You could call it the rebirth of the 2D printer. a new device generates flat pack-like designs in seconds using a laser pointer and a laser cutter – the latest addition to the new field of “interactive fabrication”, which promises to further help ordinary consumers become product designers.
Computer design packages and 3D printers now make it possible for anyone to dream up and build new gadgets. but the cost of the technology isn’t the only obstacle facing would-be designers, says Patrick Baudisch at the Hasso Plattner Institute in Potsdam, Germany.
“I own a $40,000 3D printer and a $40,000 laser cutter – both comparably cool pieces of equipment,” says Baudisch. “Surprisingly, the 3D printer runs once a month – the laser cutter runs several times a day.”
It’s the engineer’s need for speed that is the issue, he says. “The 3D printer takes hours. With the laser cutter I can have an object in seconds – it’s insanely fast.”
Working with his colleagues Stefanie Mueller and Pedro Lopes, Baudisch has turned his laser cutter into a tabletop device that allows anyone to quickly and precisely cut out complex designs from a sheet of plywood, using nothing more than a boxful of colourful laser pointers.
A webcam mounted above the table tracks the designs that the user draws onto the plywood using the laser pointers. The information passes to a computer, which tidies up the freehand drawing and instructs the laser cutter to burn the design into the wood.
The computer recognises from a sensor inside each laser pointer that each has a precise function, which allows the user to add extra complexity as the design develops. One laser point, for instance, will etch a circle in the plywood. Clicking that circle with a second laser pointer will instruct the laser cutter to add teeth to the circle’s outer rim, creating a gear. Other laser pointers will simply score rather than cut the wood to make it easier to fold, or add finger joints along some edges so that flat designs can be pushed together once folded.
“By the time my 3D printer has produced the first object, I have iterated so much [with the laser cutter] that I have developed an entirely different approach to the problem – that has huge implications for the creative process,” says Baudisch, who will present the device at the User Interface Software and Technology conference in Boston in October.
The technology might seem to be a niche product right now, but Mark Gross at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, says devices like it are an “emerging opportunity”.
“My favourite analogy is the desktop printing revolution,” he says. as hardware prices dropped and the software became widely available and easy to use, everyone could design and print their own documents, says Gross. “We’re likely to see a similar sequence of events in the world of rapid fabrication.”
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