Image: Hasso Plattner Institut
An interest in Lego is pretty much a prerequisite for an interest in 3D printing; in some ways, Lego could be seen as the original DIY additive manufacturing technology. You start with a design, build from the base up, and end up with a lumpy mess of plastic you’re unabashedly proud of.
Now a group of researchers at the Hasso Plattner Institute in Potsdam, Germany, have melded the two forms together in what they’ve ingeniously dubbed FaBrickation.
It’s a simple idea: Why 3D print a whole object when only one small part really requires 3D printing? They’ve created software that instead allows you to design a model mainly in Lego bricks, then mark out the areas that require a higher resolution, and just 3D print the necessary parts.
In a program that sounds even more entertaining than 3D Photoshop, you draw the model in the “FaBrickator,” then press the “Legofy” button (I’m not making this up) and it converts it to bricks. You highlight the parts that require the 3D-printed touch—bits that need to be more exactly shaped, for instance—and while those are printing, you follow the set of instructions produced to build the rest out of Lego bricks.
The computer design for a head-mounted display model. See the "Legofy" button to the right. Photo via Hasso Plattner Institut
“The key idea is to save 3D printing time by automatically substituting sub-volumes with standard building blocks,” the researchers wrote. They designed the process with prototypes in mind; 3D printing is often used to make prototypes, as it’s good for building one unique piece without having to order special molds and suchlike—but it can be pretty slow, as anyone who’s watched a 3D printer in action will know. The researchers boast that, “On average, our system fabricates objects 2.44 times faster than traditional 3D printing while requiring only 14 minutes of manual assembly.”
It also means you can adapt the most important parts of a prototype without rebuilding the whole thing. Provided you already have a Lego collection as extensive as mine, that could save you buying new materials, which is both cost-effective and prevents you ending up with a load of environment-blighting plastic waste.
In the video above, the developers demonstrated their technique by making a head-mounted display with a custom-fit 3D-printed lens mount, a soap bar dispenser, and a catapult-type device that shoots pennies (they clearly understand the desires of the amateur 3D printing community). According to their calculations, the headset was an impressive 13 times faster to build this way than if the whole thing had been 3D printed.
And also at least 13 times as fun.