Wednesday, April 25, 2012

"Semi-digital" fabrication technologies

A street made by using Energy3D.

Emerging digital fabrication technologies such as 3D printing could trigger a new wave of industrial revolution according to New Scientist. While 3D printers are becoming more affordable and they are growing more powerful, versatile, and speedy, they will likely not be immediately available in the classroom.

Fabrication in schools is fundamentally important to engineering education. The lack of appropriate educational technology that supports students to transform ideas into products could impede student learning and creativity. To meet schools' immediate needs and fill the gap between now and future, we have been developing a flagship app called Energy3D that provides a "semi-digital" solution for fabrication.

The current version of Energy3D focuses on designing, constructing, and testing model buildings. The program supports students to conceive and design a building on the computer. It then converts a computer design into a sketch on paper that can be printed out using a conventional printer. Students can then cut out the pieces from the sketch and then assemble them into buildings as designed. The reason we call this technology "semi-digital" fabrication is because, while the computer helps generate the sketch, students still need to cut and assemble manually.

This has a catch, however, as it assumes the pieces are all as thin as a piece of paper. But for education, it is perfectly fine because it reduces the design and manufacturing complexity for young students, allowing them to address a tractable number of important questions related to math, architecture, engineering, and science.

We are going to the 2012 USA Science and Engineering Festival to be held in Washington DC in April 28-29 to demonstrate this technology. If you happen to be there and are interested in seeing how it works, meet us at the Concord Consortium's Booth #2758 in Hall B.