With recent advancements in the field, it seems we can 3D-print basically anything: art, arms, even food! This is true as long as said anything is small. But what if you need to visualize a (much) larger object, and a 3D-printed scale model doesn’t fit the bill?
Researchers out of the Hasso Plattner Institute in Potsdam, Germany, have devised a solution to this problem, by inventing a kind of 3D printer of their own. Called the Protopiper, this handheld system “sketches” room-sized objects out of simple packing tape, allowing for a quick and intuitive visualization of say, what type of Ikea couch will best fit in your weirdly laid-out living room.
The Protopiper works as a tiny assembly line, in which cogs pull tape from a roll, form it into a cylinder, seal the edges, and then cut the ends into sticky wings that can then be securely applied to surfaces — including other “pipes.” The pipes can be bent to form hinges, and extruded to exact lengths, making the sketching of boxes straightforward. Pipes can also be extruded freehand, allowing for the kind of unbridled creativity the creators initially tested for. From their fascinating whitepaper:
“Participants’ task was to create physical to-scale designs. Participants were given the following instructions: ‘You are throwing a party at your house with the motto “beach party”. Build objects to transform your house for the party.’ Participants were given approximately 60 minutes. […]
All participants succeeded at creating objects using protopiper. Throughout the experiment, participants repeatedly used their bodies and/or the room for reference. One participant, for example, created a sunhat directly on the head of another participant. […]Yet another team created a beach bar; again by sketching at actual scale they were able to get all dimensions right, such as the height of the bar. The shortboard of this participant, in contrast, did not come out at the right scale—this, however, might be more indicative of the participant’s (lack of) experience surfing as our lab is located 1000 miles off the next surfable coast.”
Shenanigans aside, the Protopiper lets users create simple mechanisms and model objects in a fast and cost-effective way, while learning about the basic rules of construction. The resulting models can then be scanned with a mobile app, and enough of their geometry extracted to effectively manufacture a final, real-world version!
I admire the spirit and attitude of the researchers involved: it takes a set of unusual minds to see the potential for a tiki bar in a roll of packing tape. I personally can’t wait for Protopiper to exit the, um, proto-type phase — I feel there’s a life-sized model of the Eiffel Tower somewhere in my future.