3D Printing Software Evolves Through MIT Research Team

Researchers from MIT are developing a new type of software that tackles the data deluge problem facing 3D printing development.


Researchers from the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL) will present two papers at the SIGGRAPH computer graphics conference in Anaheim, Calif., which propose new methods for streamlining and simplifying the 3D printing process, using more efficient, intuitive and accessible technologies.

While recent advances in 3D printing technology make it possible to produce a wide variety of 3D objects, utilizing computer graphics models and simulations, 3D printing poses enormous computational challenges to existing software. As an example, in order to fabricate complex surfaces containing bumps, color gradations and other intricacies, printing software must produce an extremely high-resolution model of the object, with detailed information on each surface that is to be replicated, resulting in a deluge of data that systems have great difficulty processing and storing.

"Our goal is to make 3D printing much easier and less computationally complex,” Associate Professor Wojciech Matusik, co-author of the papers and a leader of the Computer Graphics Group at CSAIL, said in a statement. "Ours is the first work that unifies design, development and implementation into one seamless process, making it possible to easily translate an object from a set of specifications into a fully operational 3D print."

The research team is combating these problems with the development of OpenFab, a programmable "pipeline" architecture that allows for the production of complex structures with varying material properties by using "fablets," programs written in a new programming language that allow users to modify the look and feel of an object and specify intricate surface details and the composition of a 3D object.

"Our software pipeline makes it easier to design and print new materials and to continuously vary the properties of the object you are designing," Kiril Vidimče, lead author of one of the two papers and a PhD student at CSAIL, said in a statement. "In traditional manufacturing most objects are composed of multiple parts made out of the same material. 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."

In order to create lifelike objects that are hard, soft, reflect light and conform to touch, users must currently specify the material composition of the object they wish to replicate. To simplify the process, the team developed a methodology called Spec2Fab. Instead of requiring explicit design specifications for each region of a print, and testing every possible combination, Spec2Fab employs a "reducer tree," which breaks down the object into more manageable chunks.

So far, Matusik’s research team has been able to replicate a wide array of objects using OpenFab, including an insect embedded in amber, a marble table and a squishy teddy bear. By combining existing computer graphics algorithms, Matusik’s team has used Spec2Fab to create a multitude of 3D prints, creating optical effects such as caustic images and objects with specific deformation and textural properties.