A machine that combines digital 3D modelling with polymer clay sculpting promises to speed up the design process and allow those with limited computer knowledge to perfect their constructions in a continual 'closed loop' system. Jim Drury reports.
This is ReForm. Its makers say it will change the world of design forever. It's thought to be the first machine to combine digital 3D modelling with the ability to shape designs by hand. Polymer clay can be manipulated by designers at any stage of the process, saving both time and resources. SOUNDBITE (English) DR JASON ALEXANDER, LECTURER IN HUMAN-COMPUTER INTERACTION AT LANCASTER UNIVERSITY AND PROJECT LEAD, SAYING: "ReForm works on a closed loop by always maintaining a synchronicity between a digital and physical model. So if I update the physical model, if I do some play sculpting with my hands, put it back in the machine, it will 3D scan that clay model and then it will update the digital model that is kept internally. If I change the digital model then the machine will automatically update the physical model, so those two are always kept in sync." ReForm includes a scanner, custom-built 3D printer, and a projected augmented reality display which overlays information, like colours and textures. SOUNDBITE (English) DR JASON ALEXANDER, LECTURER IN HUMAN-COMPUTER INTERACTION AT LANCASTER UNIVERSITY AND PROJECT LEAD, SAYING: "After we've scanned a physical model we get this virtual representation here on the augmented reality display on the front; and in this case I want to flatten off the top of the surface of this model. Now this is something the machine is very good at, so the way I can do this is I can select 'flatten' on our menu here and then I can adjust the 'flatten' plane to where I'd like the cut to be made." Users draw commands onto the model with a pen, and ReForm drills holes or creates patterns over them. There'll be no need to print lots of faulty prototypes. Designers can wait until they're absolutely sure how their creation will look - while the clay can be used over and over again. It's so smart the machine can even reverse design mistakes, returning physical models to previously saved versions by adding or removing clay. ReForm has printed various items, like console game controllers and smart phone docking stations. Its designers think their technique - called 'bidirectional fabrication' - could be widespread within five years.