Move over traditional 3D printing: these flat objects can turn themselves 3D

3D printing works in a pretty simple way - you build up a three-dimensional object over time in a series of layers. But now a team of Austrian computer scientists has designed an alternative approach.

They've created flat sheets that can transform themselves into smooth-surfaced, free-form objects. Similar technology has been possible for some time - it's not far off traditional Japanese origami - but the technique was limited to objects with sharp edges and very little curvature.

Now, however,  the engineers have figured out how to create curves. They do so using tiny tiles sandwiched between pre-stretched layers of latex. During the transformation, the tension in the latex pulls the tiles together into a continuous shell.

“I experimented with so many different materials and methods before coming up with our current design,” said Ruslan Guseinov, first author on a paper describing the technology, which will be presented at this year's SIGGRAPH conference.

The tricky thing was developing the tools to allow these objects to be printed (on a 2D printer). When the user feeds a three-dimensional shape into the algorithm, it generates a 2D tile layout that specifies the orientation, shape and location of each tile and connecting pin.

In action

That's a difficult computing task - so the algorithm splits it in two. First it makes a rough 'first draft' of a solution, then performs local refinements before finally producing a final template. Here it is in action, on a Batman mask, hard hat, cow and turtle:

"Our research is a step toward the development of new fabrication technologies: there have been many advances in flat fabrication, for instance in electronics, that have previously been limited to 2D shapes," Guseinov explained. 

"With CurveUps, we make it possible to produce 3D objects empowered with these same technologies, pushing the limits of digital manufacturing far beyond the current state."

Duncan Geere
Duncan Geere is TechRadar's science writer. Every day he finds the most interesting science news and explains why you should care. You can read more of his stories here, and you can find him on Twitter under the handle @duncangeere.