MIT's 3D-printing breakthrough evokes Pixar design process

Researchers from MIT are trying to make 3D printing easier for the everyday consumer, and turned to Pixar for inspiration.

Researchers at the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL) wanted to make the design process for 3D printing less complex. So, for inspiration, they turned to a tool that has been used by a company that has specialized in 3D design for decades – Pixar.

This week, researchers from MIT’s CSAIL team will introduce two papers detailing new processes inspired by Pixar’s use of the RenderMan software and RenderMan Interface Specification (RISpec) to help alleviate the “enormous computational challenges” in current 3D printing processes.

RELATED: 3D printing could trigger intellectual property wars, legal expert says

3D printers: Not for the average consumer

Essentially, RISpec helps translate the fine details of 3D scenes into realistic 3D animations. For the 3D printing market, similar capabilities may prove invaluable.

MIT’s project, dubbed OpenFab, is a programmable “pipeline” architecture that aims to eliminate the current problems with designing replicas of complex 3D objects. Currently, to replicate a 3D scene or object, the design tools need to record every detail in high definition, and often generate up to petabytes of data to do so. This naturally creates issues for those without experience using the tools to create such a complex design, and especially those without the processing power to handle that amount of data.

Indeed, others have pointed to the current difficulties with 3D printing as barriers that may prevent the technology from reaching its lofty expectations. Gartner research director Pete Basiliere says that even though the price of enterprise-class 3D printers is expected to drop below $2,000 by 2016, consumers will not adopt them as widely as some have predicted. Even those who purchase a device to install at home may quickly become disappointed if they’re not well-versed in the design technology, Basiliere says.

“Once you have that, now you still have to print it out, and depending upon the consumer's skill set, it could be a very difficult process of trial-and-error getting the printer to produce the part that they envisioned," he says. "Not that the printer is incapable, but there may be a need for support structures and other elements in the design that, if the consumer isn't proficient with the software, it leads to a bad print."

The OpenFab architecture aims to prevent that. With programs called “fablets,” which are written in an entirely new programming language, the user can access and change design data on-demand. The benefit of this is the ability to change the material being used at different parts of the design. The researchers also developed a methodology, called Spec2Fab, which helps enable this by breaking down the manufacturing process into several parts, each of which can consist of a different material. As an example, the MIT researchers have already printed a replica of a butterfly encased in amber, as pictured here.

“In traditional manufacturing most objects are composed of multiple parts made out of the same material,” Kiril Vidimče, lead author of one of the two papers and a PhD student at CSAIL, said in an MIT press release. “With OpenFab, the user can change the material consistency of an object, for example designing the object to transition from stiff at one end to flexible and compressible at the other end.”

This kind of breakthrough could bring consumers one step closer to the 3D-printing world many have envisioned – a 3D printer in every home creating objects on-demand. For many businesses, though, this kind of democratization could mean intellectual property nightmares, especially if consumers are capable of printing more complex designs.

“IP will be ignored, and it will be impractical or impossible to enforce if you can print things away from control,” John Hornick, a partner at Finnegan, Henderson, Farabow, Garrett & Dunner law firm in Washington, DC, said at the Inside 3D Printing conference in Chicago earlier this month.

MIT’s CSAIL researchers will present their two papers at the SIGGRAPH computer graphics conference in Anaheim, Calif.,, on Thursday, July 25.

Colin Neagle covers emerging technologies and the startup scene for Network World. Follow him on Twitter @ntwrkwrldneagle and keep up with the Microsoft, Cisco and Open Source community blogs. Colin's email address is cneagle@nww.com.

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