Before '3D printing' became a catch-all term, the hardware, which has been in use for decades, was referred to as a rapid prototyper. But even waiting five hours for a 'rapidly' printed part can be a waste of time. And that's what inspired Stefanie Mueller and researchers at the Hasso Plattner Institute to create software that swaps out the parts of a 3D model you don't need printed with Lego.
The idea is to make rapid prototyping a device even faster by minimizing the actual components that need to come from a 3D printer. So for example, if you were making an Oculus Rift-like virtual reality headset, and were in the process of refining the lens holder, you'd print that section on a 3D printer, and build the rest of it out of Lego for testing.
The software, called faBrickation, let's you import any 3D model you intend to send to a 3D printer. When loaded, you convert the entire model into a Lego-only creation, but then using custom tools you can deselect and export the parts you want produced by a 3D printer instead. The software automatically adds the Lego studs and connections to this new part so that once it's printed it can be attached to the rest of the Lego prototype.
And while that new part is being 3D-printed, the software automatically generates a step-by-step instruction manual on how to build the rest of the prototype out of Lego. It will even let you specify what Lego pieces you have available, so that the final model produced only includes what you have on hand.
Of course, a Lego version of a virtual reality helmet might not be the best example for the software, since strapping those Lego studs to your head isn't going to be comfortable. But for other creations the software could genuinely reduce development time for a given product if you don't have to 3D print the entire thing again and again when you're only testing revisions made to one tiny part of it.
There's also the potential for Lego enthusiasts to easily engineer custom parts when the exact piece they need just doesn't exist. Even if it has Lego purists crying foul. [Hasso Plattner Institute via Stefanie Mueller]
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