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Rapid Prototyping on the Fly: Print as You Design

Picture this- an assembly line brimming with thousands of robots busy cutting metals, injecting plastic and assembling products ready to be distributed. This is soon going to become a matter of the past as the various forms of additive manufacturing- rapid prototyping and 3D printing are gaining popularity all over the world. This is a silent revolution in the floors of the laboratory which might potentially change how we manufacture and supply goods in the near future.

With the help of rapid prototyping, we can now order products from virtual inventories, or even simply create a customized one with the help of desktop 3D printer models. Intricate designs, complex geometric patterns etc. are no longer manufacturing challenges or figments of an engineer’s imagination. These patterns can now be created in a couple of hours. Custom car parts, medical implants, mini batteries, plane parts, running shoes, sports equipment and anything that can be imagined can be printed out in solid objects. Rapid prototyping can help us make models of objects before actually producing them, hence limiting errors that may occur. Accuracy becomes a priority along with reduced cost and increased mobility in our assembly lines due to rapid prototyping. 3D printing too has become a very powerful tool for designers and engineers of today. This technology allows them to rapidly prototype, creating a physical copy of a design on the fly.

However, making changes in these designs is a totally different matter altogether. Going back changing the design and printing the whole thing out again may prove nothing but a waste of time, effort and money. This might have to be done more than once before getting the desired output, increasing the cumulative cost even more. Researchers from Cornell University have devised a system of interactive prototyping that can print objects as you design it. Designers can stop or pause anywhere in the process in order to measure, test or if necessary, make changes that can later be added to the physical model fed into the printer.

Graduate student Huaishu Peng has an interesting take on this new technology. He claims that they are going from human and computer interaction straight to human and machine interaction. He described this On-the-Fly-Print system of rapid prototyping in a paper, which was presented at the ACM Conference for Human Computer Interaction earlier this year. The co-authors of the paper are Professor Steve Marschner of computer science, Associate Professor Francois Guimbretiere of information science and Rundong Wu, a doctoral student. This On-the-Fly-Print system employs an improved version of a previous ‘WirePrint’ printer, which was developed jointly by Hasso Platner Institute situated in Potsdam, Germany and Guimbretiere’s laboratory.

Conventionally in ordinary 3D printing systems, there is a nozzle that scans to and fro on a stage to deposit drops of plastic layer by layer. This rises slightly after each layer to gradually build a layered object. The technology in WirePrint is inherently different from this traditional layer by layer principle in a sense that the nozzle injects a rope of quickly hardening plastic. This creates a wire frame representing the surface of the solid which is being printed, as described in the CAD (Computer Aided Design) file fed into the printer. WirePrint’s attempt was to speed up the process of rapid prototyping with the creation of models exactly in the shape of the objects instead of printing out the entire solid structure. Similarly, the On-the-Fly-Print system is built on the idea that by allowing the designer to tweak the design, the process should take place while printing takes place.

In order to demonstrate the printing process of the project, the researchers printed out a model for a toy plane, which was to be fitted into a Lego airport set. The requirements included cutting out a cockpit for a standard sized Lego pilot, addition of wings and frequent removal of the model to observe if the wingspan would fit the runway correctly. The entire project took just about ten minutes to be completed.

According to the researchers, the latest version of the printer provides designers with five degrees of freedom. Not only can the nozzle work in a vertical direction, the stage of the printer can also be rotated to be set up in any face of the model upright. For example, the fuselage of an airplane can be shifted on its side in order to add a wing to the design. Unwanted portions of the model can be removed with the help of a cutter, say to create a cockpit inside the airplane.

The extended nozzle helps to reach through the mesh of the wires in order to change the inside of the design. The base is removable, which is magnet aligned so that the operator can take the model out to test or measure to see if the proportions are correct. It can be put back into the printer in the precise original place to continue the printing process again.

The software used here is a plug-in of a well known CAD program. It works by designing the wireframe sending instructions to the printer, also allowing interruption. The designer can fully concentrate on the digital model being created while letting the software work on the printer controls. The printing process can go on while the designer is working on the CAD file. But it will resume the task when the work is completed, after incorporating the necessary changes in the printed object.

The researchers believe that this new approach to rapid prototyping has the necessary potential to improve the quality of the overall design process and ultimately make it more efficient.





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