Could flatpack assembly of 3D printed items be the next step

The 3D printer phenomenon is only just starting to trickle into homes while the world holds its breath to see what the eventual impact will be on manufacturing, design, global economics and society itself. A printer that prints out intricate 3 dimensional solid, sophisticated things – we are indeed in the realms of science fiction.

According to the swirl of hype surrounding the 3D printing revolution, we need never again succumb to the tiresome business of actually going out to by stuff made by someone else in that quaint little anachronism known as a ‘shop’. No, we can just print out our consumer durables at home while existing online and never actually leave the house again.

The current flaw in the ‘I’ll just print myself off a jumbo jet’ plan is that the scope of what one can ‘manufacture’ in the comfort of one’s front room is limited by the size of the printer doing all the work.

‘The Cube’ home 3D printer which costs $1299, can print only in a volume about the size of a lunch box, and while well funded labs can afford far bigger scale machines (rather like the old supercomputers), the home printing potential is fairly seriously limited to the dimensions of it’s printing tray.

Enter a new piece of software developed by Linjie Luo and team at Princeton University. The software automatically breaks up large 3D models into smaller components that a smaller printer can print. This then allows one to construct the final product in true flat pack style – slotting the constituent pieces together. The software even budgets for the assembly process, adding connectors to clip the whole object together. The programme, called Chopper, works by analysing a 3D model and automatically breaking it down into connective parts that don’t compromise the load or stress bearing fault lines of the finished item.

Could this be a solution to the expense of huge 3D printers. Could we be seeing a flatpack revolution gone turbo in our own front rooms. Or is this just an interesting piece of research. And above all – can the male ego survive yet more forays into the world of flatpack. We shall see.

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