3D ping pong

MIT Software Helps Designers Build Multimaterial 3D Printable Assemblies

Foundry enables users to handle high-resolution material combinations.

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Researchers at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) recently unveiled Foundry, a software tool for designing 3D-printable parts that let engineers efficiently build complex multimaterial structures. With conventional design software for 3D printing, users must design structures in terms of discrete segments, each made of a single material. In contrast, Foundry can handle high-resolution material combinations, assigning a material to each volume element (or voxel), as finely as 2,000 dpi (13 μm).

Foundry software draws heavily on CSAIL’s previous OpenFab software, which lets users create continuous composition gradients, microstructural lattices, and other complex low-level geometries. Foundry, however,  attempts to let non-experts do this by breaking down the design process into a set of intuitive operators (such as “turn this overall shape into a lattice structure”) so users can define a high-level description of the desired structure and the software handles the underlying complexity. It also lets users design their own custom operators.

Paddle, ski, and tweel

The researchers developed a set of example parts designed using Foundry, including a Ping Pong paddle, a ski, a helmet, a bone structure, and a “tweel” (combined airless tire/wheel structure). Each part incorporates a complex internal structure that highlights particular Foundry capabilities. For example, the ski’s rubber core is reinforced with fiber-like beams of a more rigid polymer for a composite structure; it also includes a grooved bottom layer with anisotropic friction so the ski cannot slide backwards and a retroreflective top layer that reduces glare with carefully arranged clear and opaque polymers. All these capabilities were already possible with existing printers and software (at least with OpenFab). But Foundry provides a much more efficient language for describing the features and a more intuitive interface for implementing them. Researchers are now combining Foundry with multi-scale physical modeling tools so the software can determine whether designs will meet performance requirements, letting technicians do the task even if they lack the technical knowledge software currently demanded of users.

Previous multimaterial printing software tools are well designed for current multimaterial printers. The latter are prototypes that use several materials or colors but are made in one step with a printer, even though the end part needs to be made using conventional manufacturing methods. No conventional manufacturing method can turn out the structures Foundry creates—only 3D printing can. As such, Foundry reflects the rising maturity of multimaterial additive manufacturing. The capabilities of printers and the range of available printable polymers should increase, making 3D printing with several materials increasingly more feasible. Ultimately, although Foundry will let nontechnical users create much higher quality printable designs than at present, fully exploiting 3D printing will still require a great deal of creativity informed by deep technical know-how.

For a quick look at the software, click here.

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