InstantCAD Promises Faster Iterative Design

The design process for any product is necessarily an iterative one. Often, a prototype is modelled or built, and changes are made to overcome problems and improve the design. This can be a tedious process, and it’s one that MIT’s CSAIL has sought to speed up with InstantCAD.

The basic idea is integrating analysis tools as a plugin within already existing CAD software. A design can be created, and then parametrically modified, while the analysis updates on screen in a near-live fashion. Imagine modelling a spanner, and then dragging sliders to change things like length and width while watching the stress concentrations change in real time. The tool appears to primarily be using some sort of finite element analysis, though the paper also shows examples of analyzing fluid flows as well.

The software is impressive, however there are caveats. Like any computer analysis, serious verification work must be undertaken to ensure its validity. We suspect that there may be issues with more complex geometries that lead to inaccurate simulation. It’s not the sort of tool you’d use for anything that puts life and limb at risk, but we can see it having great uses for designing basic objects when you want to quickly gain an idea of what sort of effect certain parameter changes will have.

The other main disappointment is that while this tool looks great, it doesn’t appear to be publicly available in any form. Whether this is due to universities and complicated IP requirements or the potential for future commercialization is anyone’s guess. Regardless, you can read the conference paper here or check out the video below. Or you could read up on the applications of finite element analysis to 3D printer slicers, too.

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A Look Into the Future of Slicing

I’ve had a few conversations over the years with people about the future of 3D printing. One of the topics that arises frequently is the slicer, the software that turns a 3D model into paths for a 3D printer. I thought it would be a good idea to visualize what slicing, and by extension 3D printing, could be. I’ve always been a proponent of just building something, but sometimes it’s very easy to keep polishing the solution we have now rather than looking for and imagining the solutions that could be. Many of the things I’ll mention have been worked on or solved in one context or another, but not blended into a cohesive package.

I believe that fused deposition modelling (FDM), which is the cheapest and most common technology, can produce parts superior to other production techniques if treated properly. It should be possible to produce parts that handle forces in unique ways such  that machining, molding, sintering, and other commonly implemented methods will have a hard time competing with in many applications.

Re-envisioning the slicer is no small task, so I’m going to tackle it in three articles. Part One, here, will cover the improvements yet to be had with the 2D and layer height model of slicing. It is the first and most accessible avenue for improvement in slicing technologies. It will require new software to be written but does not dramatically affect the current construction of 3D printers today. It should translate to every printer currently operating without even a firmware change.

Part Two will involve making mechanical changes to the printer: multiple materials, temperatures, and nozzle sizes at least. The slicer will need to work with the printer’s new capabilities to take full advantage of them.

Finally, in Part Three, we’ll consider adding more axes. A five axis 3D printer with advanced software, differing nozzle geometries, and multi material capabilities will be able to produce parts of significantly reduced weight while incorporating internal features exceeding our current composites in many ways. Five axis paths begin to allow for weaving techniques and advanced “grain” in the layers put down by the 3D printer.

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