where the database could be tied to an installation service that would send someone to your home to build it.)

Where previous do-it-yourself design databases have required an advanced degree, or at least expertise in computer-assisted design (CAD) software, the team says that now even someone with simple computer skills can make a own customizable item.

The work was developed by Schulz; CSAIL postdocs David I.W. Levin and Pitchaya Sitthi-amorn; Wojciech Matusik, an associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science at MIT; and Ariel Shamir, a professor at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya in Israel. The team will be presenting its system at this month's Siggraph graphics conference.

In the future, Schulz says that the team will be working with CSAIL colleagues to incorporate designs for robots that could be assembled, customized, and even printed from home.

Explore further: A charging solution for delivery drones: Take after our feathered friends?

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not rated yet Aug 12, 2014
It'll certainly ease customizing/creating your own printjobs. But I feel this should only be an intermediate step, as the true strength in 3D printing comes from the fact that you can have integrated design instead of just a collection of parts.

Integrated design can free you from the boxy/rectangular pardigm many items have because they need to be modular (for ease of mass production, storage, and versatility of combination). Although designing a software that will let you achieve that with ease is certainly going to be much harder.
not rated yet Aug 12, 2014
Integrated whole items are great until one section breaks. Modular design will always have a spot somehow, somewhere. In any case, the idea here is to customize what is already out there. Not create from nothing. What we need is 3D create.
not rated yet Aug 13, 2014
CATIA... done
not rated yet Aug 13, 2014
Another problem with big items is their transport. How do you transport and get in through doors wall sized cabined like in the article picture? Modular parts for built-up items take much less space before assembly.
not rated yet Aug 13, 2014
Integrated whole items are great until one section breaks.

That's the beauty of 3D printing: You could cut out a part of any size and shape (which contains the broken section) and replace it with an exact replica that will fit perfectly. All you need to have is the data for the whole structure. No need hunting around for replacement parts or specialized tools (or for keeping them in stock).

Another problem with big items is their transport.

Just because they're integrated doesn't mean you can't have them in parts that snap together. The advantage is that you can have the connection points anywhere.

Today's furniture you can take apart into many small pieces and a handful of unwieldy ones. Downside being: your transportation problems are limited by the largest piece.
With printed/integrated design you could design the object to come apart into same size pieces - no matter the geometry.

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