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3-D Design Software Makes Computer Objects "Real"

June 1996

computer illustration of city street

Psychologists hope to use virtual environments, such as this virtual city, to treat acrophobia and other phobias.

Credit: Computer image courtesy of SDSC

While 3-D computer design software has been available for years, nothing can replace being able to touch an object, to turn it in your hands and feel the shape.

"Designers are used to looking at computer graphics, but eventually they want something to hold and maybe test out," says Mike Bailey, senior staff scientist at the NSF-supported San Diego Supercomputer Center (SDSC).

The technology for rapid prototyping--to quickly produce a solid from a computer design--is available, but out of reach of many. Design and manufacture engineers frequently use such machinery, but many other researchers do not have access to it. But now NSF has recently funded "rapid prototyping" machinery at the SDSC. The San Diego Supercomputer Center was established in 1986 to push the limits of high performance computing hardware and software; and bring together members of the academic, industrial and government communities to collaborate on scientific and engineering research and education with the aid of high-performance computational and visualization tools.

SDSC has long provided scientists the service of color slides and graphic representations of their data. A user hooked into SDSC via the Internet can print a slide and receive it in the mail a short time later. Now, that same service will be provided with mechanical parts.

The trick is not the machinery, which is available. The difficulty is in making computer commands coming in over the Internet readable by a machine. There also must be a program to spot errors -- to check on whether a given design "makes sense." A big part of the project is to develop the computational geometry algorithms that allow such flaws to be detected and, in many cases, automatically fixed.

LOM--Laminated Object Manufacturing--builds a 3-D model one layer at a time, using a material that looks like the paper in a butcher's shop--paper coated with polyethylene. The object is built up one tiny layer at a time and the paper is heated, sealing it to previous layers. The resulting model looks and feels like wood, and can be sanded, stained, or painted. "As 'up' as I am about computer modeling, there is definitely a need to have something you can feel in your hands to better understand its geometry," says Bailey. By making the machinery widely available through the Internet, Bailey hopes its use will expand beyond traditional design and engineering roles.

For instance, chemist could use models to explore docking sites where two molecules "lock" together and interact. Earth scientist could see and feel geological features they have mapped electronically. Surgeons could form prostheses before making a single incision. Obstetricians could make models of fetuses -- and be able to more easily spot birth defects than when reading an ultrasound.

"Traditionally, these people don't have access to these machines," Bailey says. "We can give them something they might have thought was out of reach."

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